Tate Modern’s major exhibition, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, is the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to the artist’s paper cut-outs. It brings together around 130 works, many seen together for the first time, in a ground-breaking reassessment of Matisse’s colourful and innovative final works.
This exhibition is box-office gold and that is reflected in the crowds that fill the galleries at busy periods, such as Friday early evening when I went. But don’t let that dissuade you – this once-in-a-lifetime show is well worth the effort. And the exhibition is so large that you will soon find space to enjoy the art in your own time.
The cut-outs – figures and forms cut from paper – were originally only used by Matisse in planning the composition for his paintings. But a combination of illness and old age, mixed with a curiosity about the cut-outs themselves, led Matisse to develop this process into an art form in its own right.
It’s a credit to this exhibition that it makes a real effort to explain Matisse’s creative process.
Archive footage of Matisse creating some of these works is projected onto a couple of the walls. Matisse worked fast. Holding the sheet of paper in one hand, he would cut the scissors quickly and decisively through the paper with the other, without conscious consideration, just letting the form, the figure, materialise from his impulses.
Matisse would also live with the murals for some time – often literally. He would pin the pieces on to the walls in his house, even in his bedroom, readjusting them, moving them, playing with the composition until he was happy with the results.
And the results are phenomenal.
Initially Matisse started small, using cut outs to create just 20 images to accompany Jazz, a book of poetry published in 1947. All those 20 images and the text is included in this exhibition and includes such gems as Icarus and The Horse, The Rider and The Clown.
But when Matisse found the confidence to explore the potential of cut-outs, the size of the final works became enormous.
To stand in front of something like Oceania, The Sky with cut-outs of birds, fish, coral and leaves all flowing together in a seamless world, or The Parakeet and the Mermaid with the two central figures swamped by fruit and algae, is quite wonderful.
A real draw to the exhibition is the Blue Nudes – the largest number of Matisse’s Blue Nudes ever exhibited together, including the most significant of the group Blue Nude I. These giant, elegant figures are hung together in a single room and the effect is wonderful. They are beautiful. As well as their strong outlines, definition and contours have been carved into them through the cut-out process.
That Matisse continued to challenge himself at such a late stage in his career (he was in his seventies at this point) is quite remarkable. And he continued to investigate this new method.
He was approached by the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Venice to give advice on stained glass window yet he took this opportunity to create a scheme for the whole chapel. Here he was able to investigate how cut-outs could be used to create the foundation for stained glass window designs.
The finished result, a mosaic-style approach which captured the spirit of the religious experience without being confined by traditional religious imagery, Matisse considered to be “the result of all my active life.”
I’ve only ever seen Matisse’s cut-outs before in isolation – a piece here, a piece there. As a result I’ve not really fully understood their allure and some of the pieces have left me cold, such as The Snail, a mainstay of the Tate’s permanent collection (also on show here).
Yet here, with the pieces brought together again, you finally appreciate what Matisse was achieving. To stand in front of these huge colourful compositions is a wonderful experience. Most definitely worth battling through the crowds for.
Tate Modern London to September 7, 2014
Admission: £18 (concessions available)
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