Tate Modern has collected some 120 Matisse cut-outs into a stunning blockbuster show. The commentary claims that, due to their fragile nature, we are unlikely to see such a large collection of these works ever again gathered into one place.
Matisse (b.1869) made his reputation as a post-Impressionist, one of the so-called Fauves, and first exhibited in 1905. Critics and punters laughed at his garish and unrealistically-coloured nudes and portraits. Thirty years later, Matisse was well established as a twentieth century master when, now in his mid-60s, he began to experiment with cutting out large shapes from coloured paper.
The earliest cut-outs were created as aids to composition. The exhibition starts with some of some basic examples, still lifes where Matisse has cut out the shapes of apples and a vase in paper, which he then moved around the canvas until the arrangement looked right. All this was preliminary work, preparatory to creating an oil painting.
In 1941 Matisse almost died after major surgery. He made a will and prepared for death. When he survived it was in a greatly weakened, often wheelchair- or even bed-bound state. He continued to paint in oil but the prolonged periods of standing were beyond him, and painting from a sitting posture was an arduous process.
His illness was just one of several streams which came together in the 1940s to make the idea of cutting out coloured paper and arranging the resulting shapes and patterns seem like a new and appealing activity. The privations of war in occupied Paris were another contributory factor.
His assistant tells the story that in 1946, more or less confined to his Paris apartment, Matisse cut out the shape of a swallow and asked it to be stuck over a blotch on the wall. He cut out some more shapes and asked them to be placed next to each other. Eventually the whole wall was covered and that is the origin of the two large cut-out compositions, Oceania: the Sky and Oceania: the Sea.
They consist of cut-out birds, fish, coral and leaves stuck directly onto the wall. As they grew in scope Matisse drew inspiration from a trip he made to Tahiti 16 years earlier. (There is a cartoonish self-portrait of the artist swimming round using primitive goggles to marvel at the undersea world).
Matisse had been a favoured artist of the French publishing house Tériade. He had used cut-outs to provide covers for their magazine from as early as 1937. After the war, Tériade commissioned a book of new works from him, and Matisse decided to explore the possibilities of the cut-out which now offered a way of keeping up his creative output.
He began by making variations of fairly small images of figures dancing, done in strikingly bright, pure colours. The exhibition uses one long wall to hang the original ‘maquettes’ or cut-outs directly above the images as they appeared in the large-format art book which was eventually titled Jazz (In fact, most of the images are less to do with hipsters blowing saxaphones in smoky basement clubs, and more about childhood memories of the circus. They are filled with a childlike wonder and awe.)
Jazz represented a tipping point, Matisse’s conscious acceptance that this was a distinct new art form or genre or way of working, and some of the most vivid and imaginative images are in this section of the show.
Ville de Rêve
Matisse moved from Paris to the small village of Vence, near Nice, in the south of France. A great feature of the cut-outs was how quick and light and easy they were to make. Matisse is quoted as saying that making them represented a great psychological liberation from the hard physical labour of painting.
But as well as being easy to create, they were easy to move around. They could also be positioned very flexibly, shifted, re-arranged. They could be used to cover walls, as the Oceanie images began as covering for the wall of his Paris apartment.
Thus the exhibition devotes room 5 to recreating a set of cut-outs which originally covered one wall of his studio at Vence. Eventually they were broken up into individual works – but seeing them all together on one white wall is a revelation. What an amazing wall of art! Twentieth century frescoes of colour and exuberance.
The commentary makes the point that, although we now see all the cut-outs preciously preserved under glass, in the freedom of the studio where they were originally created, even when pinned to the wall, they would flap and move with the wind through the window. Taken down and repositioned, they were capable of infinite adjustments and perfecting. If he could no longer go outside, Matisse could bring the whole world into his studio – his garden, the sea and sky of Oceania, jungles and birds and everything bright and wonderful.
Blue nudes 1952
Matisse made four enormous blue nude cut-outs and they are brought together, here in one room, for the first time since they were created. The room also includes small statues of nudes from earlier in Matisse’s career to compare and contrast.
I loved these to bits when I first saw them in the 1970s and now I realise, with a shock, that they were then only 25 or so years old. They seemed like classics even then. They not only capture the human form but lift it into a new dimension using the roughness, the approximation, at the same time the liberating immediacy, of the cut-outs.
The chapel at Vence
Matisse spent four years (1947-51) using the cut-out approach to create the stained glass windows of the Dominican chapel of the Rosary in Vence. A room here gives you a rather feeble approximation of what is obviously a wonderful, light-filled space and which has now become a pilgrimage destination for art lovers from all over the world.
Bigger and better
In the early 1950s, Matisse expanded the size of the compositions, creating bigger and bigger works which take up whole walls. Big walls. The whiteness of the walls is an integral part of the effect. My favourites were:
I had never seen these before and they made a much bigger impact me than the Blue Nudes or the Snail, one of the prizes of Tate’s collection but which have a little of the over-familiarity of old friends.
In the final rooms of the exhibition entire walls are covered by these last creations. They have an astonishing clarity and simplicity and beauty and wonder about them, amazing for man, unwell and in his 80s – an astonishing triumph of the human spirit and imagination.
BBC Culture Show about Matisse’s cut-outs
- Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs continues at Tate Modern until 7 September 2014
- Matisse Museum website
- Matisse on Wikipedia