Much like music and dance, Henri Matisse’s cut-outs show layers of motion at the Tate Modern exhibition
As an innovative 20th century painter, Matisse now has works adorning many a living room with a youthfulness and luminosity reflecting the environment in which he worked. In the last 17 years of his life he turned to an entirely new approach – cutting shapes from painted paper – a technique that is explored in this latest exhibition at the Tate Modern.
Extending over 14 rooms, the exhibition shows the journey of Henri Matisse using cut-outs. Whilst working on a painting, he would make sketches exploring alternative viewpoints or versions of the composition, and then use the cut-outs to explore how the objects within the painting could be combined differently. Allowing his imagination to reshuffle the shapes, Matisse found he could evoke a movement and dynamism to the work. As you move through the exhibition, the cut-outs start to take a life of their own, developing an increasing sense of motion. This reflects Matisse’s fascination with dance and, in fact, several of the artworks shown here display close links to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich which also involves strong movement. In 1937, he began to design the scenery and costumes for a ballet choreographed to Shostakovich’s Symphony #1.
Another purpose for Matisse layering cut-outs on top of each other was to convey something of a three-dimensionality and texture in the figures he was depicting. In the work, ‘Jazz’, where he uses this to full effect, the cut-outs gain real depth, moving from what could almost be seen as tools to help build his main art, to stand-alone works in their own right. What the exhibition conveys clearly is the way Matisse must have likened the paper he worked with to something of a cross between paint on a canvas and the clay of a sculpture. This notion comes across particularly in ‘Blue Nudes’, one of his best known cut-outs. He describes the process as “cutting into colour” in which the scissors carve out both an outline and the contours of something more solid.
The shapes then become an integral part of Matisse’s own environment as demonstrated by later rooms in the exhibition, where his cut-outs were stuck on and, effectively, became a wall paper in the outline of birds, fish, coral and leaves which adorned his Paris apartment and his home and studio in Vence, Southern France. They increased in scale, often nearly reaching from floor to ceiling and overwhelming the space.
For Matisse, though, it seemed important to also use shapes to give his environment a fluidity, so he would move the cut-outs around by pinning them to the wall in one position and then shifting them as the ideas behind his clusters altered. Today, these same shapes have been traced and glued to their final positions, preserving something of the concept that must have lain in his head.
The exhibition reveals what his bedroom and studio would have looked like, a space he turned into a replica of the Dominican Chapel at Vence, where he was once asked to advise on the design on a stained glass window. The airy atmosphere he managed to create suggests a lightness the artist must have had throughout his life, even to the very end, creating designs that could draw breath from everything he experienced, past and present; nature, people, dance, objects, Moorish mosaics and religious expression, but without becoming over-burdened with any subject.
While the exhibition depicts a prolific artist who had a wide-eyed absorption of the world, it nonetheless leaves the viewer with a feeling of art that never went particularly deep. Instead, you are left inspired to decorate your own space with cut-outs by Matisse that would inevitably bestow an optimistic joyousness to your own surroundings.
The exhibition continues at the Tate Modern until 7 September 2014. See also Matisse: The Cut-Outs Exclusive Custom Prints: http://bit.ly/
Image: Jean-Claude Planchet / Henri Matisse's "The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown," 1943-44, currently on view at the Tate Modern.
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