Responding to the restrictions of illness, Henri Matisse found a means to return art to the line, not a drawn line but a cut one. Simply manipulating scissors and painted papers, Matisse radically evolved a technique that expressed elemental qualities of shape, colour and silhouette. Tate Modern’s exhibition manages to elevate these humble Cut-Outs to pre-eminent importance. Long overlooked in favour of Matisse’s paintings of sensuous interiors and voluptuous nudes, these Cut-Outs leap off the wall in their confident simplicity.
The show starts by illustrating the use of these cut paper forms as designs for still lives. A pin-board holds apples and jugs held in place for their relational effects. Matisse has infinite choices in his arrangement of these forms placed on top of a table in a traditional still-life. Two diagonal pieces of string describe mark out the table's edges. Beside this malleable design is the completed painting characterised by Matisse’s fascination with pattern and texture seen here in some glazed ceramics, fruit, a tablecloth with a cloud-like motif, and the jagged edge of a conch shell. All the elements fall into place but we can see that the cut-out process was a crucial stage in making the painting. In the corner of the exhibition's first room is a tiny, modest lyre made in blue paper, the very first self-sufficient ‘decoupage’. It presents some of the significant ideas that Matisse developed in cut paper: the silhouette and positive form of the object set against the support which acts to pick out the fine strings of the instrument.
‘Jazz’, an illuminated book, which Matisse produced from 1943, demonstrates the vitality of these cut papers layered together, colours set against each other, and collage animating the image. The finished, printed plates demonstrate the inherent delicacy of the Cut-Outs. However, they do not reproduce well. The original materiality of the maquettes is diminished in the printing process as the edges, crinkled layering and textures are pushed to a graphic reduction . Matisse accepted that the project was flawed but it alerts us to the potential of this embryonic technique which he was developing in a time of war and occupation.
The Cut-Outs offered Matisse new opportunities particularly when immobilised by ill-health. They became a private meditation on making images out of humble materials. Collectively they form a ‘poor’ art without the privileged status of oil paint or bronze. As you walk from room to room, you learn how these paper pieces provided private entertainment and a new purpose. They began as single pieces pinned to the wall of the studio where the draughts of air would gently move them. Gradually they would accumulate and became immersive ‘installations’ determined by architectural dimensions and the method of their production.
Perhaps the greatest work in the exhibition is the ‘Parakeet and the Mermaid’. Foliage here moves and flows as if shaped by breezes and currents embodying both the sea and the shore. What’s so artful is the choreography of the fronds in varying colours, directions and sizes. Matisse imagined bringing the increasingly inaccessible garden ‘inside’ in the manner of his paintings which connect the domestic interior to the surrounding environment through open windows and doors. We can see in a surviving photograph how this piece evolved in scale so that it began to turn corners at 90 degrees, as if growing naturally. Matisse deploys colour strategically here so that hot pinks and oranges project forward while cooler greens and blues recede until the eye eventually sees the ripe, blue pomegranates swaying in the gaps.
‘Work with Two Masks’ is a pronounced contrast because this piece originated out of a commission for a tiled mural in Los Angeles. Here Matisse begins a dialogue between symmetrical, repeating motifs, which subtly vary because they are individually hand-made. Blue neo-classical columns stand sentry at each end and a central band resembling embroidered flowers slices the work into two. This enormous assemblage of cut petals and seeds fluctuates between order and chance. In the penultimate gallery you can see the final, approved design for the mural project where Matisse dispenses with any symmetry and employs a set of fronds in balanced colours that rise up organically out the ground, as if a living plant.
The Chapel of the Rosary in Vence presented the greatest challenge to the cut paper technique. Matisse called the project the summation of his life’s work. While it largely avoids biblical references aside from a Madonna and Child, the composite elements combine to celebrate life and Meditterranean fecundity in the sunlight. Despite Picasso’s contempt for its religious purpose informed, no doubt, by a twinge of jealousy, Matisse triumphantly deploys his cut-papers to conceive a Provencal ‘total artwork.’
Why is this show so successful and popular? I think the vitality of these works lies in their direct authenticity. They return us to childhood and the early exploration of the world through sight and touch. While we cannot handle the Cut-Outs, we can imagine the satisfying playfulness of holding the brightly painted paper while taking a pair of scissors on a meandering journey of description. As Matisse cuts, so he draws. The Cut-Outs dispense with any pre-conceived design and become assertively material, almost sculptural. Matisse creates fantasies out of painted papers without hiding the journey required to make them. What’s fundamentally entrancing about these Cut-Outs is that they manage to be miraculously both an object and an image.