Curator's Choice: Henri Matisse – The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern

| 16 April 2014

Curator’s Choice: Nicholas Cullinan, the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a co-curator of Matisse – Cut-Outs

The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952)

An image of various cut-out paper prints in different colours looking like coral sections
Henri Matisse, The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952). Stedelijk Museum© Stedelijk / Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2014
“This is a work that’s just meant to be a cut-out, it’s not meant to be anything else.

At this point Matisse is filling all the walls of his studio, which is also where he lives. He’s sleeping there, he’s living among these compositions.

What he’s doing is, in a way, amplifying the scale and the ambition. 1952 was an incredibly prolific in his career for the cut-outs.

Over the last five years we did a lot of research into the exact technique and process of the cut-outs, because there were still a lot of unanswered questions.

What we’ve learned is that essentially the assistants he worked with would pre-paint the sheets of paper to a certain colour, to blue, orange, sheets ready to use, and he would then cut out the forms, place them on the wall and reconfigure them.

For the figure of the mermaid, he tried several other figures including the standing blue nude, which is on the facing wall, and the very beautiful blue nude with green stockings, which was originally part of that composition. So these were all the developing compositions which surrounded him in his studio.”

Blue Nude IV (1952)

An image of the figure of a woman in blue cut out on paper against a white backdrop
Blue Nude (IV) (1952). Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas© Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013
“Again the blue nudes look joyful and effortless, which is exactly how he wants them to appear – he wanted his works from this time to seem as if they’d cost him no labour and were spontaneous.

But it was exactly the opposite. He worked non-stop to create these things and I think that’s extraordinary for an artist around the age of 80 to do.”

The Snail (1953)

“It’s not just the scale which is impressive. It’s not just the use of colour, which is dazzling with different blocks of pink, black, green – but it’s the way that Matisse is now so free.

This is probably the work which brings him closest to abstraction of any of the cut-outs. They’re never fully abstract and Matisse always resists the description of them as abstract works.

But if any work is veering on abstraction, it’s this one.”

Large Composition with Masks (1953)

“This is the largest work in the exhibition, some ten metres wide. This was originally begun actually as a commission for a ceramic decoration.

An image of a paper cut out showing colourful flowers masks and columns of blue
Large Composition with Masks (1953)© National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund / Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2014
Mr and Mrs Brody, who lived in Los Angeles, asked Matisse’s son – Pierre Matisse, a very famous gallerist in New York – to ask if his father might make them a ceramic tile decoration for their patio in Los Angeles. And rather like the Vence chapel, Matisse got very excited.

This was his first attempt to meet the commission. It’s an incredible composition: the tessellated form, in a way, harks back to the Islamic tile decorations from much earlier in his career. It brings up this interest in the Islamic form of decoration.

But of course, when the Brodies saw it they said ‘well, that’s wonderful but it’s about three times larger than we can accommodate.’

What Matisse did was really extraordinary. He made no fewer than four different compositions before it was accepted. This is in 1953, the final year of his life.

One of the final works you see in the exhibition, from the facing wall, in the next gallery, is called The Sheaf, which comes from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. That was the composition which was finally accepted.

I think it’s really extraordinary that at the end of his life he’s willing to make four different compositions to satisfy his patrons, it’s really incredible.”

Nuit de Noel (1952)

An image of a design for a stained glass church window showing stars and different colours
Nuit de Noel (1952). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted and mounted on board© The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala Florence / Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2014
“What’s so great about this work and this maquette and this stained glass is just how vivid and joyful and colourful it is.

I think this is one of the most colourful of all of Matisse’s composition. The way he’s using all of these different shades – this wonderful blue, this yellow, orange, green pinks, and just the forms are so lively, the way they’ve become so alive, there’s a sense of movement to this work. I think this is really a fitting conclusion for the exhibition.”

  • Henri Matisse – The Cut-Outs is at Tate Modern, London from April 17 – September 7 2014. Read our Review and follow the hashtag #Matisse on Twitter.

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