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Late Philadelphia artist, friend and ‘68 Tate Fellow Sam Maitin readily cited Henri Matisse’s Cut-Outs as his primary artistic influence. Maitin was not alone in his citations. Other artistically inspired offshoots of the continually creative Matisse, among many, included painter Mark Rothko, who attributed his large blocks of colour to Matisse’s inspiration and artist Lee Krasner, who composed her paintings, then cut them into pieces and reassembled them a la Matisse’s acclaimed Cut Outs.
French born Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954), co-founder of Fauvism, (with Andre Derain), forerunner of Abstract Expressionism and, Modern Art, as we understand the term today, was one of the 20th Century’s most prolific and inventive artists. Never one to court fame, his recognition was slower to arrive than that of many of his contemporaries, but its’ belated arrival has been nonetheless, enduring. Liberator of colour, so much so that he is today, referred to as a ‘colourist’, Matisse’s bold experiments, first in painting and later, via inventive Cut-Outs, subverted a technique previously employed only in relation to pre-positioning forms in paintings, elevating them to an art-form in their own right in the wake of debilitating illness and a serious operation which left him physically weakened from 1941 to the end of his life. The unfolding techniques and seemingly endless possibilities inherent to his creative discoveries lent new emphasis and vigour to his long held passion for colour and forms, including human forms, as in his deceptively simplistic 'Blue Nudes'. Though a self- proclaimed atheist, Matisse considered his designing of the interior of Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, (1948 – 1951), for which he also created stained glass windows and vestments, as an artistic gesture of thanks to the Sister who’d nursed him, among his greatest works. His signature leaf- like forms in glowing yellow seem to float on a sea of blue/green on the floor to ceiling windows there. Ever touching on his abiding links to the natural world, Matisse stated earlier in his long career: “An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythm, by efforts that will prepare the mastery which will later enable him to express himself in his own language.”
Arranging this exhibition must have been a challenge as the artist preferred his works to be displayed as created, rather than according to subject matter – the path exhibitions tend to follow. At Tate Modern, viewers are able to enjoy the best of both worlds, with smaller paintings setting off juxtapositions of Cut-Outs in earlier rooms before horizons expand to the immenseness of multiple Cut-Outs, originally displayed en masse, delighting the senses together, as the exhibition progresses.
Iconic images from Jazz, a series of paper cut collages in colours of vivid contrast, originally meant to accompany a book of poems, became a Matisse composition in its entirety when the publishers decided to use the artist’s descriptions of his artistic process as its text, copies of which are on show here. Viewers enjoy a commanding selection of these seminal works, among them, ‘Icarus’ (1943) and ‘The Horse, The Rider & The Clown,’ (1943 – 44) just two of several on show from the series.
As full of paradoxes as art itself, throughout the exhibition, more is ever, more, never more so, perhaps than in Room 5, ‘Vence, the Studio’, in which a wall full of colourful, individually framed and mounted Cut-Outs hang, affording glimpses into the collective power they once exuded in a room where they shared one very uncommon wall. So uplifting are they at first glance that one succumbs to the temptation to linger before them, focusing on each individual work in turn, delighting in its nuances. Equally alluring are Matisse’s larger works forming centrepieces elsewhere, such as in Room 10, where wall covering ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’ silently and serenely, holds court. Similarly compelling, in a very inspiring way are the contents of Room 13, ‘Acanthuses’ and ‘The Sheaf’, the latter a seeming explosion of colour, prompting that age old artistic question, ‘How did he do it?’ in Matisse’s case meaning, ‘How did he infuse such seemingly simplistic forms with so much life and presence?’, as the work consists of a number of variously coloured shapes relating to the form Matisse is most known for, a frond like one reminiscent of lush jungle growth.
Along the way, others pleasures beckon, such as the notable presence of four ‘Blue Nudes’ (1952), shown together for the first time in the UK. Somewhat irregular blue shapes on gleaming white, suggesting women with their torsos turned showing buttocks and breasts; they have the power to suggest so much more than that which they technically consist of, their presence being their magic.
“I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have a light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me,” said Matisse. In that regard, via the invention and creation of his Cut-outs Matisse has been highly successful, elevating simplistic forms via his uniquely harmonious positioning of shapes and colour in ways that are at once, striking and at their hearts, ultimately, refreshing and exhilarating. Watching film of the elder Master, curving his scissors round turns and up paths leading to new expressionism, after which, assistants position the resulting shapes, cut from painted paper, where Matisse deems they best belong, is nearly as inspiring as it is enlightening. As the artist himself explained: “Paper cutouts allow me to draw in color. I see it as a simplification. Instead of drawing the contour and putting color into it – one modifying the other – I draw directly in color.” He was very effectively, “painting with scissors.”
Tate Director/Co-Curator Nicholas Serota has simply deemed this exhibition a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, and as you move through its rooms, as though through a veritable arbour of creativity, taking in the sights Matisse’s once in a lifetime vision has afforded you, you too will share that view.