Colin Hambrook reviews a touring exhibition by one of the most important French painters of the 20th century
I recently caught the touring exhibition of Matisse's lithographs at Victoria Art Gallery in Bath and found myself pondering the effect that Disability Arts is having on the approach curators take when putting exhibitions together.
The collection of lithographs was prepared under Matisse's direction, very shortly before his death in 1954. The images are carefully rendered copies of the cut-outs he made using scissors and coloured gouache paper. It was a technique Matisse had been developing since 1941, when he fell ill and became a wheelchair user.
I was excited by the fact that the supporting material presented the artist's impairment in a positive light. It wouldn't have happened five or 10 years ago. A photograph shows Matisse in a wheelchair, scissors and paper in hand. He is in the process of creating cut-outs for The Parakeet and the Mermaid.
Behind the artist a wall is filled with an assemblage of the forms, which make up the finished work. There is maybe nothing unusual there but, instead of the supporting text either saying nothing about the artist's disability or presenting him as a tragic genius, it describes how Matisse was guided towards making this work as a natural development.
To my knowledge the cut-outs - which Matisse is most remembered for - have never been discussed in an exhibition before as having been made as a direct result of impairment issues.
The technique was an obvious choice as it meant he could work at a table with his ideas for bringing colour and shape together, fermenting in his mind, using scissors as a drawing tool. With reference to this, Matisse said: The paper cut-out allows me to draw in the colour … instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it …I draw straight into the colour.
The exhibition consists of 40 colour lithographs, printed by the Mourlot and Draeger Brothers and published in the form of a limited edition artist's book entitled Verve by Tériade in 1958, four years after the artist's death. It includes many of Matisse's iconic images, including The Snail - the original is owned by Tate Collection and usually on display at London's Tate Modern - as well as the Blue Nudes.
Curating from a disability perspective is an important and powerful challenge and one that I hope will become more widespread. As I was walking around I overheard a woman talking to her friend. I had no idea he was confined to a wheelchair. What a shame. I suppose this was all he could do, she said.
The intensity of Matisse's vision and the level of achievement he realised went over her head. But his issues as an artist are exposed in a way that engages with disability. It's a healthy exposure, which I believe promises to help raise the debate about disability arts in the long run.
Matisse Late Works 1950-1954. Verve No 35-36, 1958
The French painter, sculptor and designer Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was one of the 20th century's most influential artists. His vibrant works are celebrated for their extraordinary richness and luminosity of colour.
The lithographic reproductions in the exhibition are taken from a special double issue of Verve, a review of art and literature, published in 1958 by Tériade, a major publisher of livres d'artiste, fine books illustrated by the original graphic work of contemporary artists.
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