There is a tension at the heart of ‘Matisse: The Cut-Outs’, one that pulls between childish simplicity and complexity; between exuberance and violence; between idealism and a certain kind of wistfulness. It is a tension revealed by the title of the exhibition itself: ‘cut-out’. This is a medium that belongs to the tactility and play inherent in a child’s experimentation with art, but one that has been combined with such sophisticated precision that makes it radical and new; full of bold possibility.
The Tate’s exhibition recreates the spirit of creativity and flux in Matisse’s studio, a succession of hotel bedrooms in the South of France. Riddled with bowel cancer and restricted to a wheelchair, the walls became Matisse’s canvas — his “little garden” — as he filled it with the joys and wonders of the outside world. He de- scribed these final years as “une seconde vie”, a second life, a hint at the energy and rejuvenation that shines through his work.
Paper coloured with different shades of gouache paint was cut out and pinned to the walls, creating formations and designs that were in constant states of change and renewal. They were never still, but imbued with movement. Fish and birds, intertwined in vibrant fauna, dive and circle around each other; circus artists leap and throw knives; mermaids undulate; smoke rises out of enchanted lamps. There is a poignancy in the sheer excess of life teeming off these walls, fluttering in the breeze from an open window, waving gently as people passed by, and the physical constraints of Matisse himself as he conjured up this magical world around him.
The Tate’s rooms are filled with relics from these days: pins, heaps of cut paper shapes, colour scales of gouache paint and glass shards from his design for the Rosary Chapel in Vence. Photographs show the cut-outs as they first appeared in Matisse’s living quarters-cum-studio, jumbled up with the objects of every-day life. Film footage shows Matisse himself as he cuts seamlessly into paper, the shape growing, bending and curling around the scissors as he works.
As we see from the beginning of the exhibition, the power of the cut-out stemmed from its ability to change and be transformed, from its power of experimentation. Two matching still-lifes (Still-life with shell) stand beside each other; one a painting, the other a collection of cut-out shapes. Matisse used the cut-out to experiment with the composition of his painting, right down to the edge of the table, evoked by a piece of string to be re-angled and repositioned at will. It is a combination of precision and experimentation that appears again at the end of the show, in Acanthuses, which — according to the curators — appeared with the perforations of more than a thousand tiny pin-holes in them.
Motifs echo throughout — not just thematically, but in the basic components of each image. Repeating shapes crop up in ever- changing contexts: the bursting red heart and yellow stars in The Fall of Icarus adorn the body of The Clown, lending it a sense of scarring violence, while the two dancers from a maquette studying the ballet Rouge et Noir reappear in print on a magazine cover for Verve IV with the same erupting centres, red superimposed over yellow.
The simplicity and rawness at the heart of this experimentation, that sense of heightened tactility, become more apparent when viewing the Jazz collection, and comparing the original mock-ups to their printed counterparts. The contrast in texture, juxtaposition of serrated and smooth edges, intertwining of paper — all of this is lost in print, where a smooth flatness replaces the maquettes’ bold physicality.
The overflowing exuberance of this exhibition belies the tumult of the external and personal worlds that surrounded Matisse. He was hobbled by illness and left by his wife of forty- one years; his muse, assistant and lover Lydia Delectorskaya attempting to commit suicide; his daughter soon to be arrested and tortured by the Nazis because of her work for the Resistance. A dark wistfulness permeates these beautiful gardens of life and magic, evoking an unattainable idealism, a desire for an impossible paradise. When asked by the poet and writer Louis Aragon how such brilliance could have been produced in a time of such darkness, Matisse’s response was simple and sad: “I do it in self-defence”.
These works will inspire unmitigated joy and wonder, but it is a beauty which does not come untouched by complexity or melancholy.