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This is Tate Modern’s most visually stunning, historically significant and emotionally gripping exhibition since 2002’s Matisse Picasso. Revealing in unprecedented scope the breakthrough works of the artist’s final decade, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs deepens our comprehension of his entire oeuvre, positioning Matisse more clearly than ever as the modernist master whose continuing impact on western art cannot be exaggerated.
In a staging full of grace, surprise and once-in-a-generation loans, curated to allow Matisse’s vision to ring out, the show demonstrates how many of his later concerns – with hybridity, spectacle and immersive installation – became those of artists today. The show feels both timeless and timely, classical and open-ended.
Matisse called the years after his recovery from a life-saving operation in 1941 “ma seconde vie”. Frail in body but rejuvenated in spirit, he found painting physically difficult and began instead to cut with tailor’s scissors into sheets of coloured gouache paper, pinning forms on his studio walls that shifted and evolved before being glued into place and framed.
The association of these “chromatic rhythmic improvisations” with music led to the title “Jazz” for his first, brilliant-hued group of cut-outs referencing circus characters, begun in 1943. The trapeze artists in “The Cordomas”, the equestrienne in “Horse, Rider and Clown” and the darting “Swimmer in The Tank” celebrate the flexibility of movement denied to the elderly artist. More tragic figures reflect the wartime ambience: “Icarus” falling from a sky whose yellow stars imitate exploding shells; the tumbling female form, rolled up in a ball, in “Toboggan”; the white couple clinging together in the face of fate, as suggested by great swathes of purple and black, in “Destiny”.
Others – “Knife Thrower” or “Sword Swallower” – imply a violence contradicting the beauty of their pure forms. Syntheses of line and colour unlike anything Matisse had made before, all these figures are simplified nearly, but not quite, to the point of abstraction. Cutting directly into paper, Matisse found a solution to the tension between drawing and colour that had occupied his career: he formed the contours of a shape and its internal area simultaneously in collages that were not exactly paintings but had the scale and chromatic intensity of paintings; not quite drawings, although Matisse’s scissors were precise as a pen.
This cut-out medium unleashed a burst of creativity and inventiveness rivalled in 20th-century late work only by Monet’s Giverney paintings. A contingent aesthetic – a resistance to the finality of death? – gives the cut-outs their youthful energy, while Matisse’s excitement at the potential of the new form contributes to their sense of proliferation, flux and spatial expansion.
Tate marvellously recreates a wall of Matisse’s studio between 1945 and 1947, pinned with experiments – violet leaves, red masks, a “Negro Boxer”, white spirals, a flattened “Eskimo” head, and anthropomorphic suggestions, fluttering, bending and surging.
The overall decorative intent, and idea of the atelier as its own subject, reprises Matisse’s earlier concerns from major paintings such as “The Red Studio” (1911) to the Barnes Foundation’s mural “Dance II” (1932-33). Now this experience was distilled and extended as the cut-outs enlarged in scale, diversified in tempo.
“Oceania” (1946) developed from the undulating forms of “Jazz” but took its imagery of coral, fish and sponges from Matisse’s memories of a trip to Tahiti. Working with white forms on a beige surface to suggest light without shadow, Matisse was looking for an ethereal effect of what he called “cosmic space”. The new postwar serenity and all-enveloping scope heralded the beginning in 1947 of his designs for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, for which cut-outs were transformed into stained-glass windows.
Matisse’s aim here was “taking a closed space of reduced proportions and, through a play of light and colours alone, conferring infinite dimensions on it”. This austere/sensuous result was widely acclaimed – “Everything is joy and limpidity, youth. Your work has inspired me with courage,” Le Corbusier wrote after visiting the Chapel – though not by the fiercely secular Picasso, who recommended his friend do a “covered market” adorned with fruit instead.
What Picasso missed, and what this show asserts by contextualising the Chapel designs, is that for Matisse mysticism and hedonism went together. The abundant natural forms dominating the decorative scheme, and the vibrant colours of the chasubles that Matisse also designed – a red recalling “a small island in the sun-baked seas”, yellow referencing parched reeds and bamboo – evoke the landscapes of pleasure recurrent in his painting since the Fauvist “The Joy of Life” (1905), and resurfacing here in the seven-metre “The Parakeet and the Mermaid” (1950), with its ultramarine figures floating among leaves and pomegranates.
The Chapel liberated Matisse into fresh monumentality: cut-outs as a four-metre narrative in “1001 Nights” (1950); as almost pure abstraction in the spirals of “The Snail” (1953); renewing a life-long focus on dance in the majestic “Creole Dancer” (1950), created in a day using leftover scraps of paper. A particular triumph is the way Tate reunites the quartet of monochrome blue silhouettes on a white ground, “Blue Nude I-IV” (1952), displayed alongside associated works, including “Blue Nude with Green Stockings” (for which Matisse ran out of blue paper for the legs) and earlier bronze nudes, emphasising the sculptural presence of the cut-outs.
“If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two,” Picasso had growled in 1907 when Matisse showed his primitivist “Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra”. Half a century later, the cut- out “Blue Nudes” were Matisse’s answer: the quintessence of the human figure, the body reduced to an arabesque, turned in on itself.
Issues of abstraction, figuration and the nature of spectacle resonate throughout this show, but its commanding theme, pertinent in France’s 1940s-50s existential heyday, is faith – above all in the creative endeavour.
“What interests me most is the human figure. That’s what enables me to best express the religious feeling I have towards life,” Matisse insisted. In an exchange with the Rosary Chapel’s Sister Jacques-Marie, he added, “I made this chapel for me.”
“But you told me it was for the Almighty God!”
“Yes,” Matisse replied, “but that God is me.”
‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’, Tate Modern, London, to September 7; MoMA, New York, October 25-February 9 2015