“From the moment I held the box of colours in my hands”, Henri Matisse said of his discovery of painting, “I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”
One Saturday morning, armed with my family, I set out with determination to see the much awaited ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ at Tate Modern. After much bribing and cajoling of the next generation we finally entered the show and what a show! Nothing prepares you for the exuberance, the joyous use of colour, brilliance and the sheer scale of the work of art produced in the last years of Matisse’s life. And true to his fauvist ideals, every gallery was awash with brilliant forms dancing with each other, lifting our spirits as if in complete happiness. Birds taking flight, leaves intermingling, stars sparkling and figures dancing all desperate to flee the confines of the wall. Amazingly, my two children felt as if they too could generate similar work, and were constantly trying to replicate what they saw.
The collection of cut-outs represents work from the last fifteen years of Matisse’s life. In 1941, a radical colon surgery left Matisse confined to a wheelchair. But rather than wallowing in self-pity as he could no longer work with an easel, he felt he was given a “second life”. As testament to this new life, at the heart of the show is archive footage of a 71 year-old frail man sinuously slicing a hand-painted, bright yellow paper using a large pair of tailor-like scissors. Beside him is one of his assistants, Lydia Delectorskaya, pinning shapes he has cut out to the wall.
Matisse’s art embraces various forms at once, from sculpture to drawing to painting and even our perception of contemporary installation. His initial cut-outs are simple and experimental, gradually evolving into work on a larger scale. He accepted a variety of commissions from book illustration to designing sets for theatre, His most famous being the Two Dancers for the ballet Rouge et Noir.
In those days it was quite a trend for artists to produce limited edition books and Matisse illustrated a book titled Jazz (1947). Images from the book have been produced countless times and have become popular posters – Icarus, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, The Sword Swallower, The Swimming Pool, The Funeral of Pierrot and Toboggan, to name a few.
In Icarus, the Greek mythological figure is presented in a simplified, bold form floating against a yellow dotted royal blue sky. Matisse cheekily placed a red dot on his chest close to the figure’s heart possibly representing Icarus’s death. Sadly, like all of these cut-outs, looking at a copy of a print version does not allow the viewer to actually comprehend the experimentation and design process involved, unlike looking at the original. And in the entire show, that leaves the biggest impact. Matisse once said of one of his cut-outs – “It breathes, it responds, it’s not a dead thing,” and this is exactly what it is – frail, ephemeral, almost spiritual. Matisse’s dissatisfaction with the final version of Jazz was similar in that the printed version had lost some of his urgency.
In Two Dancers (1937-38), for the ballet Rouge et Noir, a black figure waits to catch the white figure flying above. The graceful white figure is held by drawing pins, the pins casting shadows in the rich, royal blue background. The painting gives a sense of immediacy which was also what the last years of Matisse’s life had become. Paper and scissors gave him colour and form, a way of drawing and more.
As one progresses towards the end of the show we witness the artist’s ideas evolving and his cut-outs increasing in magnitude. The feeling of Matisse longing for voyage is very much prevalent as he increasingly becomes confined indoors. In some cases, he explicitly draws reference in his work to the time he spent in Tahiti through the application of coloured paper. The need to represent nature and fauna is apparent in The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952) with its brilliant, colourful foliage, alongside abstract figures on a stark white background. The acute forms are in a process of a dialogue, teasing and challenging each other.
The last part of the exhibition contains Matisse’s most famous cut-outs, the Blue Nudes. Again what was striking about the Blue Nudes was the scale of the work. In Blue Nude IV there is direct evidence of his experimentation (pinholes) as the shapes have been moved around. These pin holes, and the re-cut paperwork – like brush strokes in conventional oil paintings – show us his thought process as he completed the work.
As one moves from one gallery to another, one realises that Matisse had an incredible work ethic and that he knew that his time was short. Every photograph of him, the archive footage, the images of the process and the final completed works convey a sense of energy, fun, laughter and a desire to maximise one’s ability under any circumstance. Although limited physically, Matisse produced some of his most innovative works of art, saying : “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self – free, liberated.”
‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ ran at the Tate Modern, London from 17 April – 7 September 2014