Henri Matisse was one of the outstanding artists of the twentieth century, and if he had retired or died in 1941 when he had health problems that effectively disabled him, his place in history would have already been assured. But what he did as a result of becoming wheelchair-bound then was truly amazing. He reinvented himself and his art, and in fact created a whole new art form with stunning and spectacular results. That reinvention is the subject of this year’s blockbuster exhibition at the Tate Modern.
The first rooms of the exhibition are dedicated to Matisse’s early experiments with the cut-out form. You can see that he first used the format to help plan still-life paintings, but the format took on a whole life of its own. Cut-outs of dancers show lots of use of a limited palette of vibrant blues, yellows, reds and greens. Two Dancers (1937-8) in particular is amazingly three-dimensional, with the drawing pins used to fix the different shapes unashamedly prominent.
A whole room showcases the famous book Jazz (1947), which really launched Matisse’s new direction on the world. The original cut-outs are displayed along with the book versions, really losing a huge amount in translation and demonstrating how important the physicality and the tactile nature of the work is. Having said that, the book still stands in its own right and a magnificent artistic artefact, all the more so as it’s displayed with the handwritten notes provided by Matisse in elegant and bold strokes.
While the early work is relatively small in scale and very colourful, the next room shows the huge and monochrome Oceania pieces, with shapes of birds, fish and coral which Matisse pinned to the walls of his Paris apartment. Perhaps this is where Matisse decided that bigger was better, though the following room showing work from his Venice studio again has smaller individual shapes all displayed with each other in a spectacular kaleidoscope effect . The last two paintings he ever painted are displayed in this room, and you can really see how the cut-outs influenced the style of these.
The famous Blue Nudes are displayed together, minimally, and with earlier bronzes by the artist which shows that even though he may have changed forms, he sometimes repeated motifs. Again the physical depth of the cut-outs is pronounced, something one can never appreciate by seeing flat reproductions.
The last few rooms show the (generally) gigantic works, which for most people epitomise this body of work. The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952) is some 15 feet high and 30 feet long, and is both minimalist (there are only a few standard shapes) and maximalist (with their sheer quantity and colour) at the same time. The Snail (1952) is of course given prominence, but for me, Ivy and Flower (1953) displayed in the same room, is more ambitious and interesting.
The exhibition finishes with a bang, with a breathtaking stained-glass window Christmas Eve (1952), bringing together some of Matisse’s previous themes into yet another new format, one which seemed tailormade for the work he was doing.
It’s amazing and humbling to think that a disabled 80-year-old could produce work like this, especially when you think of the scale of some of the pieces and their sheer youthful exuberance.
Henri Matisse: The Cut Outs continues until 7 September at:
Image: Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks 1953
National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1973.17.1. Digital Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington. Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014