There was excessive veneration heaped upon this assemblage of Matisse’s cut-outs for months in advance of its opening. I have always admired Matisse’s work – and he is undoubtedly a Modern Master – but this is not a full retrospective (if it were, and included ‘Le Bonheur de Vivre’, I might understand the hysteria). It is an exhibition of his late career when, unable to hold a paintbrush, his creativity found a new outlet in cut-out paper collages. This a long-overdue show full of joie-de-vivre, and, more than his paintings perhaps, these late works deserve to be seen at first hand to gain the full impact of their method and their sumptuously bright colours. As an exhibition, then, I loved it; its exaggerated billing as the Show of the Century, however, was unnecessary and irrational – indeed detrimental to a more nuanced understanding of his extended career and of artistic modernism more widely.
The Tate is to be praised for its clear demonstration of how the cut-out technique evolved within Matisse’s oeuvre (initially as a compositional aide, whereby cut-out still-life elements could be moved and pinned at will until the balance was satisfactory enough to paint) and for drawing attention to the materiality of the paper and paint. The effect of layering – paint upon paper, cut paper upon paper – makes the collages almost sculptural, or at least something hovering between two and three dimensions. And the myriad tiny pin-holes tell a story of an energetic and exacting creative process, of compositional trial and error, of a living and evolving work of art. Matisse himself appreciated how much life was lost in the printed copy as his series ‘Jazz’ was produced, the cut-outs accompanied by notes in the artist’s wonderfully looping gallic handwriting. ‘The Horse, the Rider and the Clown’ (top) and ‘The Fall of Icarus’ (above) both 1947, are examples of the various themes encompassed within the series.
His cut-out figures seem to float like thistle-down, or dance about manically, little demonic shadows, always full of passion and energy. They appear again in the designs that were commissioned for books and journals – such as that for the cover of ‘Verve’ IV (1945, above). These early cut-out designs begin by trying to imitate the long, sinuous Matissean brushstroke in paper; but soon the artist realises that paper should not pretend to be other than cut paper, and its intrinsically sharp, graphic, colour-block qualities come to the fore. There are designs too – barely contained on the walls of the not diminutive Tate Modern – for the chapel at Vence, its stained glass windows and chasubles, making me long to see the fabled chapel in its actuality.
Abstraction ensues. It comes gradually, with mermaids and parakeets hidden among the seaweed-like forms in a gigantic collaged tapestry of 1952, or faces forming a figurative focus in ‘Large Composition with Masks’ (1953). Then these references are discarded, and in 1953 we have ‘The Sheaf’ (above), an explosion of the motif that Matisse seemed to find so satisfactory and expressive. In contrast, ‘The Snail’ (1953, below) uses simple blocks of coloured paper, that only perfunctorily allude to the creature of the title.
Best-known, perhaps, of Matisse’s cut-outs are the Blue Nudes (below, 1952). Calm and serene, their decorously intertwined limbs are sculpted in searing azure. ‘Blue Nude IV’ (bottom left) was the first attempt at this subject, and the preparatory arcs of charcoal still faintly visible in the background, the cautious, exploratory layering of small paper building-blocks, testify to this. The following versions – all, in contrast, cut from large single pieces of painted paper – appear somewhat less successful, the head either overly large and clumsy, or the legs uncomfortably twisted. The sequence in the abstract, however, is an aesthetic triumph.