Maybe it’s the liquid base, the viscous quality of paint that encourages a floating, sub-marine feeling to certain strands of abstraction, especially of the ‘loaded brush’ variety. Collage feels architectural in comparison and somehow in a tussle with gravity, creating different kinds of pictorial conundrums – spatial and structural. Matisse in ill-health found himself operating at one remove from the paint itself. As is so often the case, a seemingly unassailable obstacle to working becomes a liberating new beginning for the artist. Or so the story goes… But it’s always a little more complex than that. For a good while Matisse had used coloured paper pinned to his canvases to test colour relationships in paintings before applying pigment directly. He would of been acutely aware of the innovations in collage made by his European contemporaries and the size and scale of the new American painting.
And in a perverse way, it could be to his detriment that Matisse was such a good writer on his own endeavour. The Tate have neatly repackaged his eloquent phrases as sound bites. The danger is that we come to take for granted these remembrances of a man moving closer to the end of his life; even to the point that we stop actually looking at the radical facture of the actual works themselves and the uneven quality and loose ends which are the natural by-product of real experimentation.
For me the most exciting journey in the show started with the highly inventive illustrational quality of The Clown, which was directly developed in the blue angularity of The Acrobats – with the intense visceral energy in the figure’s ragged edges railing against the fizz of the white and cream ground. I then leaped into the spatially exciting colour combinations and dynamic planes of Zulma and Creole Dancer and finally found myself perplexed but engaged by the slow-motion collapsing architecture of Memory of Oceania. The Snail according to the received wisdom of art historical myth-making, takes us to the cusp of a new kind of visual drama of colour and shape devoid of subject-matter adhering only to the shape of the canvas itself. Was that the future that Matisse had in mind for his Cut-Outs?
Some might argue that we are at the other end of “the future” that Matisse might have glimpsed in this body of work. But it is in the here and now of the edges, tears and contrasts – the play of negative and positive spaces that really excited me. Colour finds new balancing acts, in the build-ups of edges that slide up against each other so subtly, or in almost viciously (!) tilting up forms toward us. All these innovations re-energise the picture plane with sharp interpenetrations of scissored shards of colour. That’s how I’d like to remember this show.
I can always remember my art teacher saying that painting was simply about putting the right colour in the right place, a maxim that resonates completely with the dynamics of the Matisse Cut Outs.
Walking through the riot of beautiful and intensely coloured floating motifs of leaves, flowers, fruit, dancing figures and sculpted nudes, I found myself strangely drawn to his book covers. They are in the same room as a film showing him at work, so, unfortunately, it was thick with people and hot and stuffy. The blurb says that the book covers shifted Matisse’s attitude to the cut outs. At first used as a planning device, he came to see them as a ‘remarkable new medium’.
I was particularly struck by Matisse: His Art and his Public by Alfred H. Barr (1951) and Les Fauves by Georges Duthuit (1949). They both have strong, diagonal, graphic accents and include bold coloured squares in yellow, red, blue or black at the edges of the design. The Alfred H. Barr book cover has dominant double, blue and black crosses splaying out and floating on a background of lemon yellow. The Georges Duthuit cover has some fabulous insubordinate lettering hovering over a diagonal slash of pink next to a deformed oblong shape in black. A triangular wing-like shape in blue and a cut-off square in green at a jaunty angle make up the other elements. For me, these two particular pieces were a welcome contrast to the predominant curvaceousness of the motifs in the rest of the show.