There is a film at the opening of the enormous and ebullient exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at Tate Modern (April 17-September 7). It shows the great man busy at an activity on which he had spent much of his long life: drawing. However, he is not doing so with pen, charcoal, or pencil — but with a pair of scissors. And that made all the difference. In his late 70s and early 80s, Matisse discovered a novel medium, not quite like painting, drawing, or low relief. Essentially he was making works out of segments of colored paper pre-painted by assistants.
These cut-outs were a daring development for such a venerable artist, so late in his career. Even as his life ebbed away, Matisse (1869-1954) continued to be hugely excited about the possibilities of his discovery, filled with ambition and immensely productive. Giacometti, who drew Matisse’s portrait during the old man’s last summer, commented that he was moved to see “a great artist still so absorbed in trying to create when death was at his door… when there was no longer time.”
One of the striking things about this exhibition is that the scale and the daring of the works increase as you walk around, almost until the end. “The Snail” (1953) is effectively an abstract, though as Matisse was careful to explain, an abstraction “rooted in reality.” He had begun by drawing and observing a real mollusc, then it slowly morphed into a “purified sign for a snail,” “an unfolding” in which irregular, roughly rectangular chunks of color seem to turn though space — mauve, green, yellow, orange, blue, and black (the last of which Matisse famously insisted was a color too). It’s majestically stable yet full of movement.
The same is true of “Memory of Oceania” (summer 1952-early 1953), except this is yet looser and more dynamic — evoking the experience of diving into tropical waters, as Matisse himself had in 1930 when he travelled to Tahiti and swam among corals and brightly colored fish. A number of the cut-outs have that hidden wistfulness: they are images of movement and energy, created by an elderly artist confined to a wheelchair. But you would scarcely guess it, from these reflections of joie de vivre.
It was no accident that Matisse made that pilgrimage to the South Pacific in the footsteps of Gauguin. For much of his career he wrestled with an idea that begins with a picture such as Gauguin’s “Vision After the Sermon” (1888). That is: how to make space and volume not with perspective and shadows, but out of pure color. In the series of Blue Nudes from 1952, Matisse does exactly that with amazing economy and force. Simply by cutting lines and contours in a piece of paper, he creates three-dimensional bodies with a melodic flow of limbs and air circulating around them.
In the films on show, you can watch as Matisse snips rapidly and fluently around a form, in a process which felt so free and daring that he once compared it to flight. You could think of the results — a mosaic of paper shapes, eventually glued to a background — as very thin sculpture. The three dimensional aspect is important, though it’s only a matter of a milometer or two: paper-thin. You can see that early on in the exhibition by comparing the maquettes for the illustrated book “Jazz” (1947) with the final printed version. The original cut-outs have much more punch and presence, as Matisse himself acknowledged.
In old age, Matisse was anticipating the future in several ways. Effectively, in the initial stages when the colored forms were simply pinned to the walls of his rooms in Nice, the cut-outs were installations — long before that term was invented. “The Snail” is effectively an example of color-field abstraction, an avant-garde movement represented by American painters such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland; but in 1953 it didn’t yet exist. The late Anthony Caro was happy to accept the description “Matissey” for his own work of the 1960s, made of welded steel, painted in strong colors.
The Tate exhibition itself would have benefitted from at touch of another art movement of the ’60s: minimalism. Especially early on in the show, there are moments when the sheer numbers of small colorful and euphoric works on display jangle and cancel each other out. There is such a thing as too much joie de vivre.
Emotionally, the cut-outs might seem unremittingly upbeat. However, there were plenty of dark notes in Matisse’s own life. His marriage broke up in 1939; the following year he barely survived an operation that left him an invalid. His daughter Marguerite fought for the French Resistance and was captured, tortured, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis. But the point of his art, as far as Matisse was concerned, was not to reflect tragedy and suffering, but to escape into a world of exuberant light and form. In that he was hugely successful. These late works were a triumph: Matisse’s own internal victory over illness and age.
First published at Blouin Artinfo