The Matisse Cut Outs on show until 7 September 2014 at Tate Modern dazzles and delights in equal measure says Deborah Caulfield
In the last 13 years of his life, unable to stand for long periods at an easel, Matisse turned to paper cuts, a technique he’d used previously as an aid to composition. He created vast collages, a rich variety of near-abstract works that were the summation of his life experience.
The technique involved carving shapes (freehand!), shearing through large sheets of paper which, under Matisse’s instruction, his assistants had pre-painted with gouache.
The gouaches découpées are celebratory in both content and format, with a modest yet vital message to impart; Matisse is alive and loves life. He shares with us his jubilation at having survived life-threatening surgery for cancer and enjoying the ‘miracle’ of his ‘second life’.
"I feel so healthy these days that it scares me."
This exhibition should perhaps come with a health warning; you may overdose on colour; colours that glow, vibrate, and pulsate. The shapes and compositions, fluid yet exact, are transformative in their impact on our senses. The Lagoon series of maquettes from Jazz (1946) illustrates this point.
Whereas Impressionism captures the transience of natural light in the moment, Matisse’s work comes from a deeper place. If Monet is about appearance, what the eye sees in the here and now, Matisse is about lifetime experience and what the heart feels.
"I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I am forced to interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture."
What Matisse gives us, what he strived for, is the underlying universal truth of his lived experience and interaction with nature. His work speaks to human interdependence and commonality with the natural world, of sharing the planet with other life forms.
"I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share."
Matisse's colour serenades and sweeps us off our feet, sending us scuttling to the gallery shop, not merely for a memento for mum, but for some much needed mauve to relieve the murk in our lives.
Indeed, Matisse wanted his art to soothe troubled minds, like a comfy armchair. It follows that the pictures are large enough to envelope the viewer. Arguably, five meters of red is redder than one metre.
I’d forgotten how big L'Escargot/The Snail is (over 9 feet square) because I’m used to seeing it reproduced in books (a poor excuse as its home is Tate London). The Snail is as near to abstraction as Matisse gets; a distillation, from closely observed drawings in which he saw ‘an unrolling’. The snail is a small creature, yet the life force within is boundless.
Matisse is a man in touch with his emotions and seeking to express them in his art. He’s my kind of man, my kind of artist.
References and links:
- Henri Matisse, Notes of a Painter (1908) http://www.mariabuszek.com/kcai/Expressionism/Readings/MtsseNotes.pdf
- Matisse and Picasso, Resource Guide for Teachers http://www.matisse-picasso.org/education/resourceguide.pdf
- Matisse Museum, France http://www.musee-matisse-nice.org/
- With No Time for Twilight, Matisse Filled Old Age with Vibrant Colours http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/21/arts/design/21mati.html?_r=0
- Henri Matisse – A Second Life by Alistair Sooke (Kindle edition) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Henri-Matisse-A-Second-Life-ebook/dp/B00H7O86US#reader_B00H7O86US
- Multimedia exhibition guide app to download: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/apps/henri-matisse-cut-outs-multimedia-guide-app
- Tate Director Nicholas Serota on the magic of Matisse http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/nicholas-serota-on-magic-matisse
- Henri Mattise, The Snail 1953, Summary http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/matisse-the-snail-t00540/text-summary