Great Escapes

04.16.14

Matisse: Innovator Until the End

Many artists wind down in their twilight years, but not Matisse. He was not only prolific, but also created an entirely new art form with his vivid, cut-out paper works.

Surrounded on all sides by the joyful sweep and thrilling colors of some of Henri Matisse’s greatest work, it is impossible to miss the surge of excitement that coursed through the artist in his 70s and ensured that his final years became some of his most prolific and ambitious.

Suffering from terrible arthritis, wheelchair-bound, and often confined to the studio where he worked and slept, Matisse eschewed paintbrushes, which he found increasingly difficult to use, and created a new medium that allowed him to stretch his love of composition and color further than ever before.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, which opens at Tate Modern in London on Thursday, is a glorious and unprecedented study of his final decade. The project, created jointly by Tate and MoMA, is the largest-ever collection of the artist’s paper cut-out work, including all four iconic “Blue Nudes.” It is scheduled to open in New York in mid-October.

Matisse’s finest cut-outs are reunited in chronological order, sometimes for the first time since he created them, giving you the sense of stepping into the studio where he worked. He often made the compositions by pinning the pieces of paper he had cut directly onto the walls around him. In one room of the exhibition, his vivid, life-size plan for the Vence Chapel includes the outline of the door to his studio.

The vibrant work that Matisse built on the walls of his studio allowed him to escape his frail body. “They are not just tableaus that he makes and then sends off, he is often making things for his own amusement,” Nicholas Cullinan, curator of modern and contemporary art at MoMA, told The Daily Beast. “He talks about ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’ being a garden because he could no longer go outside. All the things outside the artist’s realm—because he is essentially confined to his house—he brings to him using the cut-outs.”

His continued enthusiasm for his work, when most other people would have long since lapsed into retirement, was remarkable.  In 1953, he was commissioned by a family in Los Angeles to make a ceramic work for their home. In a frenzy of activity, he set to work filling the wall of his studio. “When the patrons saw it they said, ‘Well, that’s wonderful, but it’s about three times larger than we can accommodate.’ What Matisse did was extraordinary—this is the final year of his life and he made no fewer than four different compositions before they accepted it,” said Cullinan, the co-curator, at the launch of the show in London.

“Most artists develop a late style, but Matisse instead invented a new medium.”

Unearthed video footage and contemporary photographs from the 1950s draw you further into the artist’s world, as the curators seek to explain for the first time exactly how and why Matisse chose this form of expression right up until his death at the age of 84 in 1954.

Matisse first used paper as an aid in his composition process before marking his canvases in the 1930s. In the ‘40s he used cut-out paper shapes to illustrate a book called Jazz. He was disappointed in the printed version, which lost the layered, structural feel of his original cut-paper works. He recognized that the paper cut-outs could become an art form in themselves. “Most artists develop a late style, but Matisse instead invented a new medium,” Cullinan wrote in the press notes.

The sheets of paper he used were pre-painted by his assistants, before he cut directly into the color with his scissors. In his own words it was “the linear equivalent of the sensation of flight.” That feeling of gliding into the color is perhaps best exemplified by the “Blue Nudes,” which have been gathered together only a few times in the last half a century.

After watching the footage of her great-grandfather at work during the opening of the show, ++Sophie Matisse said: “To see him cutting … his scissors look like they just swam through the paper. To see his intent, his focus, it was like he’d done it a million times before. It’s very beautiful and surprising.”

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries and co-curator of the exhibition, said he had wanted to stage a show about Matisse’s masterful paper work for 30 years. “It’s an astonishing achievement to do that with just cutting into the paper with the sense of what the contour of the body was about; the accumulated awareness of the shape of the human body, particularly the female form,” he said.

Decorating the chapel in Vence, an ancient hill town where Matisse had moved to escape the ravages of the Second World War, was his first commission on a grand scale. He designed everything from the enormous decorative stained-glass windows to the liturgical vestments worn by clergy, and would come to consider it his greatest work.

“He saw this [technique] as a way of breaking free of the constraints of painting. You wouldn’t expect him to be able to make a painting on this scale at that age. The Vence was his first opportunity to do a big grand decorative scheme and of course he threw himself into it,” Serota said.

Don’t miss this once-in-a-generation show, where you can throw yourself into Matisse’s world.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on display at Tate Modern in London through September 7. The exhibition will then be on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City from October 25-February 8.