The first of a mini-series in which artists respond to the Tate’s survey of Matisse’s Cut-Outs.
I found the show very revealing and was delighted to see paintings and sculptures in there alongside the Cut-Outs. It was a real treat to see the Red Interior from Dusseldorf, with its amazing spatial qualities: the interior floor, wall and exterior patio all perfectly described and spatially palpable, yet all rendered with exactly the same red and zig-zag black.
I don’t see the Cut-Outs as a culmination of his life’s work or in fact as a single unit of achievement. They had many different purposes – from the page turning tactility of Jazz, to appliqué fabric designs, posters and book covers; and from stained glass windows to the heroism of the dazzling grand murals, with their white to blue anchoring of colours and larger than life scale. Each reason for a Cut-Out has a different feel to it and a thorough understanding of its purpose. There is not simply a one-size-fits-all approach. Mimosa is possibly the closest one gets to an easel painting with its densely interlocked, layering of colour to colour (by all accounts a draining one to make too). The blue nudes are hewn. In many of the works, the use of white is akin to light seen rolling over forms or bursting out at you from behind figures which dissolve at their contours or – at times – sneaking in and out of the terrain of the landscape. Curves and sinewy amorphous shapes can be read as analogous to specifics such as these, or others such as watery reflections and refractions, but are so much more than that. They function as space-makers and feel close in character to purity of the lines in his drawings – which have an equally rangy and springy plasticity. The phrasing always goes on further than you think – without ever losing impetus. The word ‘decorative’ somehow saps the vitality out of his achievements.
I am not convinced of the story of him not having the strength to paint any more. Many of these works would have taken massive concentration and a heavy pair of scissors weighs more than a paintbrush. Is it worth pondering what he means by painting? For one thing many of his most ambitious works through the forties were modest in size. In fact he mentions wanting to really get to grips with painting and subsequently made works with canvases propped up on a small bedside table. No, when he says painting, I think he is alluding to mural painting (or rather painting frescoes, as he said he would like to spend an afterlife doing, if there was such a thing). I would venture that much of the ambition in the Cut-Outs is to find an answer to Pollock and other large American mural-scaled works of the late 40s and early 50s. He was acutely aware of them, through his son Pierre, and also discussed them with Picasso (who was Eurocentric and ambivalent to them). The leaf shapes with their curving repeating rhythms create astonishing orchestrations of colour in space, and colour made space. They have a breathtaking clarity and directness and above all, luminosity – Matisse is a guff free zone! These large works were his riposte to North American modernism. It’s as if he dabbed on a little cologne, adjusted his silk tie, picked up a bat and smacked the ball back as hard as he could… clear to the Pacific Ocean!
Emyr Williams – April 21 2014