I know everyone has been raving about the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition which is currently showing at Tate Modern but I have to admit I wasn’t that tempted. Matisse isn’t one of my favourite artits; although I love the simplicity of many of his drawings, his colours are too bright for me and some of his motifs a little too primary.
So shoot me. Everyone is entitled to their own view and instinctively I just don’t get excited by a lot of his work. Maybe I had just heard the story of ‘The Snail’ too many times and it had lost impact… “Look,” said my mum when I was ill one day, “when Matisse made this he was 83 years old and confined to his bed!” I’m not sure what her point was; I didn’t have assistants who would work under my direction!
But as is often the case this was almost the end of the story and the exhibition tells the story from the start…
In the early thirties Matisse had been working on designs for the Ballet Russe and planned a mural using painted pieces of paper which he could move around. Using large pieces of paper which had been painted by a decorator enabled him to cover large areas of the composition quickly and meant he could adjust his decisions without repainting simply by moving the coloured shapes.
Traditionally, different options for a still life have been planned with a series of sketches to test out alternative viewpoints and arrangements but as Matisse was starting to become unwell he found this tiring and transferred his paper technique as he worked on ideas for his 1940 Still life with Shell. Basic shapes were used to represent the forms and the edge of the table was a piece of string that he could adjust and pin in place.
While he was finding the benefit in this new way of working, Matisse still considered it a means to an end. Indeed he seems to have regarded it as a sort of shameful secret, almost as if he was cheating on the proper way of doing things. He wrote about it to his dealer explaining how he was working but implored “it is not necessary to say anything about this”.
It was with an artist’s book entitled Jazz that the cut-outs made the transition from process to works of art in their own right. The book features images inspired by the circus and theatre and Matisse liked the improvisational nature of the way he was adding many parts to create the images. However when the book was printed in 1947 he was disappointed, saying that printing “removes their sensitivity”.
And he was right. The exhibition shows the orignal maquettes with the printed form below. In the original works you can see minor graduations in the way the paint is applied to the paper, the overlaps and layers that build to create the final shape. In the printed version these have been ‘cleaned up’ to give a much flatter surface. The originals have altered and aged over time as some paper and colours change and perhaps this sense of age adds to their intrugue but they hold more interest for me – being able to see the history of ssembling gives us an insight you don’t get in the flatter printed form. You can see the same thing here in the 1951 cover maquette for the book Matisse: His Art and his Public.
From 1946 onwards Matisse continued to explore and expand. He experimented on a grand scale, covering the walls of his studio. He wasn’t looking for a finish and often decisions were deferred for months as the separate elements were re-pinned, moved, separated, re-joined and swapped around. Many pieces weren’t ‘mounted’ until after his death and at this stage his studio was like a garden as paper fluttered and moved on the walls.
There is a video in the exhibition that shows him cutting with huge dressmaking scissors and at one point he hesitates to consider the form he is creating – the positive and the negative shape. Two alternatives from a single sheet. The tools had changed from brush to scissors but he was still working out his process.
In the catalogue you can see nine alternative states of Blue Nude IV. This was the first of the series to be started and the last to be completed. The process developed and the other works have shapes cut more decisively from single pieces of paper as he became more confident in his approach.
In a letter to a friend dated 22 February 1948 Matisse wrote “The walls of my bedroom are covered with cut-outs. I do not yet know what I shall do with these new cut-outs,” he wonders. And then states; “The result is of more importance than it would seem”
The exhibition shows final works, many of which were transferred to canvases and even split up and framed after Matisse had completed work on them. The process he developed, that had such impact, started off as a means to an end, one that he himself didn’t recognise as special at first. Being able to see evidence of the altering decisions through the pin marks shows us that even great masters with finely tuned skills don’t jump straight to a finished result. That’s good to be reminded of!
You have until 7 September 2014 if you’d like to go and see for yourself.