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Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
August 2, 2014
You will already have seen The Snail, 1953 and Blue Nude, 1952, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that you have seen everything that Henri Matisse’s cut outs have to offer. This bestseller show is a colourful and exciting look at the simplest of art forms; cut and paste collage.
The show is advertised by an image of the elderly and frail artist sat in a wheelchair confidently cutting at a piece of paper whilst his assistant looks lovingly on. Inside the show there are two videos projected onto the walls, both of Matisse in his chair, cutting at paper with speed and strength. These images are some of the last taken of the artist; the works on display covering the last seventeen years of his life as his health declined. However to look at the works on display you could easily be deceived that this is the life’s work of a much younger artist rather than the last years of an ailing genius.
Paper is, in its nature, flat and lifeless, but the paper in Matisse’s works is full of movement and heart. A collage reproduction of the memorable work La Danse, 1938, has all of the vibrancy and joy of his much earlier painting. But it is really in the Jazz series that this bizarre effect from the paper comes through. Alive with performance and colour, these works take on everything from a circus elephant and sword swallower to a mystical dragon. They are funny and smart and full of beautiful imperfections, proving their handmade essence and love. Alongside the originals are a series of reproductions, a limited run book of only 100 editions; this book is an artwork in its own right, but it is not the originals. The cleaned up perfect reproductions do not have the heart of the manmade originals and as Matisse said the book “removed their sensitivity”.
Watching Matisse make his cut outs, you can see him know exactly which way the paper is moving and yet also exactly what he wants it to depict. Oceania, The Sky, takes up the heart of this exhibition and according to his art, part of Matisse’s heart too. These works are made from memory and love, the swallows and sea choral being part of his life that he can no longer live: “It is only now that these wonders have returned to me, with tenderness and clarity”. By creating his cut-outs and pinning them around his personal space, Matisse is reliving his past glories through his medium, he knows what each cut will make because he has lived every cut in every piece of paper.
His large compositions are a riot of colour and a mixture of humour and abstraction. Women and Monkeys is bizarre and leads into the Blue Nude works, made as Matisse put it, by “cutting directly into colour” but instead of finding a feminine eroticism instead there is a jokey-exoticism of a monkey. You can get lost in his images, as the abstract shapes and strong lines dance with a vibrancy that you don’t expect. This is if you can see them clearly, the downside of being a well-known artist such as Matisse is that every school group visiting London will drudge their way through your show.
The final room hosts Matisse’s Christmas Eve stained glass window. Abstracted beyond literal depictions of Christian faith, it is interesting to see how the lead lines in this window are as broken and layered as the pieces of paper in his mock-up collage: depicting his faith in the same way as he depicts his life and his loves – essential and unique to him.
The closing words of the exhibition are handed over to Matisse himself: “It will only be much later that people will realise to what extent the work I am doing today is in step with the future”. Sadly Matisse is wrong on this count (so far). As much as these works are modern in feel, his collage is not the collage of the future. It is not the collage of Peter Blake or Richard Hamilton. It is something just uniquely his.
Words by Ellen Stone.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is showing at Tate Modern, London until 7 September 2014. For more information go to – tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/henri-matisse-cut-outs