London’s Tate Modern presents Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs through September 7, 2014. This major retrospective solely features Matisse’s cutout collages from 1936 until his death in 1954. The retrospective highlights 120 works of large-scale cutout collages including Matisse’s Blue Nudes and The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952), along with other works from around the world.
In 1941, the French artist Henri Matisse was diagnosed with cancer, and underwent a risky operation. Following surgery, he was mainly confined to a wheelchair, and his poor health prevented him from painting. However, his physical condition nor his extraordinary creativity was dampened for long. He called this later stage of his life, Une seconde vie, or a second life wherein he found unforeseen vim and vigor.
Henri-Émile-Benoit Matisse is one of the prominent figures of modern abstract art, and one of the most important colorists of all time. His cutout collages are a brilliantly colorful final chapter in his illustrious career. Known for working in various mediums, he was a printmaker, sculptor and painter and his cut-outs are among the most significant of any artist’s late works.
With the aid of his assistant, Russian-born Lydia Delectorskaya, and a new lease on life, he created vast and colorful cutout paper collages called gouaches découpés. On an enormous scale, he maneuvered scissors through prepared sheets of paper, as he began his new phase in his career. Paper and scissors were not new materials to Matisse. He was raised amongst weavers in northern France, which in the late 18th century was the region of elegant silks for the Paris fashion houses. He held a genuine appreciation of their texture and design. He was also at ease with paper patterns and scissors.
His cutout works were not childish quality, nor were they an abandonment of sculpture and painting. Matisse called it, “painting with scissors.” This opportunity of experimentation gave Matisse the chance to create a fresh, artistically appealing environment.
In general, Matisse used a small pair of scissors to cut out the shapes freehand. He saved both the cut out item and the remaining paper scraps. At times, he used stencils cut from thin sheets of metal, by hand. With the assistance of Delectorskaya, he would arrange and rearrange the cutouts, and pin them to his studio walls until the desired balance of color and form was achieved. The organic shapes were reminiscent of the patterns that appeared in his earlier works. The part of the process was more deliberate and sometimes lasted for months until a configuration was reached that were to his liking. The finished composition was glued to canvas, paper or board.
The Parisian artist prepared paper cut-outs during World War II, but did not publish the collection called Jazz until 1947. The limited-edition book (100 copies) contained 20 color plates from his paper cut collages, accompanied with his written thoughts. He was enchanted by the technique, and designed cut-outs for stained-glass windows of the Chapelle du Rosaire. The project took nearly four years to complete, and was a gesture to a woman who nursed him back to health in 1941, and later became a Dominican nun.
Up until Matisse, no other serious artist had taken collage to the “extreme of simplicity.” Although, critics ridiculed him for it, the artist felt that, despite his physical limitations, collage was an extension of his creative spirit. He viewed his work, Jazz as “chromatic and rhythmic improvisation.” Like jazz music, his work was lively, had a rhythmic arrangement and reprise shifting with unexpected improvisation.
Henri Matisse, the abstract painter who almost reinvented color in painting, had found freedom in the simplicity of cut-outs. He once said that only the works that he created after his illness represented his “real self: free, liberated,” and the Tate Modern retrospective is a reflection of Henri Matisse’s unfettered yet cogent and quite possibly his most vibrantly spirited works.
By: Dawn Levesque