Abstract Critical

Matisse’s Cut-Outs (3)

Henri Matisse, Memory of Oceania 1952-3, Gouache and crayon on cut-and-pasted paper over canvas, MoMA Digital image: © 2013. The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala Florence Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

Henri Matisse, Memory of Oceania 1952-3, Gouache and crayon on cut-and-pasted paper over canvas, MoMA Digital image: © 2013. The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala Florence Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

The third in a series of responses to the Tate’s show of Matisse’s Cut-Outs, the first two of which were by Emyr Williams and Jasper Joffe.

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.

John Bunker

Henri Matisse, Icarus 1946, Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947. Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

Henri Matisse, Icarus 1946, Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947. Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet
Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

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.

Noela James

 

 

  1. Patrick Jones said…

    Having just had the chance to see the show at last,I found it a knock-out.All the images were familiar and the fact that an early experiment became a method of working became clear.For me it was the message that colour is the most important medium to master that made the show so visionary.Klee came to the same conclusion in his recent show at the Tate.The cabinet of colour swatches were especially illuminating.I was particularly moved by Celestial Jerusalem and the image of the bell/ clanger[ in negative and positive].Aside from being able to replicate Matisse hotel room in Nice,the show was a revelation and showed the Tate Modern at its best.Matisse deserved his reputation as the most important artist for Abstract Painters to follow ,just as Cezanne was for him.

  2. Tania said…

    One of the (many) pleasures of the exhibition is the opportunity to read Matisse in his own hand. In the text accompanying the images for ‘Jazz’ the artist summarizes how art ‘works’ for him. From memory (and a bit roughly translated) he puts it something like this; that knowledge, sensitivity, spirit (l’esprit I think he wrote which is tricky to translate accurately) are concentrated in the hand of the artist and it is the hand of the artist (and, by implication, not the head) which enables the expression of our instinctive, human, nature. It is the haptic which allows us to communicate at the edge of, and beyond, language. Something akin to this is increasingly being recognized by science as observation and experiment demonstrate how it is the entire body which ‘learns’ calling into question the traditional view of splitting, and even opposing, ‘mind’ and ‘body’. We are sentient beings and Matisse’s cut-outs surely celebrate this.