‘I wouldn’t mind turning into a vermillion goldfish’ – Matisse’s cut-outs reviewed

The latest exhibition at the Tate Modern is of the cut-outs created by Henri Matisse in his later years. Mitch Mitchell shares his thoughts.

Henri Matisse – The Parakeet and the Mermaid 1952

Matisse was one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. He died in 1954, and for the last 17 years of his life he suffered from degenerative ill-health. This meant that painting became increasingly difficult for him and so he developed other ways to express his visions.

The exhibition is packed with work and so there’s plenty to see. It’s worth noting that it is also extremely popular and crowded, so more than one visit may be necessary to give everything the time it deserves.

The work on display varies, from pieces that appear quite simplistic, to his work for the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Venice, which is stunningly beautiful. Initially asked to submit designs for the stained glass window, he expanded his remit and not only designed the windows, but took on the whole decorative scheme of the chapel, including the robes to be worn by the priest.

Matisse’s Dominican Chapel

Due to his illness, he did this by using a long wand with charcoal attached, so that he could work on a large scale from the ground. Revising the designs several times he was highly satisfied with the results and called the finished project “the result of all my active life”.

It’s interesting to note how his technique developed over the years, and how the compositions begin to reflect depth. In the work “Zulma”, receding space is suggested by the angled table on which the subject leans.

The work titled “Creole Dancer” is based on pencil sketches he had made earlier of a dancer he had invited to perform in his studio. It was completed in one day, using left-over pieces of paper.

The Creole Dancer

As his health deteriorated, he began to rely more and more on his studio assistants. He would point to the positioning he required, using his wand, and one of them would actually place the paper on to the work in question. Often he would change his mind and instruct them to reposition things. After they had finished work for the day, he would continue until quite late at night, writing notes and inspecting the day’s work to see whether he was satisfied.

Earlier in this period of his life he had created designs for a book, titled Jazz. He was, however, disappointed with the book because, as he said, the printing “removes their sensitivity”, referring to the fact that, in his eyes, that the images lost the contrast of different surfaces layered on top of each other.

Matisse was fascinated by dance and in 1937 began to design scenery and costumes for a ballet choreographed by Leonide Massine to Dimitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No 1”. Matisse translated Shostakovitch’s music into five colours, and Massine gave them symbolic meanings – white for man and woman, yellow for wickedness, blue for nature, red for materialism and black for violence.

The ballet scenery developed from a mural he had created for the American art collector, Albert Barnes. Massine was captivated by the great dancing movement, the grand rhythm of the project and said “That’s the kind of dance I hope to see one day! Wouldn’t you care to help me by redoing it as a ballet set?”

With such an extensive exhibition, laid out over 14 rooms, it’s difficult to convey the breadth of Matisse’s work in such a short space. This quote, however, goes some way to expressing the ambition of his work:

“By creating these coloured paper cut-outs, it seems to me that I am happily anticipating things to come. I don’t think that I have ever found such a balance as I have in creating these paper cut-outs. But I know that it will only be much later that people will realise to what extent the work I am doing today is in step with the future.”


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