Henri Matisse : the cut-outs

matissebannerExhibition at Tate Modern, 17 April to 17 September 2014

The once derided coloured paper cut-outs by Henri Matisse the majority made during the last part of his life are proving exceptionally popular in an exhibition at Tate Modern, London open until 17 September 2014.

On a lovely bright and sunny Saturday morning I caught an early train from Winchester walking from Waterloo to try and beat the crowds to go and see this exhibition. At least there was not a queue circling the building! About 120 pieces are on show ranging from the small and intimate to large public murals, including along the way the complete original works for the book Jazz and covers for the magazine Verve.

Some years ago I visited the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to look at an original copy of the book Jazz. It was interesting to see the original cut-outs for this work alongside the sheets from the book all laid out in one room at the exhibition. The images are based on singers and dancers, clowns and animals, from the music hall and circus. The colours and shapes combined with text appear joyful and spontaneous, colourful and minimal. Behind them lie the considerable skills of cutting shapes, selecting and combining colours, deciding sequences for layouts. There is a facsimile copy of Jazz in Winchester School of Art Library, do take a look. Matisse also designed covers using the cut-outs for the magazine Verve, WSA Library holds some copies of this magazine including one entitled The last works of Matisse 1950-1954, published in 1958.

In the long thin mural entitled “The swimming pool” the cut-out bathers in water remind the viewer of swimming and maybe the experience of being submerged in water. Bridget Riley, the British painter has written about the influence of swimming in her work which did not as many think stem solely from the scientific field of optics. From The eye’s mind: Bridget Riley: collected writings 1965-1999 “On a fine day, for instance, all is bespattered with the glitter of bright sun light and its tiny pinpoints of virtually black shadow – it was as though one was swimming through a diamond.” A sensation both artists share.

Some think the use of black indicates Matisse’s sense of impending death. It is clear he understood his declining health and felt the consequent restrictions, perhaps the energy of this late work comes from a sense of urgency. This new way of working with cut-outs rather than painting renewed his artistic practice in many unexpected ways. In the seminal book The cut-outs of Henri Matisse, John Elderfield examines the motifs, the working process and some of the thinking behind the cut-outs. Matisse himself identified an alienation from nature as one of his key concerns at this point in his life. A conviction that nature offers a positive life source is strongly reflected in the exuberance and happiness of this work.

The cut-outs are from the last phase of Matisse’s life as an artist, he was eighty four when he died in 1954. To read about his life I recommend Hilary Spurling’s two volume biography The unknown Matisse and Matisse the master. This two volume work is exceptionally good on context and his life as an artist revealing difficulties and successes, highs and lows, family, friends, artistic competitors, favourable and hostile reviews. Today many reviews are positive and recognise the life affirming qualities of these beautiful works related ultimately to the human figure and nature.