Let’s not beat around the bush here – this is a stunning, uplifting, joyous exhibition that reminds everyone what Art is truly about. Just entering the exhibition makes you fully aware that you are in the presence of genius. Matisse is so confidant in his style that it appears effortless. The joy comes from the simplicity of the colour, form and patterns that fill the walls of the exhibition.
Matisse’s Cut-outs were made between 1943 and 1954. When his ill health prevented him from painting he began to cut into painted paper with scissors to make maquettes for commissions, from books and stained glass window designs to tapestries and ceramics. He first used cut paper shapes to work out the arrangement of objects in his paintings in order to explore alternative points of view or versions of the compositions. Subsequently they became a method and style in their own right.
This is the first exhibition outside of France to show the original cut-outs from the 1947 book ‘Jazz’ alongside the printed version. The original idea was for Matisse to illustrate poems but instead the flowing hand-written notes he made as he worked were chosen as the text. The colours of the originals are even more vibrant and the shapes even more dramatic than in the published book. Matisse himself felt that the printed version seemed to lose the contrast of different surfaces layered on top of each other. He said that the ‘printing removes their sensitivity’. What is more it is the degree of skill and the incredible technique involved that stand out in the originals.
The exhibition partially recreates the works that hung on the wall of the artist’s studio in Vence in the South of France. Originally the paper shapes were pinned directly to the wall allowing him to change the layout and but later the individual sections were mounted and framed separately. This together with the film that is shown gives an inside look of his working methods. It is fascinating to watch him handle paper with a giant pair of scissors twisting and turning the paper with one hand while cutting with the other and then seeing how his assistant would pin the shapes to the wall.
As the exhibition progresses the cut-outs become more elaborate. There are the maquettes for the windows and ceramic wall panels and priests’ vestments of the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence; the large scale Zulma in which the cut-out shapes create a sense of depth through an angled table; the monumental The Parakeeet and the Mermaid of 1952 with its organic forms and rich colours and the even larger Large Decoration with Masks 1953 set behind glass and now housed at the National Museum in Washington.
A major feat of the exhibition is to show the largest number of Blue Nudes ever exhibited together including the much reproduced Blue Nude I loaned by the Beyeler Foundation, Basel. They take on a completely different quality when you see the cut shapes assembled to form the shape of the female form. It has always been this aspect of Matisse’s work that I have admired the most even beyond his use of colour: the ability to endow such maximum emotional effect with the minimum amount of lines.
The Tate’s own The Snail shows how Matisse pushed the technique further away from representation than ever before but always maintained that it is ‘an abstraction rooted in reality’. The exhibition continues with the designs for two different ceramic panels Acanthuses and The Sheaf. Conservationists have found more than a thousand pin holes in the coloured shapes showing how the layout was constantly adapted.
The show concludes with the cut-out model on a Christmas theme and the resulting stained glass that was commissioned for the Time-Life Building in New York.
If there is just one exhibition in London to see this summer this is it but be sure to book ahead as tickets will be in high demand for this reunited collection.
The exhibition will tour to Museum of Modern Art, New York from 14 October to 9 February 2015.
Words: Sara Faith Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2014
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