Chapels, circuses and colour as Matisse's Cut-Outs thrill at Tate Modern

By Ben Miller | 15 April 2014

The final 17 years of Matisse's career, between 1937 and 1954, are the focus for Tate Modern's new exhibition which sees the artist in anything but winding-down mode

An image of various blocks of colour
Henri Matisse, The Snail (1953). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas© Tate, Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013
In his late 70s and early 80s, bedridden following cancer surgery which had resulted in a colostomy, Matisse piled papers of varying colours around the bedroom of his apartment, ready to be cut, pinned to the walls and reconfigured into boundlessly dynamic formations and figures.

An image of the figure of a woman in blue cut out on paper against a white backdrop
Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I) (1952). Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas© Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013
Some of them were independent concepts. Others would work symphonically. One of them – The Virgin and Child, made in 1950 as part of the Rosaire chapel in France, which is partially recreated in one room here – saw Matisse use a very long bamboo cane, attaching charcoal to its tip through which he drew.

“Eventually, third time around, he got the design right,” says Flavia Frigeri, one of the co-curators responsible for this energetic, joyful, uplifting and surprising exhibition. The hugely prolific final 17 years of Matisse’s life saw him work relentlessly, not least in the case of his numerous designs for his maternal depiction at the chapel.

“He rehearsed them endlessly so that he could be able to create them with controlled spontaneity, transferring the drawing onto the ceramic tiles.

“While obviously we couldn’t bring the chapel in, we could bring the process of making it. This was the first time he was doing a full environment. The design gave him a chance to work on a large scale.”

A photo of a paper cut-out showing a horse in purple against a blue background
Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown (1943-4). Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz, 1947© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet © Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013
Matisse threw himself into the project, devising everything from the crucifix and the altar to the chasubles worn by the clergy. Played out in cross-laden maquette gouaches for red and black priestwear, they are hung opposite the Pale Blue Window which once created a black-edged sphere through which light entered the chapel.

Footage from his studio shows these works in an entirely different light. Everything is linked back to his process, beginning with small pieces of paper used for their compositional value, layered with black swirls in cabinets beneath the designs for Jazz, his 1947 book full of shifting clowns, strange elephants, poised circus figures and funerals drawn by jolly horses with plumes emanating from their heads.

He continued painting until 1948, but the outline of Forms is surely an earlier incarnation of the poised Acrobats he would cut out in 1952.

“You can see the economy with which he was able to create two arms, two breasts,” suggests Nicholas Serota, the Tate Director who has also curated the 130 works on display, some of which used so much colour they left Matisse recovering in darkened rooms for the benefit of his eyesight.

“He knew exactly what he was doing. He had the confidence to just be able to cut into the paper and use his awareness of the shape of the human body.

“You look at the way he creates the arch of the back of the acrobat – it was an astonishing achievement.”

An image showing an abstract cut-out of a man against a blue and yellow background
Henri Matisse, Icarus (1946). Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz, 1947© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet. Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013
Four blue nudes, last seen in Paris two years ago and joined at a New York retrospective in 1992, curve sensuously from the walls in their first collective rendezvous in Britain. Equally rarely, The Snail has remained hidden since its clutch of coloured squares went to the Hayward in 1968.

“I think it was at the forefront of our minds when we began thinking about this exhibition five years ago,” says Nicholas Cullinan, the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at MoMA.

The New York gallery has been a key collaborator on the show, reuniting The Snail with Memory of Oceania, the follow-up to two earlier works which stand as leaping, diving, bubbly portrayals of the ecosystems Matisse was inspired by on a 1930 trip to Tahiti which influenced him immensely.

At one point they all filled sections of the divine Large Decorations of Masks, which spans a wall with oranges, purples, reds, greens and blues in different hues, interrupted by ghostly faces, dashes of colour and a central cascade of shapes through the core of a butterfly-like organism.

“To have all of these brought back together is really thrilling. You see the works build and build throughout the exhibition, and not just in terms of scale.

“They begin as small-scale designs for books that he can make on his lap, but the potential of the cut-out medium means they become ever-more expansive and ambitious.”

The abiding theme, according to Cullinan, is the excitement of Matisse’s studio, which takes centre stage. A sense of improbable magic, as well as a defiance of the artist’s own circumstances and those of the wartime France he lived in, is constantly at play.

As vibrant as all those colours in their reverberation, the final years of his life represent a remarkable creative crescendo.

  • Henri Matisse - The Cut-Outs is at Tate Modern from April 17 - September 7 2014. Sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Hanjin Shipping. Admission £14.50-£18 (free for under-12s). Book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @Tate. See Culture24 this week for more from the exhibition.

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