Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, Tate Modern, art review

4.00

Matisse's cut-outs are ecstatic though controlled

“From the moment I held the box of colours in my hands,” Henri Matisse said of his discovery of painting. “I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”

Born in 1869, the French artist made his name by shocking the Parisian art establishment with paintings so bold and brilliant that he became known as a “wild beast” of colour.

The job of continually reinventing his art assumed a new urgency in the last 15 years of his life. He was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1941 which prevented him from painting. He was 71. Out of suffering, he produced some of his most astonishing and accomplished works: the cut-outs.

A new exhibition at Tate Modern, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, includes 130 works made from the late 1930s until Matisse’s death in 1954 at the age of 84. Matisse regarded his recovery as une seconde vie, a second life. It was a gift of time.

During his convalescence, he began working on the cut-outs in earnest. He cut shapes out of paper painted in bright gouache colours and pinned them to the walls of his bedroom-cum-studio in Nice, then Vence in the South of France. “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self,” he said. “Free, liberated.” That sense of freedom is conveyed directly to the viewer.

The cut-outs were simple and revolutionary. The graphic iconography of The Snail (1953, below) and the four Blue Nudes (1952) predate our ad-mad world. They predate Pop Art. The images have been reproduced as posters, sent as greeting cards. The task of this exhibition is partly to invigorate what we feel we have seen, even if we have never seen the originals. And it does just that.

 

Walter Benjamin wrote that the original work of art, as opposed to the reproduction, has an “aura.” The later cut-outs certainly do. They start small and get bigger and more wonderful as the exhibition goes on, indeed, as Matisse neared the end of his life.

There were other difficulties. In 1941, France was under Nazi occupation. Matisse’s wife of 41 years had recently left him due to his close relationship with his Siberian model and assistant Lydia Delectorskaya. His daughter would soon be arrested and tortured by the Nazis because of her work for the Resistance.

The cut-outs are ecstatic though controlled. Matisse described the process of making these staggeringly bright, large-scale works as “painting with scissors.” Rather than painting onto canvas, he was cutting “in” – making incisions. There is no sense of surgery, however. There is little sense of conquering, violating, penetrating – all those metaphors of creativity associated with the “modern masters” of the 20 century. Instead, these works are exultant; they make you feel happy, high, vital, which is what the artist intended.

Henri Matisse 1869-1954 The Snail 1953 Henri Matisse's 'The Snail'

Most fascinating is the way they encompass so many different forms at once: sculpture, drawing, painting, and even our contemporary idea of installation. There is archive footage here of Matisse in his studio, wielding his large pair of shear-like scissors, cutting out the shape of a yellow frond. Pieces of cut-up paper lie on the floor around him. His hands are aged, but his use of the scissors is supremely confidant. He was confined to a “taxi bed” and relied heavily on Delectorskaya, who appears in the film in a purple head scarf, red lipstick, her hair a shocking blonde. She is pinning the shapes that he has made to the wall.

The early cut-outs were small, experimental. Here the sculptural element comes to the fore. Matisse accepted a range of commissions, from his stunning illustrated book Jazz (1947) to set design. Two Dancers (1937-8) is a maquette for a stage curtain design for the ballet Rouge et Noir.

A black figure waits with arms open to catch a white figure, suspended above. She is mid-jump. Her arms are splayed gracefully and she trails yellow fire or perhaps feathers in her wake. The background is a rich blue. The image is assembled from bits of cut-up paper painted with gouache and pinned to the page of a notebook. The drawing-pins are visible and the pieces of paper cast shadows where their edges rise. The surface is textured. The image is precise yet raw. It seems to have been made by Matisse in the spirit of the dance itself: choreographed and spontaneous at once.

The ballet was set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony #1, which so enthralled Matisse that he translated the music into a system of colours, which the choreographer Léonide Massine then turned into a series of symbols. Black = violence, red = materialism, yellow = wickedness, white = man and woman, and blue = nature.

Henri Matisse's 'The Fall of Icarus' The system perhaps resonates with a later work, The Fall of Icarus (1943). The Greek myth of Icarus, whose father gave him wings of wax which melted when he flew too close to the sun, is shown as a white figure cut out of a vertical black strip. Icarus seems to be falling through a tunnel of darkness crafted especially for him. His arms flail awkwardly; there is nothing to hold onto. If black equals violence, then he is trapped within it.

A red spikey flame shape is pinned to his chest, suggesting the panic and passion of a beating heart. Here the act of pinning becomes violent – it points to the crucifixion. Yellow spikey stars surround him – he has been cornered by fate. It could be argued that the work is an allegory of Nazi aggression. Matisse was never a political artist, but these wartime cut-outs are menacing in ways that the later ones are not. This is a much reproduced image, but the original has retained its power to move.

Most beguiling about Matisse is the way that he saw art as part of life, indeed, as a way to make life better. The photographs of him drawing in bed recall Frida Kahlo. During convalescence, she too transformed everything – her room, her bed, herself – into art. The cut-out is ephemeral, made to be unpinned and moved around. It would seem to be the opposite of monumental art, but in fact it is just that – and decorative too.

Oceania, The Sky (1946) is a vast silk screen that shows birds soaring through a muted sandy-brown field of colour. The work originated as a swallow that Matisse had cut out of white writing paper and then pinned to the wall of his studio to cover a stain. The idea of throwing away such a beautiful shape had distressed him. Gradually, he added other cut-out birds, plants, fish, inspired by a trip to Tahiti years before. The walls of the studio were transformed into the limitless space of the sky.

As the scale of the works increases so too does the intensity of the feeling of looking at them. They communicate a sense of the sacred, though most are secular. Even the religious commissions convey no guilt, no shame, no punishment.

Henri Matisse's 'The Parakeet and The Mermaid'

The Parakeet and The Mermaid (1952) is a phenomenal work of cut-out paper green and blue underwater fronds on a white background. The forms seem to move in harmony with one another; there is no point of antagonism. The mermaid swims, a blue abstraction that only hints at figure, in the upper right hand corner. She is not at odds with her environment; she is separate but part of it.

Despite the seeming violence of the cut-out method, these works are not fragmented. They do not express brokenness and alienation, like so much of Modernism. Rather, they are whole. “I don't know whether I believe in God or not,” said Matisse. “But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.”

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs runs from 17 April to 7 September at London's Tate Modern, with tickets costing £16.30

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform