Abstract Critical

Matisse’s Cut-Outs (4)

Written by David Sweet

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953, gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas, Tate, © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953, gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas, Tate, © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

(I had a ticket to the Matisse. Unfortunately I fell from a ladder, breaking my hip, so couldn’t make it. I’ll visit the show later in the run, but by then, everything will have been said at least twice. However I’ve seen all the exhibits. I have come to an opinion of his late works. I don’t think I will revise it merely because those clever people at the Tate have arranged them in a certain order.)

As you would expect, the reviews (Brian Sewell’s excepted) have picked up on the late flowering theme, marvelling at Matisse’s energy and renewed creativity at the end of his career, and his openness and enthusiasm for a new method of pictorial construction. The exhibition also celebrates the range of his abilities as an applied artist, as decorator/designer/illustrator, whose highly evolved style could migrate effortlessly into other formats and situations yet remain recognisable.

It’s as if this style has become an independent system of expressive signs, able to carry Matisse’s life-affirming trademark spirit of freedom, joy and ease, into whatever context it found itself. And while all that luxe, calme et volupté offer sthe audience a positive emotional experience, the value of context should not be overlooked.

The strongest works of this period remain the Blue Nudes l-lV (1952) and L’Escargot, (1953) precisely because they are context specific. In these examples, rather than appearing as a constellation of freely transferable signs, temporally settled on a wall, page or window, formal operations are trapped and held with a contained field.

In the Nudes, the framing rectangle exerts a strong influence on the placing and movement of the component body parts. Instead of an even, decorative distribution, spread across two dimensions, the forms are compressed and crowded, meeting resistance in some places, while relaxing in others. The implied context is the bas-relief, or the sculptor’s drawing, where considerations of the depicted limb’s weight and mass have to be acknowledged.

L’Escargot’s framing device is explicit and integral, a bright orange, irregular proscenium and stage. But its context or genre is harder to decide. It’s big and ‘abstract’ and unlike Memories of Oceania, (1953) does not contain a figure to give a sense of scale. If the Nudes can be productively seen as bas-reliefs, L’Escargot can be identified as belonging to the category of ‘portable mural’. It’s this feature that makes it seem American, and links it with the colour field paintings of the sixties, which, because we have absorbed, help us appreciate late Matisse more than we otherwise might.

Even when surrounded by all the other cut-outs, L’Escargot remains exceptional and separate. It achieves what it does by going against the grain of liberation and joyousness. The shapes are unremarkable, jagged edged and awkward. There is no linear, figure or foliage based arabesque motif, just the implicit, grudging spiral movement at its centre, the last waltz of European modernism.








  1. Anders Knutsson said…

    first, truly so sorry about your fall! and you are right; “tons” have been said, but everything – never! Matisse’s work and life is that rich. Just the very fact that he as an old, sick and bedridden man could, as the saying does now, think and create outside the box (of painting on stretched canvas) is a powerful lesson to all of us, especially old artists. I’d be so bold to say read Hillary Spurling’s biography then go see the Tate show. Yes, L’Escargot is ah -an impossible title in English for we/me think of food! – it is about “spiral” to me. An ancient symbol, Neolithic and before writing! So next, imagine that Matisse is as smart as Einstein and thinking outside-the-square but staying within the the square, at the same time (which is what Einstein did about E = mc² and relativity!)