Saturday, 3 May 2014

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

Matisse, The Snail, 1953. Digital image © Tate Photography. Artwork © Succession Henri Matisse/Dacs 2014.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

Tate Modern, London, 17 April – 7 September 2014
MoMA, NYC, 14 October 2014 – 9 February 2015

I love come-backs. If an ageing rock star comes out with a new album that gets passable reviews, I’m there. Well, Henri Matisse, arguably already one of the two greatest artists of the 20th century, had an inspirational second act – perhaps the most notable second act – ever in the art world. He heroically re-invented his art, and many say surpassed his previous achievements.

Extreme ill-health prevented Matisse from painting on canvas. As a convalescent, he developed the technique of cutting pieces of painted paper into shapes which could then be assembled into designs. These were originally only meant to be maquettes – working design sketches used as plans for commercial commissions – but the potential of this technique as an end in itself quickly became apparent. And this new method was a game-changer. The Cut-Outs are now assembled together for a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition at Tate Modern.

Matisse’s art was always big on line and colour – but in the cut-outs these are distilled to their pure essence. The shapes and colours dance and interplay. They are vibrant and very wonderful. Big-time.
Henri Matisse (1869 -1964). Photographer: Lydia Delectorskaya. © Succession Henri Matisse.

At the Tate Modern exhibition there’s an amazing short film of Matisse at work on The Cut-Outs in his studio. Watch the master at work! He sits in his chair and fluidly cuts out intricate shapes from paper using ginormous scissors that look like garden shears (when I hand-cut paper shapes, I do it at a snail’s pace, painstakingly, with with teeny découpage scissors). Then, like a conductor (he even has a baton), he guides his assistant in the placement of the pattern pieces on the composition on the wall (it is a plan for a chasuble [sleeveless garment worn by a priest] for use at the Vence Chapel, regarded by Matisse to be his greatest artistic work).

When you see The Cut-Outs for real, there’s a whole new level of appreciation. You can see the little pinholes (and sometimes even the pins) that were used to meticulously position the shapes on the background. And you can see how some shapes were created by superimposing cut-outs in layers – similar to how shapes are created in graphic design programs by welding to make a composite shape (circle  +  triangle = ice cream cone). This dimensionality gives an insight into the creative process.

I read in Alistair Sooke’s little Penguin book,  Henri Matisse: a Second Life (a good companion to the exhibition), about how Matisse went on an inspirational  journey to Polynesia, a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Gauguin. There, Matisse was fascinated by tifaifai, “appliqué bedspreads” (which I think must surely be Hawaiian quilts). You can certainly see this influence in the cut-outs. And, of course, Hawaiian quilt blocks are created by cutting the fabric using paper pattern templates. (Google The Parakeet and the Mermaid, Sheaf, and Large Decoration with Masks to spot the quilt influence.)

As you go through the Tate Modern exhibition, you can see how Matisse honed his art. He starts small – and soon graduates to epic scale. And it is sad and touching how the bedridden Matisse used his paper collages to re-create a tropical paradise on the walls of his studio (although a studio on the French Riviera sounds very nice indeed).

Blue Nude III, spring 1952. Digital image © Centre Pompidou. Artwork:  © Succession Henri Matisse.
A particular feature of the exhibition is the Blue Nude room four works "together again for the first time". The popular Blue Nudes are universally recognized. They are displayed along with several small sculptures.

In the show, there were several works in which text was used in combination with the cut-outs. These were very effective and I wished there had been more to see. In Matisse's art book, Jazz, the "intertitles" are in handwritten text by Matisse - in a lovely round script hand (an opportunity to test out my rusty high school French). Jazz's table of contents is a treat: the title of each print is accompanied by a Matisse sketch icon. There are examples of hand-cut lettering on The Thousand and One Nights and - in Latin - on a black and white chasuble ("Esper Lucat", inscribed vertically and looking a bit like an eye chart).

The Cut-Outs are an example of avant-garde genius. They look as fresh and alive as if they were created yesterday. Matisse: The Cut-Outs is an unmissable exhibition. (Note to parents: Matisse: The Cut-Outs is an ideal kid-friendly exhibition.)

No need to go on about the special attraction of this exhibition to papercrafters. 

If you want to explore Matisse’s life-story and work in detail, check out Hilary Spurling’s award-winning books:
Matisse: the Life (volume 1)

Thanks to the Tate Modern Press Office for providing info and the pics, which are copyright Tate Modern (or as otherwise indicated) and used with permission.