Matisse’s iconic cut-out masterpiece, ‘The Snail’ will be leaving Britain for the first time in 50 years, to be included in the exhibition, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, a groundbreaking reassessment of the colourful and innovative final works of modern art master. Bringing together around 120 works, many seen together for the first time, the exhibition celebrates the period in which Matisse began ‘cutting into colour’ and his series of spectacular cut-outs was born. The exhibition returns to London in 2014.
Henri Matisse is a leading figure of modern art and one of the most significant colourists of all time. In a career spanning over half a century, Matisse made a large body of work of which the cut-outs are a brilliant final chapter.
The drama, scale and innovation of these works, made between 1936 and 1954, remain without precedent or parallel. Matisse’s first cut-outs were collected together in Jazz 1947, a book of 20 plates. Copies of the book, featuring a text hand-written by Matisse, are shown alongside the original cut-outs.
Other major works in the exhibition include Tate’s The Snail 1953, its sister work Memory of Oceania 1953 and Large Composition with Masks 1953 at 10 metres long. A photograph of Matisse’s studio reveals that these works were initially conceived as a unified whole, and this is the first time they will have been together since they were made in Matisse’s studio. Matisse’s renewed interest in representing the figure is demonstrated by his famous Blue Nudes.
When ill health first prevented Matisse from painting, he began to cut into painted paper with scissors as his primary technique to make maquettes for a number of commissions. In the cut-outs, outlines take on sculptural form and painted sheets of paper are infused with the luminosity of stained glass.
These are extraordinarily forward-looking works. They are more like installations or environments than paintings; and they seem very contemporary now. They were a way of collapsing line and colour; at the same time they were a kind of sculpture – carving into pure colour. – Nicholas Cullinan
London is first to host this landmark show, before it travels to New York at the Museum of Modern Art and after which the works return to galleries and private owners around the world.
After 1948 Matisse was prevented from painting by ill health but, although confined to bed, he produced a number of works known as gouaches découpées. These were made by cutting or tearing shapes from paper which had been painted with gouache. The shapes were placed and pasted down by an assistant working under Matisse’s instruction. Some of the later ones, such as The Snail, were of very large dimensions. The technique, explored in his picture book Jazz (published 1947) and other works, opened up new possibilities for him. Matisse said of the technique that it ‘allows me to draw in the colour. It is a simplification for me. Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it – the one modifying the other – I draw straight into the colour’ (quoted in Amis de l’art, October 1951).
His secretary Mme Lydia Delectorskaya described the making of The Snail (letter to the Tate Gallery, 30 March 1976):
The Snail was made in the Hôtel Régina at Nice. H. Matisse had at his disposal sheets of paper painted in gouache by assistants, in all the colours he used for the ‘papiers découpés’. A background of white paper – of the dimensions indicated by H.M. – was put on the wall and the assistant pinned onto it the pieces of gouached paper which H.M. passed to him indicating exactly where they should be placed. When H.M. decided that his composition was finished, it was lightly stuck to the background. The panel was taken down when H.M. needed the wall for a further work. When later on it was sent to Lefebvre-Foinet [in Paris] to be pasted down, before anything was moved, an extremely precise tracing was made to ensure that no changes were made in the composition, not even by so much as a millimetre.