“I could do that. Actually, my four year old could do that”. This reaction, found in a discussion thread to a review of Tate Modern’s summer blockbuster, sounds familiar. “A load of tosh”, “hobbykraft”; “junk”, “utterly insignificant”, and so the thread continues. Could the gallery have made a terrible mistake and opened a show devoted to the works of a nursery school?
Of course not; but Henri Matisse’s colourful paper cut-outs have riled a few. In fact these online cynics are rehashing some time-honoured criticism: that last hostile sound-bite was not punched into the ether by an angry Guardian reader, but comes from a sceptic in 1949, reacting to the paper creations Matisse had exhibited at Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne. It was the first time the artist had displayed his cut-outs, and the critic was director of the Cahiers d’art, an influential artistic journal.
It is doubtful Matisse is rolling in his grave. He predicted that reactions to his paper pieces would be mixed, anticipating in an interview in 1952 what critics and colleagues might say, “Old Matisse, nearing the end of life, is having fun cutting up paper. He is not wearing his age well, falling into a second childhood”. He may, however, have been disappointed that these accusations of childishness have persisted: when he remarked in the same interview, “… I know that only later will people realise how forward-looking my current work is”, he was presumably hoping that sixty-odd years might have been enough.
The apparently simple technique of cutting and sticking, which lacks the mystique of oil painting or sculpture, opens Matisse up to criticism, and the artist recognised this. But if the physical process of making these papiers découpés is easily explained, their aesthetic power is not. The curators of the Tate show describe it as the most comprehensive exhibition of the cut-outs ever to have been assembled, with virtually all of his most famous pieces included. At first sight the bold lines and bright colours on display give the impression of robustness. Step a little closer, and you realise how fragile they are – just paper glued to paper – which made staging the exhibition a conservator’s nightmare. It was the Tate’s director, Sir Nicholas Serota, who pushed for the show (he had a poster of a blue nude hanging in his bedroom as a teenager), which consists of over one hundred works, most of which have come from abroad. The Tate’s own The Snail has trailed across but a few rooms to join the show: since it was bought in 1962 the picture has been kept on a short leash (it may once have got as far as the Hayward), but in the autumn will leave London for the first time, when the show transfers to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
It is often said that Matisse came to his paper cut-outs by necessity during the last years of his life, when illness prevented him from painting; but this explanation has become something of a cliché. For the artist it was not a question of scissors v. paint, with room for only one victor; nor was there a straightforward linear progression from one medium to the other. Matisse had worked with cut-outs as early as 1919, when designing the sets and costumes for a London ballet, Le Chandt du Rossignol. He used the technique again in the early 1930s, when planning such works as his Danse murals at the Barnes Foundation in Merion. And he would return to his paper shapes each time he ran into compositional difficulties when painting, shifting the pieces about a mocked up canvas to find the best position. When in the 1940s Matisse took the process a step further and began creating journal covers and books using paper and paste, including Jazz published in 1947, he was still also painting, in spite of the onset of ill-health in 1941. By 1948, the year when the artist’s paper works first dominated his output and were being made as finished pieces, painting was still a possibility and his last oil was completed in 1951. It was a matter of choice: cut paper had become Matisse’s preferred means of expression, “Why didn’t I think of it earlier?”, he wrote to one friend after completing The Parakeet and the Mermaid in 1952.
Of course that is not the whole story, and it is unlikely the 83 year old artist, wheelchair-bound and in pain, could have continued painting at the rate at which he produced the cut-outs during these final years of his life. However, the exhibition hopes to demonstrate that these paper designs were more than a pragmatic solution for an ageing and infirm artist who wanted to carry on working. It was by means of the cut-outs that an armistice was reached between Matisse’s colour and his line, rivals who had been battling it out since the 1920s (“My paintings and my drawings are going separate ways”, he had complained in 1930; twenty years on the cut-outs allowed him to “draw in colour”). There is also the renewed freshness and freedom Matisse felt he achieved with his scissors: stand in front of The Thousand and One Nights (1950) for a few minutes and you will soon tap into the artist’s feeling of liberation. The cut-outs, by the final two years of his life, had become all-encompassing, filling his apartment. Unable to go outside, he spoke of the garden he had created inside through pieces such as The Parakeet and the Mermaid. And within the paper medium there was room for growth. Lots of room as it turned out: walking through the show, which is arranged broadly chronologically, the pictures become palpably larger. By 1953, Matisse has created Large Composition with Masks, which measures 3.5m by 9.9m. Originally commissioned as the decoration for a terrace, Matisse made it nearly three times too long for the space. Not that he minded starting again… and again… and again (he produced four compositions before the clients were happy), quite the reverse.
Simplicity is a running theme: The Snail with its plain blocks of colour, the reduced squiggles of Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea (1946), or the Blue Nudes’ (1952) monochrome outlines. “I have worked for years in order that people might say, ‘it seems easy to do’”, said Matisse shortly before he died. The technique, by necessity (Matisse’s scissors were huge) as well as by design, was based on a distillation of forms and the creation of “signposts” instead of precise replication. And although the artist never fully ventures into abstraction, on occasion he comes close. Subject-matter, such as flowers, leaves or figures are simplified to the limits of recognisability. But the line is never crossed and the artist’s objects remain identifiable. Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea, designs which were eventually reproduced on to linen, were made in 1946. The subject-matter is a clear reference to time the artist spent in Tahiti fifteen years before, but the madrepores, coral, fish and sponges which Matisse had seen as he swam underwater in his wooden goggles, have been pared down into condensed images floating in a beige fish-tank. “I have attained a form filtered to its essentials”, he said of the portrait-esqe Zulma (1950), also on display. The Snail is perhaps the closest the artist comes to abstraction – Matisse even proposed an alternative title, La Composition Chromatique – although, as he pointed out, it was an abstraction rooted in reality.
Matisse spent the last five years of his life in southern France, initially in Vence where he worked on his designs for the Chapel of the Rosary and ultimately in Nice. His apartment was his workshop, where assistants painted gouache (an opaque watercolour) on to sheets of paper, which would then be piled around the rooms, separated according to colour. The paper was thick and although there was only ever one tone per sheet, the colour was not uniform and if you look closely enough, the assistants’ brushstrokes are clear. This was stage one. Next came the artist’s famous “drawing with scissors”. It was the work of an instant, but an instant that came only after days or weeks (and in the case of the Oceania works, years) of observation, reflection and discarded attempts. Shapes were created not with precise nail-scissor snips along pre-drawn lines, but by the sweeping, fluid slices of dress-making shears. For some works, the process of cutting was almost sculptural (both scissors and the plural of chisel are ciseaux in French) and Matisse himself drew a parallel, when he said the method reminded him “of the direct carving of the sculptor”. One room contains the sculpture-like Blue Nudes, a rare get-together for all four works and a first for the United Kingdom. But while Blue Nudes I, II and III were carved in 10 to 15 minutes a pop, Matisse struggled over Blue Nude IV, which he had started first. And it is obvious: while the line of the other nudes seems to flow easily, number 4 appears stilted, even tense.
The Blue Nudes, once cut, could be pasted almost immediately. For other works, however, there was a third stage, and this was often the most time-consuming. The shapes would be pinned by assistants to the walls of Matisse’s apartment and from his wheelchair or bed, the artist micro-managed their positioning, ordering pieces to be shifted, shaved, rotated and discarded until he was satisfied (and his assistant broken). Tiny prick holes are clearly visible in, for example, The Parakeet and the Mermaid, but here was the beauty of the medium, which enabled the artist to alter and re-alter his design.
If there are some who disapprove of an exhibition devoted to cutting and sticking, you won’t find them among the critics. The show has been hailed across the board – even the Evening Standard has been seduced. It is a colourful feast for the eyes in a world which, as the Guardian pointed out last week, has become increasingly dominated by grey. Oceanias aside, there are not many muted neutrals here. And if it was not as easy as it looks to create, it is as easy as anything to enjoy.
On 3 June, a live film about the exhibition will be broadcast in cinemas across the UK.