Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka.

Many recognise the names David Hockney and Henri Matisse without being familiar with their work. I, for one, couldn’t name a Matisse as I entered the exhibition, even if I soon recognised some of his iconic figures. The Hockney Matisse Un Paradis retrouvé exhibition at the Matisse Museum in Nice rose to the challenge of finding a new perspective on these two iconic artists by revealing the enduring presence of Matisse throughout Hockney’s body of work. The crux of the exhibition lay in the word ‘retrouvé’, translating to ‘found’, while also connoting meeting again, re-imagining and deeper searching. 

Walking into the museum, the walls of the ticket office were accentuated by stencils which at a first glance could have been a series of avant-garde wallpapers. They soon transformed into Matisse’s Fleurs et fruits, having already seen a to-scale recreation of The Swimming Pool (Matisse, 1952) spread over the walls of a smaller side room. This emphasised a peculiar trap which most people, including myself, fall into when approaching artists whose name precedes them: a critical appreciation of their work can be veiled by their fame.

After passing La Vague (Matisse, 1893), we headed up the stairs to a dimly lit room with dark blue walls and a corridor that kept you moving along a one-way system. Despite this, the exhibition was not chronological, and the artists were only presented separately in the first two rooms. The non-chronological layout exemplified how artistic influence is not confined to youthful inspiration or borrowing. Hockney has yet to ‘finish’ with Matisse. His influence is not a building-block on the way to cultivating Hockney’s own style, but is fleshed throughout his work in various different ways. The thematically arranged rooms also negotiated how to present two successful artists who are widely known for a handful of iconic pieces. The thematic arrangement made no pretence at making critical hierarchies by finishing with the best-known piece and suggesting how all work hitherto had been building up to it. It gave space for a full appreciation of ‘youthful’ pieces, instead of presenting them as works in progress.

Anyway, this dark room held prints of Hockney’s digital iPad flowers (imagine still-lifes but done on an iPad paint app). From the distance of the stairs they could have been a painting in any media if it weren’t for the texture-less ‘fill’ of the background colour. The exhibition had ensured that the contrasting colours of Matisse’s cut-outs were in the front of my mind. His essentially collaged pieces ranged from the shapes of flowers and other vegetation, to posing bodies, or bodies captured in motion, like The Swimming Pool. This style spoke to the somewhat jarring, stark feeling of Hockney’s iPad flowers, revealing influences perhaps lifted from Matisse’s block-colour palette and the crude lines of his paper. The uncompromising background transforms the depth-perception that something like a water-colour wash could provide: there is something suspended, artificial and out-of-life about them that demands reflection on the genre of the still-life itself. Hockney translates Matisse’s cut-out lines into the somewhat raw finish of the iPad stylus.

It was strange to see the iPad flowers exhibited as the introduction to Hockney, as the medium sometimes can’t help but feel slightly infantile (albeit wrongly so). However, presenting the works to a generation familiar with the frustrations of Microsoft Paint made the oeuvre increasingly impressive. The still-lifes felt as though they were at varying degrees of ‘completion’: some paintings were left without the refracted light of the vase and water shadows lingering across the tablecloth. This evidenced the exhibition’s interest in process and experiment which gained momentum in the next room. At the end of a timeline of Hockney’s work was an unending stream of mesmeric time-lapses of the creation of the flowers. Screens tend to have a magnetic influence over attention, but the sped-up emergence of the flowers was fascinating. The process had become the art itself and ironically, the still-life was moving. We saw each ‘final product’ segmented into different colours or brush sizes, conversing with Matisse’s layered paper cut-outs. These videos also felt that they were indebted to early stop-motion photography or cubist works (a movement Matisse was implicated in), like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), due to how the metamorphic shapes could seemingly generate movement.

Instead of comparing Hockney’s iPad sketches to what they obviously cannot replicate in terms of his photo-collages or paintings, their position immediately after Matisse’s huge cut-outs gave them a newly affirmed status. Although the printing of these paintings was often to the detriment of clarity, this is only the case if we assume that clean lines were the goal. Comparing them to the clean lines of something like a cut-out, what is really fascinating about these pixels is how they can reveal a miniaturised enactment of ‘atomic’ life; how everything ‘whole’ is made up of tiny fragments; how even a brushstroke is composed of miniscule shapes. This pixelated finish to Hockney’s work also experiments with creating texture in a two-dimensional medium that explores the limits of digital technology.

As we moved to some of the rooms that dealt with larger, colourful paintings that dominated the room, like Palais du Louvre (Hockney), it became increasingly obvious how the iPad still-lifes are also implicated in his experiments with perspective. Without droning a cliché, screens are so much of how we experience the world that it seems only fitting that we begin to experience a classic genre in a new media and explore the effect of it. Why do we deride technology for devaluing art when most of the art that we experience (at least in my case) is through a screen?

By the end of the exhibition, once the curators had juxtaposed Hockney and Matisse’s portraiture, nudes, photographs and sculpture, it felt an injustice that their wider body of work is not as appreciated as some of their most famous pieces. It probed interesting questions about what it means to be a famous name as much as you are an artist and how iconic pieces can obscure the scope of an oeuvre. The exhibition revealed Hockney’s negotiation and translation of his predecessors to, perhaps paradoxically, cultivate one of the most definitive styles in contemporary art.