The new Matisse blockbuster at London’s Tate Modern is a show of inexorable joy: of that there can be no doubt. With its whimsical vivid colouration, and playful motifs of sea algae and birds, dancers and blue nudes, it is an exhibition which is full of the happy spirit of the Mediterranean. And yet all of this was created during and immediately after a time when Europe was caught up in the ravaged turmoil of the second world war. How Matisse then managed to create such spirited works, not only during a time of such cataclysm, but also when he was himself frail and confined largely to his bed or to a wheelchair, is one question poised by this exhibition. The answer? Colour was Matisse’s escape from the horrors of war, and cut-outs the vehicle with which he entered the last great hurrah of his groundbreaking career in art.
In bringing together this show of over a hundred of Matisse cut-outs, Tate has managed a real coup. For these works, which dominated the last period of Matisse’s creative output, are merely gouache-painted paper, brought together with paper, sizzors and glue. The result are pictures which retain the same vibrancy that they had when they were first made, but are nevertheless so fragile that few ever leave the national art galleries which they now call home. Yet here they all are, together, many for the first time since they were created.
The result is an exhibition which can not fail to please. Starting with the original artwork and resulting first edition of Matisse’s best known artist book, Jazz (which I often paused over in Chelsea’s Taschen store but never purchased before they stopped the reprint, much to my regret), the exhibition moves onto what is essentially the genesis of what is to follow – the Oceana works. With one of the vast works, which originally acted as wall decoration in Matisse’s Paris apartment, featuring figures of the sky, and the other of the sea, these works were inspired by a visit to Tahiti 16 years before. But more importantly, the sea work was pretty much the first time that Matisse used the cut out image of coral, an image which was to become iconic of much of his cut-out works thereafter.
That coral is indeed prevalent in the works that follow, as are the vivd range of colours cut from sheets painted by his dedicated studio assistants. I loved room 5 of the exhibition, which attempts to recreate Matisse’s studio in Vence in Southern France, whose walls were decorated, floor to ceiling, with cut-out works. Seeing the cut-outs grouped together like this makes them come alive as a collection. The variety of colours and shapes and sizes make the corals almost vibrate with the energy emanating from the collected cut-outs, and together the colours sing like an hallelujah chorus.
As satisfying as these collected colours undoubtedly are, I could not help but admire Matisse’s famous blue nudes, all four of which are brought together for the first time. Intrinsically simple in both colour, and the seamless way in which they are cut from a single sheet of painted blue-paper, they really are images to be admired – and as a set they never worked better.
The exhibition ends with Matisse cut-outs on a grand scale, from Tate’s famous Snail (which was the closest Matisse comes to abstract, and in my opinion perhaps the least successful because of it), to The Mermaid in which Matisse intended, through use of bird, coral and fruit motifs, to bring the outside into his studio, something which he surely achieved with all-encompassing effect.
I wasn’t expecting to love this show. I’m not a huge fan of Matisse’s oil paintings which too often appear to me badly executed and fussy. But the simplicity and vibrancy of the cut-outs really appealed to me. It demonstrates the power of composition and the effect which simple colours can have when laid alongside each other. Many have criticised the cut-outs as mere child-play. But that’s a very easy observation to make when the idea has already been generated and all the behind-the-scenes work and planning exhaustibly executed. Masterpieces, perhaps, these works are not. Some may even pass them off as mere wall-coverings. But as a collective they are full of an inherent and enticing energy and joy which fewer more “masterful” artworks will ever be able to generate with such consistency or strength.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on at Tate Modern, London until 7 September 2014