A sight for sore eyes, Matisse: The Cut-Outs is an impressive exhibition which is a joy for the viewer to walk through a journey of the last chapter of his career.
120 of Matisse’s cut-out works are displayed in 14 rooms which makes this a unique retrospective and opportunity to get acquainted with the artist’s final body of work. Each room displays a project or stage in those last 17 years of his career which makes absorbing his work easy. It also allows the viewer to contrast and see his progression through to his final piece.
Matisse stumbled upon the cut-out technique serendipitously. A major operation meant he was unable to stand for long periods of time. Drafts of paintings for commissions were arranged using cuttings from painted paper which were then pinned to a canvas. His reduced mobility perhaps forcing him to focus on the cut out technique.
This simple process helped him stay true to the Fauvism art movement in which he was considered a leader.
‘I have developed a form purged down to the essentials’. By cutting directly into colour, he is said to have realised one of his greatest ambitions, solving the ‘eternal conflict between drawing and colouring’.
Matisse also spoke about the difference between applying colour via a brush and making incisions into colour – cutting gives it life.
The cut-outs are defined by bold and bright colours. Compare that to some of his earlier works and paintings such as The Piano Lesson, where grey largely dominates the piece, you would have thought it was an entirely different artist. It almost seems like he was having fun in the final stages of his career, letting his inner child express how he felt.
The room I spent most time in was Room 3 which laid out the impressive album Jazz. Printed in 1947 and taking four years to complete, viewers can compare the original compositions and beautiful hand-written notes to the printed book.
But on seeing the published book, Matisse was unhappy with how his work seem to lose the contrast of layers, thus printing ‘removes sensitivity’.
And Matisse is right. There’s something nice about seeing the many layers and the roughness and texture of the paper which seems to add another dimension. One of the reasons I adore the cut-outs is the vibrancy which seemingly helps the pieces jump off the canvas; some of this colour is lost however in the printed edition. This is exemplified by those focused around the circus and his fascination with dancers – silhouette performers seem to glide through the air.
What the printed reproductions of Matisse’s work also fail to convey is the sheer size of some, particularly those in the latter rooms. The cut-outs begin to shift from canvas to entire walls, filling rooms with beautiful shapes and colours.
Room 9 – Blue Nudes shows a new technique which advances from cutting silhouettes to imparting contours via cuts. Room 10 – The Parakeet and the Mermaid offers a beautiful wall decorated in colourful seaweed and jellyfish from floor to ceiling. It’s rather therapeutic staring at this piece as it draws you in. Floating underwater, I can feel my shoulders sink as I relax. Room 12 displays one of Matisse’s most known masterpieces – The Snail.
Possibly the most abstract of the cut-outs, large blocks of coloured paper are used to create a loose spiral to represent the unfolding of a snail’s shell. Sure, maybe if you were looking at a giant snail dressed in a multicoloured dream coat through a kaleidoscope…
The exhibition also features two videos of Matisse at work. What’s noticeable is the speed at which he cuts and often sheers through the paper with such conviction. I did wonder how much pre-thought was required before scissors met paper or were the shapes dictated by feeling. I also thought the size of his scissors were more akin to an opening ceremony!
In a world of new wave contemporary art which focuses on shocking the viewer (I’m looking at you Chapman Brothers), it’s nice to just look at something which makes you smile because it’s pleasant to look at.
Usually there is one highlight or stand out piece when I review an art exhibition, but I couldn’t pick a favourite room. While Jazz is a strong contender, how can you ignore The Parakeet and the Mermaid or the Blue Nudes? This is testament to the curation and arrangement of the exhibition. Each room offers something different and it’s particularly pleasing to see his work get larger as to does his ambitions.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs has to be the best art exhibition of the year I will review this year in London.
“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”
There can be no doubt Henri Matisse achieved this.
Mattise: The Cut-Outs is on display at Tate Modern until 7 September 2014.
For more information on Henri Matisse, I highly recommend watching Alastair Sooke’s Modern Masters documentary below.
Liked this review? Why not share it or check out more of my art exhibition reviews in London?
What was your favourite Matisse work from The Cut-Outs? Tell me in the comments section below!