Matisse’s cutting-edge art at Tate Modern

Matisse Cut-Out

The Sheath c/o Hammer Museum, University of Southern California c/o Succession Henri Matisse

Matisse’s colourful art dances across the walls at the Tate Modern’s new exhibition in London in a joyous five-star show.

Walking around this impressive collection I was overwhelmed by Matisse’s magic. The art is vibrant, striking and refreshingly modern.

It’s amazing what Matisse could do with a pair of scissors and some glue!

These art works dazzle with their startling colours and sheer brilliance. My own feeble attempts to construct collages and cut-outs could never reach these glittering heights.

That’s because Henri Matisse was a superb colourist, printmaker and draughtsman.

Cutting edge

Matisse Jazz

Matisse’s Jazz series c/o Pompidou Centre and Succession Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to the artist’s paper cut-outs. They were made at the end of his brilliant career between 1937 and 1954.

Many of the 130 works are on display for the first time and together they provide a great look at the flowering of Matisse’s art in the final chapter of his life.

During the final 17  years of his life Matisse turned to an entirely new approach to his art, cutting shapes from painted paper.

It was partly out of necessity because of Matisse’s health problems which limited his mobility.

It’s strange to think that as his physical strength declined, the ambition and scale of his art grew ever stronger.

He would cut into painted paper with scissors to make everything from large cut-outs to stained glass windows, tapestries and ceramic designs.

Some of my favourite works from the show are Matisse’s striking Jazz cut-outs made between 1943-1947.

These colourful works were inspired by scenes from the circus or theatre – and then given the name ‘Jazz’ to reflect their improvisational quality.

There’s a great feeling of movement, fluidity and musical rhythm when you look at these works. I can imagine myself in a 1940s theatre or circus soaking up the atmosphere and watching the dancers, acrobats and performers.

Alongside them are the original maquettes and hand-written notes made by Matisse in large letters. The rhythmic style of the artist’s ‘handwriting’ is almost as beautiful as the works themselves.

Everywhere you look, the art moves, dances and glides across the walls of the galleries. Another favourite is this circus scene which gallops as you look at the colours and shapes.

© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

The Horse, The Rider and The Clown © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais and Jean Claude Planchet
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Colour explosion

Every room in the Matisse exhibition is a riot of colour.

There’s one room featuring the largest number of Matisse’s Blue Nudes ever exhibited including the famous Blue Nude I from 1952.

Matisse Cut-Out

Matisse’s Blue Nude c/o Foundation Beyeler. Photo – Robert Bayer

These works reveal Matisse’s renewed interest in the figure. Their curvy shapes are sensuous and rhythmic.

The striking blue colours on a white background emphasise the lines of the body which take on an almost sculptural form.

My favourite Matisse quote describes his new style of working perfectly:

“It is no longer the brush that slips and slides over the canvas, it is the scissors that cut into the paper and into the colour.”

He talks about this being a very different artistic journey from his oil paintings. We’re also taken on this journey of discovery by the exhibition.

The exhibition brings alive the works and shows them off to great effect. I could imagine Matisse shuffling around his cut-out colours and re-arranging them as he worked in his studio.

One thing did raise a wry smile. An old film of the painter being helped by a beautiful studio assistant who placed his cut-out paper in the correct places on the canvas as Matisse pointed to the spot with a large stick.

The muse and master at work. What a thought!

Matisse raised this “painting with scissors” to a new art form,  calling it ‘papier découpé’. An artistic jigsaw puzzle.

Another of my favourite cut-outs from the exhibition is called Oceania – The Sky. These strident images cover the walls with their flitting shapes of birds, fish, leaves, tendrils and coral.

It’s like swimming in a brilliantly-coloureed ocean looking up at the skies. A joy to behold.

Patterns and dancing colours

Matisse's The Fall of Icarus (1943). Photograph: Alberto Ricci/© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

Matisse’s The Fall of Icarus c/o Alberto Ricci/© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

I love Matisse’s decorative patterns as much as his vibrant colours. No room conveys this better than a gallery space showing the interior of Matisse’s house and studio at the fabulously named Villa Le Reve in Vence, Provence.

At the studio Matisse composed his cut-outs and placed them directly on the walls. He’d pin them, move them around and rotate their positions till he captured the perfect patterns.

Today. these shapes have been traced and glued into their final positions to create the artist’s ideal combination of colours and decoration.

It’s like the perfect wallpaper with a touch of creative genius and artistry thrown in.

Matisse Cut-Out

Matisse’s flowering colours – Large Decoration with Masks. Photo – Guy Bell/REX

In another gallery space you can marvel at Matisse’s designs for the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence.

It’s an amazing story. Matisse had been nursed back to health by one of the nuns from the chapel who later asked him to help design the stained glass windows.

Matisse jumped at the chance to use his eye for colour and pattern to produce a decorative scheme not just for the windows but the chapel as a whole. He even designed the robes worn by the priest.

The artist turned his whole studio into a replica chapel to immerse himself in the project. The results were simply gorgeous.

Matisse called it “the result of all my active life”, a pinnacle of his artistic achievements.

The designs and replica windows at the Tate give a glimpse of the luminosity of the stained glass designs.  It was thrilling to see them because the chapel was closed during my trip to Vence a few years ago.

Outside brought inside

Matisse’s inventiveness is everywhere in the final exhibition rooms including a huge wall piece called The Parakeet and The Mermaid, one of the largest cut-outs made by the artist.

The sheer size of the work hits you as you walk towards it for the first time. Its blue figures and swirling vegetation blossoms across the walls.

By the time Matisse completed it in 1952, he was too frail to leave his house. His solution to being housebound was to bring the outdoors inside.

The exhibition is like walking through Matisse’s studio, a breathtaking journey through colour, light and patterns.

Matisse’s works look as fresh today as when they were conceived. They remain at the cutting-edge.

They’re also an inspiration for a new generation of artists and designers.

Now where did I put my scissors, coloured paper and glue?

Tammy’s top tips – Matisse

© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

The Snail © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs can be found at Tate Modern in London from 17 April- 7 September.

Look out for a programme of talks and special events focusing on the artist throughout the season.

The nearest Tube station is London Bridge. The RV1 bus from Covent Garden and Waterloo (London Eye) will take you slightly nearer to the Tate Modern building.

There’s an admission charge of £18 for the Matisse show. Entry to the rest of the Tate Modern is free.

The Matisse Live film, based on the show,  can also be seen in selected cinemas from 17 April- 3 June if you can’t get to London for the exhibition.

If you have a passion for Matisse, a trip to Vence and nearby Nice is essential. The Matisse Museum in Nice boasts an excellent collection of his work from paintings to drawings and collages.

Matisse lived in Nice between 1918-1954 so it’s worth checking out the buildings associated with him.

The Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence is a short drive from Nice but do check its slightly odd opening hours before you travel. I never saw it despite three attempted trips!

Read more about Matisse and Nice in this excellent Daily Telegraph online feature about the artist’s association with the city and nearby towns.

Tammy on the trail of Matisse in Vence

Tammy on the trail of Matisse in Vence

Photo credits – Paintings courtesy of Tate Modern and  © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS. 


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