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The NGA has incredibly strong holdings of drawings, prints, illustrated books and costumes by both Matisse and Picasso and Jane Kinsman, Head of International Art, and International Prints and Drawings, was keen to develop a major exhibition that focused on one of those artists before she retired. There had been three major exhibitions on Picasso in Australia in recent years, and Matisse works on paper show in Brisbane. I suggested we work on a show comparing the works of both artists, as I knew of the successful Matisse and Picasso shows at Tate and Museum of Modern Art in the early 2000’s.

Costumes designed by Pablo Picasso for 

the Ballets Russes production of Le Tricorne

(The Three-cornered Hat)  1919-1934, NGA.

The backdrop panel design is taken from one of

the original productions theatre back drops. 

Our informal enquiries regarding loan support for the exhibition received positive responses from colleagues in Britain, USA and Europe, so we were cautiously confident we could secure the important paintings needed to illustrate and compare their artistic relationship. 

We prepared a draft checklist of works and visited potential lenders. I also developed budgets and a business case for approval by the NGA Council, and included Matisse & Picasso in the forward program as a major Summer exhibition.

Colleagues at National Gallery Singapore had recently indicated they were looking for major shows and were keen to partner with the NGA on future potential exhibitions. After a presentation on Matisse & Picasso, they quickly confirmed they would become the second venue. Partnering with Singapore allows us to share the expensive freight costs and provides a significant saving for both institutions. The challenge now, was securing loans for seven and a half months, for display at two venues.

Laurent Le Bon, President of the Musée Picasso was very enthusiastic about supporting the exhibition and confirmed a significant group of important major works for loan to Canberra and Singapore. He also generously agreed to come to Canberra to open the Exhibition.

After our lenders visits, we sent out loan request letters, but it became clear that it may be difficult to secure some of the major works needed for the exhibition to be a success. 

Some institutions, like Tate and Denver Art Museum confirmed their loans very quickly, as we had a long history of exhibition partnerships and reciprocal loans. But others had declined our loan request. Some institutions had declined our loan request, even when they had a loan request for a major work from the NGA's collection that was in the process of being assessed – a phone call usually fixed this. We were counting on the loan of several Matisse works from the Centre Pompidou, but they had subsequently agreed to partner with the Art Gallery of New South Wales on a Matisse exhibition, and understandably would hold all Matisse works exclusively for AGNSW. We needed a small group of strong Matisse works, and two specific Picasso paintings to illustrate comparisons with other works we had already secured for the exhibition. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had already agreed to loan 2 works and has very strong holdings of both artists, and paintings in the styles/periods we required. After much discussion, the MET agreed to partner with us on the show and loan 8 works.

Matisse Picasso small K.png

The walls in the exhibition were painted in pale shades of pink and blue

Visitors, bush fires and a pandemic 

The exhibition was well attended after opening in December 2019, peaking  with 3000 visitors a day. In the New Year, acrid, yellowish smoke from fires that ravaged the east coast of Australia began to blanket Canberra. On January 5th the quality of Canberra's air was the worst of any major city in the world and we decided to close the NGA to ensure the indoor air quality could be maintained, to protect the art and essential staff.

Poor air quality warnings and Government advice to put off all non-essential travel to the region over the following weeks understandably kept interstate visitors and locals away. 

Throughout January visitor numbers were down by 50 percent. Later in February visitation returned to normal and the NGA planned to open early and close late to meet visitor demand in the final four weeks.

On the 23rd March, three weeks before Matisse Picasso was due to finish, the NGA closed its doors again as the first Covid-19 pandemic lockdown began. As the weeks passed, it became clear that the exhibition would not go on to Singapore. With nearly 100 Matisse and Picasso works from 23 lenders around the world, discussions began with each lender about condition reporting, packing, couriers and quarantine, and with limited availability to international flights and freight – trying to ascertain how and when each work could be returned.


Despite enforced closures due to bushfire smoke and the onset of COVID-19, the exhibition received 66,585 visitors.

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