The most comprehensive exhibit ever devoted to his cut-outs at the Tate Modern
By Karen Kenyon
The walls of my bedroom are covered with cut-outs … I do not yet know what I shall do with these cut-outs … The result is of more importance than it would seem.
. –Henri Matisse, letter of 22 February, 1948, to André Rouveyre
Just visiting the Tate Modern while in London is a sight not to be missed. Its spaciousness, its view of the Thames, the Millennium Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral, are enough, it would seem.
But then, of course, the whole point is the art. Exhibits have ranged from the French-American Louise Bourgeois to China’s Ai Weiwei. It is Britain’s national gallery of international modern art, and holds the national collection of British art from 1900 to the present day.
Matisse’s last 17 years were spent cutting shapes from painted paper. … With help from an assistant he would cut the shapes from painted paper, arrange them first on a smaller canvas, eventually on the walls.
On a recent trip to that wonderful city we were fortunate to see “Henri Matisse/The Cut-Outs” in which 14 rooms at the Tate unfold with different aspects of Matisse’s cut-out work. At 130 pieces it is the most comprehensive exhibit ever devoted to his cut-outs, produced between 1937 and 1954. His cut-outs are among the most significant of any artist’s late works.
As we entered the exhibit it felt as if we were entering Matisse’s studio.
Matisse’s last 17 years were spent cutting shapes from painted paper. Because of health problems his mobility was limited and he was eventually in a wheelchair. With help from an assistant he would cut the shapes from painted paper, arrange them first on a smaller canvas, eventually on the walls. As his strength declined, interestingly enough, the sale of his new cut-out style grew.
A video of Matisse with his assistant helps us picture his process, as he uses large tailoring scissors to cut out various shapes, and then directs how they should be moved around on his wall.
They were often secured with pins, giving him the opportunity to re-arrange. Seeing each room it is obvious how much energy and time Matisse spent on this endeavor. Some works are based on earlier paintings – for example his room of Dancers. Matisse had designed scenery and costumes for a Ballet to Shostakovich’s Symphony #1, translating the music into five colors.
One room is devoted to his artist’s book, Jazz, which involves complicated layering. It was originally intended to illustrate some poems, but Matisse’s notes while creating his art were so interesting that they were then chosen as the text instead. The publisher chose the title Jazz, though the images had to do with the circus and theater. However, Matisse liked the connection to the improvisational way the works were created.
[H]is artist’s book, Jazz … was originally intended to illustrate some poems, but Matisse’s notes while creating his art were so interesting that they were then chosen as the text instead.
One room titled Oceanis incorporates cut-outs of birds, fish, coral and leaves. The idea began when Matisse had cut out a beautiful swallow from writing paper. He then noticed a stain on the wall, and decided to pin the swallow to the wall to cover the stain. He then began to cut other shapes that reminded him of visiting Tahiti sixteen years earlier.
Another room brings together cut-out designs for book and periodical covers and provides another film of Matisse at work as we see how he held a sheet of paper in the air, with one hand, while cutting with the other.
From 1943 to 1948 Matisse lived in Vence, in Villa la Reve, and in 1947 he began working on designs for the nearby Dominican Chapel of the Rosary – what he later called his “greatest achievement.” He was approached by Sister Jacques, a young nun who had nursed him through illness four years earlier. Soon he took on the entire decorative scheme of the chapel. He later turned his entire studio and bedroom into a kind of replica chapel so that he was immersed in it all the time. The idea of the complete environment appealed to him. He called the project, “the result of all my active life.”
Once, in Vence, I had the opportunity to visit the chapel and experience the quiet, the solitude, the sacred feeling his simple artful shapes evoke – mostly in yellow (for the sun), green (for vegetation), and blue (for the sea) they led to quiet and a sense of the sacred. What then began as cut-out window designs had become stained glass.
Villa la Reve, just up the road from the chapel, is now an artists’ retreat where groups can stay in residence as they create. The day I visited, a group of Dutch women painters were staying there, and their easels and paintings dotted the large lawns.
After the chapel project Matisse created “Zulma” a work based on a Creole dancer invited to perform in his studio. This composition was made and created when Matisse was 80, and was praised for his radical approach and hailed as the most youthful work in an exhibition of far younger artists.
Matisse’s assistants would help by doing the preparatory painting of the paper with gouache in the colors of Matisse’s choice, then with pin cushions strapped to their wrists and hammers hung around their necks, they would climb a ladder and position shapes according to his direction.
Room 9 of the exhibit in the Tate offers his Blue Nudes. It is the largest number of Blue Nudes exhibited together. These striking images were what Matisse referred to as “cutting directly into color.” His scissors created the outlines of the figure and also carved contours into it. They derived from his earlier sculpted nudes.
As we moved through each room it was apparent how Matisse was evolving as an artist, and yet how connected this later work was to his earlier paintings and sculptures.
In the room entitled “The Parakeet and the Mermaid” we saw one of the largest cut-outs made by Matisse. The two creatures of the title are nestled among fruit and his algae-like leaf forms. Matisse’s assistants would help by doing the preparatory painting of the paper with gouache in the colors of Matisse’s choice, then with pin cushions strapped to their wrists and hammers hung around their necks, they would climb a ladder and position shapes according to his direction.
The exhibit ends with the theme of Christmas Eve. He had often been interested in the connection between his cut-outs and stained glass, even before his experience with the chapel.
On view in that final room is a stained glass piece commissioned for the Time-Life Building in New York. As in the Vence Chapel it conveys the spirit of religious expression without explicitly addressing religious subject matter.
Leaving the exhibit there was a feeling of Matisse’s process. Because of his confinement he was able to, more than ever, take his inner world and bring it to his canvasses, the walls of his studio, the chapel’s walls and to stained glass windows, so that he created, as he said, his “own garden.”
All images of artwork © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014
Karen Kenyon has been published in The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, British Heritage, Westways, and The Christian Science Monitor. She also has two books Sunshower (Putnam, NY) and The Bronte Family (Lerner Publications, Minnesota) She teaches at MiraCosta College and UCSD-X.
Editor Note: This post was corrected to reflect the October 12 opening of the exhibit at MoMA, not October 1 as originally published.