Henri Matisse working on a cut-out in his Nice studio. (Getty Images)/ 23010621
A major art exhibition in Sydney explores the link between tivaivai and Henri Matisse, the great French master of modern art.
A recent art exhibition in Sydney celebrated the work of the great French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) with a side exhibition of tivaivai made by Cook Islands women from Southwest Sydney.
between Matisse, one of the most celebrated and popular artists of the
twentieth century, and Polynesian tivaivai results from a visit the artist made
to Tahiti in 1930.
writer Diana Rico, “Matisse
lived in Tahiti—primarily the Tuamotu islands—for two and a half months,
drawing, photographing, taking notes, and observing the sea, sky, vegetation … (living)
a Robinson Crusoe–like
existence, getting up at dawn, canoeing, swimming, and diving amid the coral
and fish. Although he produced little finished artwork there, the Tahitian
sojourn had a powerful influence on his later work.”
Henri Matisse, Snow Flowers, 1951 (photograph: Scala Florence / Museum of Modern Art, New York
/Succession Henri Matisse)/ 23010622
Matisse befriended a Moorean woman Pauline Schyle (nee Atamai) and her husband Etienne. Mme
Schyle introduced him
to the art of Tahitian tifaifai, later gifting Matisse two Tahitian tifaifai pa’oti
(tivaivai manu) – coloured cloth cut in a snowflake pattern, sewn onto a
backing of different coloured cloth.
Much of Matisse’s
subsequent artwork was composed of coloured cut-outs attached to a background
of contrasting colour, drawing inspiration from Tahitian tifaifai pa’oti.
“The manufacture and mode of display of tifaifai are
prototypical of Matisse’s own procedure for making his independent cut outs”
writes art historian John Klein. “First he cut designs in coloured paper with
scissors; then with assistance he arranged them on a contrasting background
until he achieved the coloristic, formal and spatial effects he sought … the shapes were usually fixed provisionally
with pins until a final decision (on lay out) …”
of both the tivaivai ta’unga and of Matisse, the master artist, lay in the
cutting and assembly of the cut-out pieces and the intricate blending and
matching of colour.
motifs in both tivaivai and Matisse’s cut-outs include the breadfruit, the
acanthus, the tiare, corals, animals of the sea and air - Matissse’s work largely
differing from tivaivai in spatial layout. The cloth fabric of the tifaifai pa’oti
is folded twice before being cut, giving the design a biaxial symmetry, whereas
Matisse’s cut outs demonstrate much looser organization(Klein, 1997;
approvingly of “Matisse’s apparent appropriation of an indigenous art form in
the service of an original French expression” (1997; 63-4) in which “the formal
elements, the technical procedure and the iconography of the tifaifai” are
adapted to French art practices.
The art reviewer Jonathan Jones is rather less approving of such ‘apparent appropriations’ of Polynesian art by European artists. Reviewing the British Royal Academy’s exhibition of Polynesian art for the Guardian in 2018, he writes: “It was the European modernists who got all the wealth and fame while their collections of Oceanian art went down in art history as troves of ‘raw material’ for their supposedly unprecedented ideas. Wandering through the Royal Academy’s intoxicating forest of sculpted symbols from the Pacific, I am inclined to see the whole thing more bluntly … This dazzling exhibition is full of the art the fathers of modernism ripped off ... it’s clear the sheer scale of modern art’s debt to the Pacific has yet to be properly acknowledged, or fully understood.” (The Guardian, 25 September, 2018)
point of view, the result, in the words of Justin Paton, one of the Sydney exhibition’s co-curators, was “one of the great flowerings of modern
the Sydney Exhibition “Matisse Alive” were united in regarding the incorporation
of Cook Islands tivaivai into the exhibition, as one of its major highlights. Chloé Wolifson writing in the
art journal Cobosocial praised the Cook Islands tivaivai as “the primary revelation of “Matisse Alive”.
These works, made over recent decades, share an unmistakeable connection with
Matisse’s cut-out works. Their vibrant colours and bold shapes explore floral,
vegetation and marine motifs and are executed with exceptional skill.”
Art critic Joe
Frost writing in Artist Profile considered the tivaivai collection one
of the “better moments” of the exhibition, writing that the “tivaevae of the Cook Islands quilters, possessed a visual
logic and sense of touch that stood well beside Matisse.”
Maud Page, director of
collections at the Art Gallery of NSW spoke enthusiastically
of “These magnificent textiles with
their symmetrical flowers, fruit and fronds (that) leave no doubt as to their impact on Matisse’s cut-outs.
For us it is a way to honour women’s work that is celebrated throughout the
(Emma Joyce, Exhibition review, Broadsheet.com.au)
well as the tivaivai display, the “Matisse Alive” exhibition featured four commissioned ‘Solo Projects’ by four contemporary artists – two with ties to the Pacific.
Interestingly, these artists are all individually named in
reviews, while the tivaivai creators are recorded simply as “members of the
Sydney Cook Islands community.” Cook Islands’ art forms, such as tivaivai,
dance, musical composition, etc. are traditionally collective endeavours, the
product of many hands while the focus of European art is on the individual creator.
The ‘invisibility’ of the tivaivai artists, it has been argued, also results from
tivaivai being both ‘women’s work’ and ‘craft work’ – both historically
undervalued by the art market.
named artists can attract high prices for their work. The record price
for a work by Henri Matisse is $81 million, sold at Christies, New York in
2018. On the other hand, tivaivai have traditionally created
prosperity in what Dr. Jane Horan calls the “realm of mutuality” rather than “the
realm of the market”, reinforcing personal and family relationships rather than
As the art
of tivaivai becomes an increasingly individual pursuit, there are moves afoot
to create a market for these works with named individual ta’unga producing
tivaivai as commodities attracting high prices in the art market. This marketisation
arguably commenced with the sale of a large, intricate tivaivai ta’orei to the
Rarotongan Hotel for an unknown figure (said to be around $10,000) in 2001 (Cook
Islands News, 10 April 2001).
in tivaivai as art commodities increases, it will be interesting to see if the
social values of tivaivai, which in Jane Horan’s view, materialise key Cook
Islands values of kinship and aro’a, succumb to their new monetary value.
Perhaps neither or both. After all, as Horan astutely observes, Cook Islanders have
become expert in successfully negotiating the multiple tensions between their
own “economy of mutuality” and the western market economy.
The “Matisse Alive” exhibition was staged in
conjunction with the major
exhibition Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre
Pompidou, Parisat the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2022.
John Klein, Matisse after Tahiti: The Domestication of Exotic Memory in Zeitschrift für
Bd., H. 1 (1997), pp. 44-89
Horan, 2013, Tivaivai in the Cook Islands Ceremonial Economy, PhD thesis,
University of Auckland