Matisse, Fauvism and Modern Chinese Painting

Henri Matisse, The Codomas, 1947

Henri Matisse, important figure of the 20th century and leader of Fauvism, influenced the Chinese art scene, and in particular the Chinese Modern Movement (1920s-1940s). He was introduced to China as one of the four major Post-Impressionnists alongside Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh. Inspired by his rebellious attitude and creativity, many painters created works of a new kind, deeply committed and liberated.

The “Matisse by Matisse” exhibition, ran from July 15 July to October 15, 2023 at UCCA, Beijing and then from November 4 November to February 18, 2024 at UCCA Edge, Shanghai, in collaboration with the Musée Matisse Le Cateau-Cambrésis, and on the initiative of Doors. The exhibition plunges visitors into the works of the inventor of “Fauvism”, providing a fascinating insight into the painter’s artistic creation and experiments, and traces the influence of Fauvism on the Chinese art scene in the modern period (1920-1940).   

When Matisse discovered China

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Picture of Matisse's room

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Picture of Matisse's room


Vases belonging to Matisse

Closely linked to Impressionism, whose reflections on perception it took up, Fauvism nonetheless broke away from it by exploring the pure emotional value of colour and freeing itself from the drawing requirements that prevailed in academic art. Characterised by bold colours, textured gestures and the rejection of traditional perspective in favour of expressive depth, this pictorial style was hotly debated at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, a crucial stage in the advent of modern art as well as in Matisse’s career. This revival also drew on a geographical decentring of art, which now made room for African and “Oriental” art. But Matisse’s specificity lies in his refusal to use the repertoire of fantasised images that had marked nineteenth-century Orientalism in Europe, be it the cherry trees of Japonism or the exoticism of portraits of harem women. On the contrary, for him, the essential contribution of these arts was their decorative dimension, which allowed them to be incorporated into everyday objects. He thus discovered China through its artistic material culture, which he loved to collect: vases, snuffboxes and pieces of porcelain for example.

His knowledge of China deepened as he visited museums, but also thanks to the contacts he established with art collectors, notably Michael and Sarah Stein, an American couple with a passion for Oriental art, – or even thanks to his philosophical conversations with Brother Rayssiguier, whom he met during the preparations of the restauration of the Vence chapel. This explains why Chinese objects are often present in Matisse’s paintings (Qing vases, screens, traditional dresses), as a distant echo of the eighteenth-century fashion for “chinoiseries”, which became a symbol of nouveau-riche taste in the nineteenth century, before being rediscovered in the 1930s. 

The Song of the Nightingale (Le Chant du Rossignol)

As Matisse himself came from a family of weavers, it was around textiles and clothing that his interest in China crystallised in 1919, when he travelled to London to design the sets and costumes for Le Chant du rossignol (The song of the Nightingale), one of Diaghilev’s “Russian ballets”, which were a huge success in Europe at the time. This was Matisse’s first decorative commission, and an opportunity to break away from easel painting. Dancers disguised as mandarins, lions, masks: the painter was terribly disappointed with the result. The general aesthetic was marked by an in-between tendency: on the one hand, orientalist costumes such as that of the Emperor, flanked by an embroidered dragon, and on the other, a decorative perspective found in the geometric and stylised costumes of the mourners in the background.

To complete this project, Matisse scoured various museum collections, from the Louvre to the Musée Guimet, even the British Museum, but in the end he saw nothing more in it than the staging of a fantasised and exotic vision that reflected nothing of the Chinese aesthetic to which he aspired. This experience was to prove decisive, however, as the assembly of cut-out panels of colour on a canvas used as the back curtain of the Ballet gave rise to the idea of cut-out gouaches that would mark Matisse’s later work, when he was too weakened by illness to paint directly on large canvases. This setback did not discourage him, however, and in fact became the occasion for a return to the fundamental principles of the Chinese pictorial approach: the sense of space created by the interplay between full and empty, and the importance of the line in calligraphy. 

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Costume for the courtier, Matisse, 1919

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Costumes for the Song of the Nightingale, Matisse, 1919

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Costume for the chamberlain, Matisse, 1919

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“I want to imitate the Chinese with a limpid and fine heart”, Matisse in a letter to Aragon,
quoting Mallarmé.

Matisse and Chinese aesthetics

Cover for the “Verve” Art Magazine belonging to his friend Tériade, Matisse, 1948

Matisse was one of the only painters of his generation to be tempted by Chinese calligraphy, which he admired but not practiced himself though. It encapsulates both a reflection on light and on the intensity of colour characteristic of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist research; As Cézanne said, “Shadow is a colour like light, but less brilliant”. Matisse seems to have drawn inspiration from this theory in the contrast he painted in Vence in 1948 between the black-and-white exterior and the colourful decoration of the Grand intérieur rouge. Calligraphy also offered Matisse a model of lived art in which body and brush became one, the movement of the hand joining that of the mind. The quest for this union found expression in a letter to his writer friend Paul Rouveyre on how to draw a tree “à la chinoise”. According to Matisse, the Chinese masters would encourage their pupils to feel the upward movement of the brush as an echo of the natural elevation of the tree towards the sky. This analogy enabled him to think of the canvas as a calligraphic space in which emptiness takes on its full meaning and, in turn, nourishes the meaning given to fullness, an example of which can be found in the preparation of the ceramic representing the tree of life, made for the dining room of the villa owned by the publisher Tériade. This reflection culminated in 1947 when Matisse began decorating Vence Cathedral in search of space in the sense given to it by Chinese aesthetics. The simplicity of the drawn flower and that of the Virgin and Child, with their elliptical outlines, outlines the emptiness of a space that Matisse described as a “Chinese composition”, while the figure of Saint Dominique was compared to that of a “great Asian Buddha”.  

A “Chinese Matisse” ?

Matisse’s influence was so important that a “Chinese Matisse” appeared in the art scene of the 1930s, Sanyu(1895-1966), an artist established in France in the early 1920s who quickly made a place among the painters then gathered around Montparnasse, trained at the Grand Chaumière academy, more avant-garde and experimental than the Paris Academy of Fine Arts. Be it the flat areas, the floral motifs or the generous curves of the women he represents, his painting evokes that of Matisse for the European eye. But it is not so much a real imitation as a shared convergence of their interests in decoration, calligraphy and the treatment of color. The proof is that Sanyu did not wait for Matisse’s experiments to try his hand at engraving on linoleum.

Woman in bath, Sanyu, date unsure

The influence of Matisse in China

Matisse’s work was introduced to Shanghai in the second half of the 1920s, at the height of the modern art movement in China. At this time, and for about a decade, China had been importing the major Western literary and artistic movements, a phenomenon initiated by the New Culture Movement (新文化运动 xin wenhua yundong) which sought to move beyond a Chinese tradition deemed sclerotic and self-centred by drawing inspiration from the West, following the example of Japan, which had begun its process of European-style modernisation at the end of the 19th century. In contrast to Beijing, which symbolically embodied the grandeur of the past and tradition, Shanghai was a place of experimentation of all kinds, where artists, painters and writers alike, sought to find new ways of expressing a modern, changing world that could not be conveyed by classical poetic images and traditional aesthetic canons. It was a time marked by a renewal of sensibility in a newly industrialised, teeming city with flashing neon lights and speeding cars. It was in this context that interest in the work of Matisse emerged, whose flat tints of colour offered Chinese painters an expressive, modern palette and as well as a new vision of space. 

Liu Haisu (1896-1994), an artist and professor of Western art history at Peking University, is credited with popularising Matisse’s work in China. From 1925 onwards, he wrote regular columns about Matisse and was the first to publish a catalogue of his works. Founder of the College of Fine Arts in Shanghai, he also played a considerable role in importing modern European art to China. The discovery of Matisse’s work gave rise to lively debate in Chinese society at the time. The most famous of these broke out in 1929 on the occasion of the first national art exhibition between the painter Xu Beihong and the poet Xu Zhimo. In an article entitled “Confused”, the painter, who had received an academic training in european realism at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, denounced Matisse’s work as that of an incompetent who disguised his lack of technical mastery behind “vulgar” mixtures of colour, and even went so far as to claim that the artistic landscape of the time was full of “Horses kicked to death” (matisi), a pun on the characters of his name in Chinese. The poet responded with an article entitled “Confused, too” in which he defended Matisse’s pictorial advances, and more generally those of the “post-impressionists” (a vague term used to describe the avant-gardes since the end of the 19th century), which, far from being worthless scribbles, on the contrary demonstrated a virtuosity of colour and composition. Without realising it, these two artists had just sparked off the first controversy in the history of modern art in China, one that would prove decisive for a whole generation of young painters. 

Letter mentioning “Horses kicked to death” (Matisse), Xu Beihong, 1948

Some Chinese artists influenced by Matisse

The spread of Matisse’s works owes much to young painters who went to train in Europe or Japan, where European art was better known and taught. Guan Zilan (1903-1986), for example, one of the most famous painters of her generation, trained with Niken Nakagawa (1892-1972), a former student of Matisse in France. Ting Yinyung (1902-1978) was another artist deeply inspired by the Fauvist aesthetic, which he discovered during his studies at the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts in the 1920s, so much so that on his return to China, his strong brushstrokes reminiscent of those of the « painter from Nice » earned him the nickname Ting-tisse. However, this didn’t mean abandoning Chinese tradition.

Portrait of a Lady in Yellow Cardigan, Ting Yinyung, 1969
Female generals of the Yang family, Guan Liang, 1977
Woman at the window, Ting Yin yung, 1931

On the contrary, he chose to combine this style with the full-and-empty aesthetics of calligraphy, also playing with lines drawn in Chinese ink, in an approach that corresponded to Matisse’s interest in Oriental art. Other artists, such as Guan Liang (1900-1986), saw Matisse’s simplification of composition and line as a midway point between the European avant-garde and Chinese tradition, able to bring these two art forms together.

Women with fan, Walasse Ting, around 1975-1980

Other artists, however, such as Walasse Ting (1929-2010) whose English pseudonym was chosen to echo Matisse’s last letters, did claim a direct legacy with the man who allowed a renewal of the pictorial space. First attracted by the expressive power of Fauvism, he then turned to an art form close to the action painting of American Expressionism , which sought to abolish the separation between the pictorial gesture and the resulting work on the canvas, through calligraphic abstractions, which were an opportunity for him to reinvest the reflections on the line and the brushstrokes of Matisse. His trajectory is characteristic of the horizons opened by the « painter from Nice »  for modern art but also contemporary art. 


CAI, Tao, “Matisse, Fauvism and the Western Art movement in China”, texte écrit dans le cadre de l’exposition “Matisse by Matisse”, UCCA Pékin et UCCA Edge Shanghai.

LABRUSSE, Rémi, The Image’s condition, chap. VI “The story of a trauma”, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Art and artists”, 1999

LABRUSSE, Rémi, “Matisse and China” in Matisse : the emotion of the stroke, the gift of space, National Museum of History, Taipei

SU, Meiyu (dir.), Matisse : the emotion of the stroke, the gift of space, National Museum of History, Taipei, 2002

Catalogue of the exhibition “Matisse by Matisse”, UCCA Pékin et UCCA Edge Shanghai, UCCA and Musée Matisse le Cateau-Cambrésis, Zhejiang sheying chubanshe, 2023

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