Painting with Scissors: Matisse at the Tate

Henri Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern

On Easter Sunday, my boyfriend and I decided to brave the atrocious weather and go to Tate Modern to see the newly opened Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition. On this particularly cold, grey, and gloomy Sunday afternoon, we looked forward to seeing the late works of an artist known as the “wild beast” of colour.

I’ve seen Matisse’s paintings at various exhibition but I wasn’t familiar with that chapter of his life, begun in the late 30s, not long before the artist got diagnosed with bowel cancer at the age of 71 and was unable to paint. During those 17 years, he devoted himself to creating work with gouache-painted paper and scissors, and a significant help from his model-assistants, notably the strikingly beautiful Lydia Delectorskaya. There is a charming video, showing Matisse on a wheelchair who, like a conductor directing the orchestra with his baton, used a long pole to direct his assistants where to position the sheets and hammer them onto the walls with panel pins. His works, initially developed as a working method for exploring alternative compositions and colour arrangements, became artworks in their own right. They would gradually become larger and larger, going beyond the limitations of the page or other surface they were mounted on, into the space, both in his house (during the early 1950s, they covered most available walls of his home) and in public buildings. An example of the latter was the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, where Matisse designed stained glass windows and chasuble robes for the priest.

Henri Matisse: Chasuble 1950-52

Henri Matisse: Chasuble 1950-52 | Image from Centre Pompidou © Succession H. Matisse

In the booklet accompanying the exhibition, we can read that: “In order to understand the relationship between the different elements he was designing, he turned his entire studio – and later his bedroom – into a kind of replica chapel so he was immersed in it all the time.” He was very clearly incredibly dedicated to the process, altering the pinned compositions several times before he was satisfied with the result. In one of the pieces, conservation scientists have discovered 1000 pin pricks, which shows how obsessed the artist was with the right arrangement.

Apart from the Dominican Chapel designs, there were a few things I really liked at the exhibition. One of them was Matisse’s designs for an artist’s book called Jazz – a title which wasn’t really related to the subject but which emphasised the improvisational character of the works. His role was initially to illustrate the poems, but the publisher chose the hand-written notes Matisse was making as he was developing the cut-outs, written in oversized cursive script, “full of the arabesques Matisse so loved,” as we can read in an excellent essay from the Greg Kucera Gallery. According to the essay, Matisse viewed jazz as “chromatic and rhythmic improvisation” and later described it as “Jazz is rhythm and meaning.” It is a shame that although all the text is displayed at the exhibition, it is not translated into English. I managed to find the artist’s introduction to the book, together with some photos on the Cargo Collective website, but no individual notes.

After having written “he who wants to devote himself to painting must begin by cutting out his tongue,” why do I feel the need to use other media than my usual ones? This time I’d like to introduce my color prints under the most favorable of conditions. For this reason I must separate them by intervals of a different character. I decided that handwriting was best suited for this purpose. The exceptional size of the writing seems necessary to me in order to be in a decorative relationship with the character of the color prints. These pages, therefore, will serve only to accompany my colors, just as asters help in the composition of a bouquet of more important flowers. Thus, their role is purely visual. What can I write? I cannot very well fill these pages with the fables of La Fontaine, as I used to do as a law clerk when writing “engrossed decisions” which no one reads, not even the judge, and which are only made to use up a certain amount of official paper in accordance with the importance of the trial. All that I really have to recount are observations and notes made during the course of my life as a painter. I ask of those who will have the patience to read these notes the indulgence usually granted to the writings of painters.

Henri Matisse: Notes from the illustrated book "Jazz"

Henri Matisse: Notes from the illustrated book “Jazz” | Image from Cargo Collective

I thought that these lovely cut-outs really benefited from being printed using a stencil method, where the Linel gouache was painted through stencils cut by hand from thin sheets of metal, which nicely smoothed them out, disguising the imperfections and drawing attention to the composition and colours. I must say that like with Hannah Höch’s works, I find the stains, charcoal marks, and rough edges distracting, though I am aware of the limited capabilities of the painter at that stage to be accurate and I believe it was never his intention. Matisse was actually quite disappointed with the printing, claiming that it removed the sensitivity of the surfaces.

Henri Matisse: The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4 from the illustrated book “Jazz”

Henri Matisse: The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4 from the illustrated book “Jazz” | Image by Centre Pompidou © Succession Henri Matisse

Another thing I quite liked were the Blue Nudes, outlines of female figures with contours carved into them, for I am generally more interested in figuration than flowery shapes. For the same reason I enjoyed Zulma, an image of a figure leaning on a table, which was apparently “widely praised for its radical approach,” as the booklet says.

Henri Matisse: Blue Nude II 1952

Henri Matisse: Blue Nude II 1952 | Image from Centre Pompidou © Succession H. Matisse

But in general, I cannot say that I found the exhibition as fascinating as most of the reviewers (Richard Dorment from The Telegraph claims it will be among the most popular ever staged in this country.) Colourful and pleasant to look at – yes. The explosions of vivid yellows, pinks, blues, violets, magentas, and greens were certainly enjoyable to look at on a bleak day like yesterday. But I must say that the ever-present sea-plant shapes became at some point repetitive and boring. I like Matisse’s paintings and I can definitely see the decorative value of his cut-outs as well as their innovate character at the time. But personally, I can see neither progression in their development, nor depth. For me, the most touching element of the exhibition was the documentation of the process – a testimony to passion and ambition which conquer the frailty and limitations of the body, and give an artist a raison d’être. In 1942, after a serious operation related to the intestinal cancer, Matisse said to to his friend Albert Marquet: “Truly, I’m not joking when I thank my lucky stars for the awful operation I had, since it has made me young again and philosophical which means that I don’t want to fritter away the new lease on life I’ve been given.” Despite gallstones, liver problems, deteriorating vision and insomnia, he retained his desire to create. Unable to leave his house, Matisse turned it into a three-dimensional canvas for anything he wanted to see: “Space has the boundaries of my imagination,” he said. I salute that optimism.