Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, Tate Modern (2014)

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)


I tried to resist going as I’ve been telling myself that it’s often more rewarding to dodge the crowds and go to less hyped shows where there’s breathing space and opportunities to sit and stare. But the upbeat media coverage and rave reviews wore down my resolve and I’m altogether glad they did.

There’s been so much written about the Cut-Outs that I don’t need to write a formal review. Instead I will simply record my personal impressions and the thoughts that were uppermost in my mind as I came away from my visit on 16 May. I hope I can remember them as it is now  2 July!

Matisse began working with the Cut-Outs in 1941 after having been diagnosed with cancer and giving up painting. After surgery he was confined to a wheelchair. Far from being constrained, he found a new creative energy. Many people feel that the Cut-Outs, produced in the final 14 years of his life, form his most influential and masterly works, the culmination of a lifetime of absolute dedication to his art.

Matisse: Drawing with scissors

Matisse: Drawing with scissors

The exhibition includes some fascinating video of Matisse cutting into pieces of paper with an enormous pair of scissors. He seems to have refined his skill to the point where he used instinct and inner sight to shape the pieces of paper to represent sculptural form and organic growth.

I was intrigued to discover that Matisse did not conceive the Cut-Outs as static images and that he used to shift the individual parts around. Photographs show some quite different arrangements to those we see today. I don’t think it was just a case of experimenting to get it right, Matisse thought of these artworks as moveable collage that could be refreshed and rearranged to suit their location. In order to conserve them they had to be fixed permanently in place but you can still see the pin holes that attest to how many times they were shifted around.

Matisse was very particular about his colour palette. It feels to me that it is the colours that unite the whole collection and I found myself absorbed by his colour swatches. I noticed, for example, that a very vivid yellow is often counter balanced by a more mellow yellow. A softer pink often offsets a vibrant orange and so on. Matisse’s palette is uplifting and colourful but it is also has subtleties. Yes, it is bright and vibrant but it is a world apart from pop art’s primary colours.

The paper was painted with gouache by Matisse’s assistants.

Matisse’s blue nudes are for me the most iconic of his works. Seeing these took my breath away, it really did.  In my view they sum up his exceptional ability to simplify line and form and capture the essence of the model or object. I’m reminded, with a chuckle, of the first time I saw Matisse’s work. It was in Venice and I must have been about 17. I was unimpressed by the sea weed and coral like shapes in front of me and thought that any child could do that! It wasn’t until I’d done a lot more art myself and visited many more galleries that I began to appreciate how difficult it is to draw the simple, natural essence of an object or model.

I loved Matisse’s repeated motifs: leaves, seaweed, coral, pomegranates and enjoyed them even more when interwoven with a mermaid and a parakeet!

I’ve made a promise to myself to visit the chapel at Vence in the south of France where Matisse designed the interior including the stained glass, murals painted on white tiles and even the priest’s vestments (exhibited with the Cut-Outs). Starting in 1947 he designed the chapel as an artistic challenge in response to a request from a young nun who had previously helped to nurse him.

This was a  fabulous and memorable visit. I’m grateful to David for coming to the exhibition with me and for treating us to the book which I will treasure!

The exhibition runs until 17 September at Tate Modern in London.


Tate Modern, London
Henri Matisse The Cut-Outs, Tate Publishing, 2014


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