Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Jackie Matisse: Art that Soars


Art that Soars
Mingei International Museum, San Diego, California
29 April – 26 November, 2000

A famous name, playful theme and official manifesto, what more could a contemporary art exhibition need? The Mingei International Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park presented all three in their exhibition “Art that Soars – Kites and Tails” by Jackie Matisse. Featuring kites from as far afield as India, Japan and China – alongside the creations of Jackie Matisse, grand-daughter of Henri Matisse – the exhibition ranged from delicate miniature studies of wire, found objects and traditional paper to lengths of brightly dyed spinnaker cloth and rayon.

The importance of graceful movement through space is the key to the flying objects Matisse describes as “dream forms”. In fact, she and six other artists have signed the international Art Volant (Flying Art) Manifesto, elevating the kite from windy childhood memories to a tool of spatial and emotional significance. Speaking of the kite’s ability to connect and define space, the manifesto lays claim to the brilliance of the common kite through the object’s expression of the often ignored space and form above us. While textile exhibitions are often notoriously difficult to hang in a setting which does justice to the plastic nature of the material, this exhibition managed to effectively combat some of these challenges. A selection of kites were placed on curious rotating machines which, if they did not simulate the wind itself, at least kept the kites from a static state so unnatural to their purpose. The kites were still hard pressed to make, as stated in the Art Volant Manifesto, ‘an immense space visible’ within the confines of the gallery walls. Nevertheless, an afternoon spent flying the kites in a local park offered onlookers a sense of the relationship between material, object and environment.

Inside the gallery setting, underwater video footage of Matisse’s kites dreamily following the movements of several scuba divers and a collection of photographs depicting the kites on the wind proved compelling viewing in comparison to the limp objects at rest. That is, except for the enthusiasm of a group of schoolchildren who were fascinated by the jumpy motion of Matisse’s wire study Clap to Move, which bounced and twisted to the vibrations produced by the clapping of the excited group.

Published by the Mingei International Museum in conjunction with the exhibition, is a book of the same title. This 120-page volume documents Matisse’s kites, tails and wire studies over the past 30 years and contains 70 colour illustrations of kites in situ. Interspersed among the glorious images of the kites aloft are informative essays by friends and academics, from childhood friend Nicki de Saint Phalle to an excellent critical essay by Rebecca Rickman which positions Matisse’s artistic career within a greater historical context of the kite.

Martha Longenecker, Director of the Mingei International Museum and author of the book’s foreword, writes: ‘Kites beckon us to be free – to shed the weight of psychological conditioning and be lifted to a place beyond the known…’ The book closes appropriately with a statement by the artist herself that she wrote high above the ground on a flight from Paris to New York.

Craft Arts International (No. 54, 2002: 75)