As a big fan of the work of Henri Matisse I have been waiting excitedly for this new show of his Cut Outs to open at Tate Modern. One of the most innovative painters of the early 20th century, I have always found the work of Matisse uplifting through his fondness for a lively colour palette, and his cut out work does not disappoint; vibrant hand painted papers allow him the freedom to experiment freely, creating an entire symphony in form and colour.
Exhibition guide booklet cover
The show itself fills no less than 14 rooms tracing the development his technique. Very often to work out the arrangement of shapes in his painting, Matisse would make several sketches and also cut out paper shapes, arranging them on the sketches until the desired composition was reached. A quote from Matisse in the booklet accompanying the exhibition states:
“It is no longer the brush that slips and slides over the canvas, it is the scissors that cut into the paper and into the colour. The conditions of the journey are 100 per cent different. The contour of the figure springs from the discovery of the scissors that give it the movement of circulating life. This tool doesn’t modulate; it doesn’t brush on but it incises in, underline this well, because the criteria for observation will be different.” Matisse
It is a good idea to heed these words to fully appreciate the work which follows in the subsequent rooms. Room 3 is entirely given over to the designs for the artist’s book – Jazz. The original idea was that Matisse should illustrate a series of poems, but this was discarded in favour of the flowing handwritten notes he made while cutting out his shapes. I was struck in particular by the comparison of the final printed page when compared to the original cut-out (maquette). As a finished print the work displays vibrant colours and free-flowing forms; but in every case, I felt that the original cut-out had more immediacy and life. It is possible to see the brush strokes on the hand painted papers, the joins in the paper where Matisse has overlapped areas, small pin holes where things have been moved around and areas of repair where small tears and damage has occurred.
The Horse, the Rider and the Clown: plate V of Jazz
All these things give the original cut-outs a lively, painterly feel which is lost in the subsequent prints. Indeed, Matisse himself also observed this and described the printing process as “removing their sensibility”.
Design for an exhibition catalogue
Moving on through the exhibition the progression and development of the technique can be traced and as he became more skilled and confident, the size of the work increased, often quite dramatically. Room 9 holds a full set of what are probably the most famous series of cut-outs – the Blue Nudes. Matisse uses his scissors to cut not just the outline of the figure, but also to create the contours which define the form, a sort of combination of drawing and sculpting at the same time. I have seen many copies and interpretations of the Blue Nudes by other artists, and none come close to Matisse’s own pieces. In this room also are two glass cases containing small bronze nudes sculpted by Matisse earlier in his career and it is easy to see the direct development of the Blue Nudes from these.
While earlier rooms display large-scale work as maquettes for the windows of the chapel in Vence as well as full size designs for the chasuble robes to be worn by the priest, I was not quite prepared for Room 11 which houses “Three Large Compositions”. These are simply gigantic and just one of these would fill the entire wall of an average size home today, and yet here are three pieces which hung together while Matisse worked on and across them simultaneously. Moorish shapes, geometric and leaf forms dance across the canvasses, pin holes are clearly visible showing where Matisse had his assistants move the shapes around for him until the desired composition was finally reached.
Stain glass window design for the chapel at Vence
The Snail, a vast cut out of geometric shapes radiating out from a center point in a spiral shows how Matisse pushed his technique away from direct representation and towards abstraction, calling it “abstraction rooted in reality” and yet the shapes are not carefully cut, instead the cutting is rough and sometimes torn. This work belongs to the Tate permanent collection and is also the subject of the most popular postcard sold though Tate shops.
The final room is small and low lit. Called Christmas Eve it houses Matisse’s cut-out model for a stain glass window commissioned for the Time Life Building in New York City. Matisse acknowledges that in his cutting of the painted papers he needs to cut them as if they were actual glass sheets and then arrange them in such a way that light can shine through in the most sympathetic way. I stood for a while looking from the paper work to the final window (which is lit from behind) and couldn’t help feeling just a little disappointed. Perhaps it is the artificial light which seems to deaden the colours of the glass, or perhaps it is the actual glass itself. Whatever the cause I felt that the finished window had lost the vibrancy and immediacy as well as the painterly feel of the original cut out work.
That said, I was not disappointed by the exhibition as a whole and have in fact seen it twice.
To finish with another quote from the Tate booklet:
“By creating these coloured paper cut-outs, it seems to me that I am happily anticipating things to come. I don’t think that I have ever found such balance as I have in creating these paper cut-outs. But I know that it will only be much later that people will realise to what extent the work I am doing today is in step with the future.”
Prophetic words indeed as the ensuing years saw an explosion in the use of collage in mainstream art due to the birth of “Pop Art” and while it has lost popularity as a fine art medium; it still finds favour with textile artists and also to an extent may have had some influence on the work of paper cut artists.