Henri Matisse - The Cut-Outs, at Tate Modern.
'It is no longer the brush that slips and slides over the canvas, it is the scissors that cut into the paper and into the colour. The conditions of the journey are 100 per cent different. The contour of the figure springs from the discovery of the scissors that give it the movement of circulating life. This tool doesn't modulate, it doesn't brush on, but it incises in, underline this well, because the criteria of observation will be different'. Henri Matisse.
Even though Matisse had used cut paper shapes before to work out the arrangement of objects in his paintings, it was during the last 17 years of his life, when health problems, limited mobility and declining strength meant that he could not paint anymore, that he turned to the cut-out method as an art form in its own right. The results are stunning: exuberant, intense, with a simplicity that is essential to their charm, the cut-outs are pure, matte, unmodified colour, not inflected by brush marks. Created solely by the movement of the scissors and the selected hue, the cut-outs are a celebration of life. Brancusi said that 'simplicity is complexity resolved' and the cut-outs are a testimony to that statement.
Matisse was fascinated by dance throughout his career. During this period, cut paper was still a way of experimenting, a means to an end, and he made efforts to keep the technique a secret.
The Fall of Icarus, 1943
The white figure of Icarus is a negative shape cut from the central black strip of paper. Icarus is surrounded by jagged yellow stars.
This cut-out relates to Jazz, even though it was not included in the book. Jazz was published by Teriade. The original idea was for Matisse to illustrate poems, but the flowing hand-written notes he made as he worked on the cut-outs were eventually chosen as the accompanying text instead. This was a turning point, enabling Matisse to see his cut-outs as art works in their own right. Disappointed that in the published book the cut-outs seemed to lose the contrast of different surfaces layered on top of each other, Matisse said that printing 'removes their sensitivity'.
You can see more of Teriade here and more of Jazz here.
Matisse's studio assistant Lydia Delectorskaya recalled the starting point for Oceania: 'Matisse had cut out a swallow from a sheet of writing paper and, as it distressed his to tear up this beautiful shape and throw it away, he said, he put it up on this wall, also using it to cover up a stain, the sight of which disturbed him. Over the following weeks other shapes were cut out and put up on the same wall'.
Matisse pinned cut-out birds, fish, coral and leaves directly onto the wall of his Paris apartment without knowing in advance what the outcome would be. His inspiration was a visit to Tahiti sixteen years before. 'It's as though my memory had suddenly taken the place of the outside world', he explained. 'There, swimming every day in the lagoon, I took such intense pleasure in contemplating the submarine world... With my eyes wide open I absorbed everything as a sponge absorbs liquid. It is only now that these wonders have returned to me, with tenderness and clarity'.
The Thousand and One Nights, 1950
Creole Dancer, 1950
Creole Dancer is based on sketches he made of a dancer invited to perform in his studio, and was made in a single day using left over pieces of painted paper.
For the first time, in Zulma, he gives a sense of depth in a cut-out composition, with receding space suggested by the angled table on which the figure leans. Made and exhibited when Matisse was eighty, Zulma was widely praised for its radical approach, hailed as the most youthful work in an exhibition of far younger artists.
Blue Nude I, 1952
Blue Nude II, 1952
Blue Nude III, 1952
Blue Nude IV, 1952
The Blue Nudes are perhaps the most striking example of what Matisse called 'cutting directly into colour'. Here the scissors both create the outline of the figure and carve contours into it. The paper's flatness coexists with a sense of the figures' intertwined limbs. Cutting is a way of drawing and sculpting at the same time. Matisse's assistant Lydia Delectorskya described his work on a cut-out figure in these terms: 'modelling it like a clay sculpture; sometimes adding, sometimes removing'.
I have included here reproductions of the four Blue Nudes grouped together as they were in the shop as it's helpful to see them together and note the differences.
Blue Nude with Green Stockings, 1952
The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952
Large Decoration with Masks, 1953
This was made as a design for a ceramic panel.
The Snail, 1953
With the Snail Matisse pushed the technique further away from representation than ever before, but described it as 'abstraction rooted in reality'. The rotating paper shapes radiate out in a spiral, echoing a snail's shell. Working on an earlier snail, he talked about becoming 'aware of an unfolding'. Unusually, the individual shapes are not carefully scissored, but roughly cut and sometimes even torn.
Christmas Eve, 1952
In the exhibition we saw the cut-out model and the resulting stained glass. Matisse had long been interested in the connection between his cut-outs and stained glass. He said of his designs for Jazz, 'I cut out these gouache sheets the way you cut glass: only here they're organised to reflect light, whereas in a stained-glass window they have to be arranged differently because light shines through them'.
'By creating these coloured paper cut-outs, it seems to me that I am happily anticipating things to come. I don't think that I have ever found such balance as I have in creating these paper cut-outs. But I know that it will only be much later that people will realise to what extent the work I a doing today is in step with the future'.
Tate Modern booklet on the exhibition.