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Tate Modern’s comprehensive exhibition of the beautiful and compelling works Matisse produced in the last 17 years of his life, by means of cutting shapes from painted paper, is nothing less than a dazzling treat. And as an informative and insightful reassessment of the cut-outs, it does much to establish their rightful place on the cutting-edge of 20th-century art history. Around 130 works are included in the exhibition, including four versions of Blue Nude (1952) shown together in the UK for the first time.
What the exhibition does well is to demonstrate, through its chronological hang, how Matisse used the technique of the paper cut-out as an aid to painting and for book and design commissions before realizing its potential as a new art form in itself. In a suite of 14 rooms we see the cut-outs from early experimentation to increasingly bolder and larger compositions. Film clips allow us to appreciate the collaborative nature of Matisse’s working method. One clip shows the avuncular artist with his large tailor’s scissors, cutting long strips out of a large sheet of paper with calm certainty and then handing them to a young female assistant who pins them to a ‘maquette’ (cut-out model) or to the wall, according to his instructions.
The story is told of how the 74-year-old artist took to working with paper and scissors in 1941, when ill health after a gruelling operation for bowel cancer prevented him from painting. The technique of ‘papier collage’, to use the French term, was not new to Matisse at the time. Driven by his self-professed desire to produce an art of balance, one of the methods Matisse had evolved for self-expression early in his career was what he called ‘colour transposition’. This process involved changing the areas of colour in a composition until a combination was found that produced a harmonious balance between juxtaposed areas of colour. He would cut the desired shapes from various papers, each painted in a different colour, and then compose them in different ways. This way of working is demonstrated at the beginning of the show in two works, both entitled Still Life with Shell, one in oil on canvas and another made later from paper cut-outs, allowing the artist to rethink the composition of the shell, coffee pot, jug and other elements to see if a different arrangement would work better.
Favourite shapes are repeated in Matisse’s work. The floating body shape of The Fall of Icarus (1943),for example, is reworked and seen again amongst some of the maquettes for the 1946 book Jazz. Equally, the small cut-outs of birds, fish, coral and leaves in the Oceania series from the same year appear in different constellations and juxtapositions elsewhere. It is as if Matisse is dredging up from his memory stores of images from the natural world, as he is increasingly confined to the indoors. The Oceania series was inspired by his trip to Tahiti 16 years earlier. Images and shapes from the natural world continue throughout the show. One wall has a cluster of works in different shapes and sizes all featuring the leaves and tendrils that became such a strong feature of the cut-outs.
When Matisse was designing the large stained glass windows for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, he went back to these leaf shapes for his final design. Sadly, maquettes of these beautiful windows are not included here, which is a shame as Matisse himself considered the chapel his masterpiece. In 1947, he had taken on the entire decorative scheme for the chapel. His maquettes for preliminary designs of windows, panels and priest’s chasubles indicate the size of the project, which took four years to complete.
By the end of the Chapel project, the female nude returns as subject matter in Matisse’s art. Zulma, from 1950, and Creole Dancer from the same year, are outstanding examples of a renewed vigour and confidence in his medium. In the former, the artist has created a new sense of depth in the composition by letting the nude of the title lean against an angled table into the picture space. Next to it, Creole Dancer – created entirely from leftover strips of paper – is a deliciously exotic and abstract image of a female figure.
Despite all these riches, the four versions of The Blue Nude from 1952, shown together for the first time, form the high point of the exhibition. They are shown alongside four early bronze nude statuettes, enhancing our understanding of them as sculptural, The Blue Nude being probably the most striking example of the artist’s cutting technique as a form of sculpture. Matisse himself called it ‘cutting directly into colour’ because of the way he cut not just the outlines, but contours into the figure.
In his last four years, Matisse’s work increased in scale with designs for huge wall panels such as The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952), which dominates an entire room here. The mermaid and the parakeet of the title nestle among fruit and algae-like forms, typical of Matisse’s representation of nature. In fact, Matisse, who was by this time too frail to leave his house, described the work, while it was in progress in his studio, as his garden. Complementing it here is the frieze-like composition Women with Monkeys. In both of these, arguably, the ailing artist is linking nature and female sensuality. The Large Decoration with Masks, from the same year, was intended as a design for a ceramic panel. In its schematic order, Matisse seems to have drawn on memories of Moorish design, but to me it lacks the energy of the two previous works.
More exciting is Matisse’s late abstraction. Memories of Oceania, a striking image that shares qualities of abstraction with The Snail from 1953, undoubtedly one of Matisse’s most abstract works. These two extraordinary works were originally intended to form one large composition with Large Decoration with Masks at its centre. While that never happened, Tate Modern has managed to show the three works together for the first time since they were made in 1953.
‘A second life’ is how Matisse referred to the period from his unexpected survival in 1941 to his death in 1954. It was an immensely productive period that saw him producing highly original and ground breaking art with his ‘cut-out’ technique and concluded with his satisfaction at having achieved what he had set out to do as an artist, namely to produce art that is joyous.