Henri Matisse: A cut above


He broke convention after convention within the art world, and was raising eyebrows right up to the end of his long life. Artist Henri Matisse had turned away from painting completely by 1948 and replaced his brushes entirely with scissors and paper, producing designs for windows, murals and religious garb for a Dominican chapel, plus magazine covers, an illustrated book and more. Now an exhibition at Tate Modern is celebrating the work of Matisse’s late period.


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Words: Herbert Wright

Henri Matisse stands second only to his friend Picasso as the 20th-century's longest-running challenger to artistic convention. At a seminal 1905 show at the Paris gallery Salon d'Automne, he was labelled un fauve -- a wild beast -- for how he turned colour into a shock weapon, shaking up the way a painting represents what we see. Four decades later, an old man with failing health and based in Nice, he was joyfully wielding scissors to attack paper applied with gouache (opaque watercolour), enthusing about 'cutting directly into vivid colour'

He was creating a new format, something that blurred boundaries between imagery and decor, which pushed further the vivacity he had long injected into his art, and would even draw comparisons with the iconaclastic, contemporaneous American abstract expressionists. Among the cornucopia of works coming off his own walls were designs for a nearby small chapel in Vence, which would be recognised as one of the most beautiful spatial experiences of the century. Matisse's late period is the subject of the current exhibition at Tate Modern, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (until 7 September).

Inside the Dominican chapel at Vence, showing Matisse’s work in place, with the Tree of Life behind the altar. Matisse was introduced to the chapel project by his former nurse
Inside the Dominican chapel at Vence, showing Matisse's work in place, with the Tree of Life behind the altar. Matisse was introduced to the chapel project by his former nurse. Photo Credit: Isabelle Giovachini

Matisse's international reputation had been kickstarted by the 1905 'fauvist' show with works such as Woman in a Hat, and gained him international patronage. When Matisse moved from Paris to Nice in 1917, he was an established painter (and sculptor). His style had continued to evolve. Studies of Islamic art and Russian iconography had inspired him into spreading colour flatter and stronger. He gave it supremacy over perspective in works such as the seminal Harmony in Red (Red Room) (1908), and used it to capture raw, primitivist energy in the (again, red) figures of another key work La Danse (1908). His 1915 canvas The Yellow Curtain even sees him approaching abstraction in simple shapes of colour. And in 1919, we find Matisse using scissors and paper as a tool to create maquettes (small 3D studies), in this case ones that could be moved around in a scale model of a ballet stage he was designing. In a pencil study of the design, he actually pastes cut-out paper, like a montage. But Flavia Frigeri, the Tate co-curator of the current show, warns that 'this should not be treated as the first known cut-out'.

Inside the Dominican chapel at Vence, showing Matisse’s work in place, with the Tree of Life behind the altar. Matisse was introduced to the chapel project by his former nurse
Inside the Dominican chapel at Vence, showing Matisse's work in place, with the Tree of Life behind the altar. Matisse wasintroduced to the chapel project by his former nurse. Photo Credit: Isabelle Giovachini

In the Twenties, he often painted the female as an odelisque (concubine) with the fabric patterns of her surroundings, but he had fallen out of fashion. Cut paper resurfaces in 1931, when he was working on a large mural commission that would revive La Danse for the Pennsylvania house of collector Albert C Barnes.

Inside the Dominican chapel at Vence, showing Matisse’s work in place, with the Tree of Life behind the altar. Matisse was introduced to the chapel project by his former nurse
Matisse's Stations of the Cross, an ensemble of 14 scenes leading to the crucifixion. He worked using a 3m pole tipped with charcoal. Photo Credit: Isabelle Giovachini

Matisse developed studies incorporating 11 cut-outs that he could pin up, move, and photograph (which helped keep Barnes informed of progress). But Frigeri cautions that these 'cut shapes had a purely compositional purpose... very distinct from the one they later achieved as fully fledged cut-outs'. Matisse uses cut paper in the development of an actual canvas in 1935 -- the Large Reclining Nude. This extraordinary, seminal painting, for which the blue-eyed exiled Siberian siren Lydia Delectorskaya modelled, presents a sensually curvy female torso, semi-abstracted and laid on a grid background. It had evolved substantially from a more representational state with some perspective, and changes were tried out on paper, cut out, then pinned to the canvas. But how does cut paper jump from being used as a development tool to being the 'cut-out' format, embodying the art itself?

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Photo Credit: Robert Capa International Center of Photography / Magnum

In the late Thirties, Matisse started designing magazine covers (mainly the appropriately named, eye-catching Verve) with cut-and-pasted gouache on paper, as well as other works by this method including stage curtain designs. In 1939, he separated from his wife Amelie, whom he had painted so startlingly in a hat in 1905. But what really marked the beginning of a new chapter in Matisse's career was his diagnosis in 1941 of cancer and the subsequent operation that left him wheelchairbound. Initially, he was cared for by the nurse Monique Bourgeois, and his muse Delectorskaya, temporarily banished before the war. She was back and took charge of his affairs. He began what he called his 'second life'.

Maquettes for the chapel priest’s garments (1950-52) were cut-outs mounted on canvas. Picasso said they were the best aspect of the church
Maquettes for the chapel priest's garments (1950-52) were cut-outs mounted on canvas. Picasso said they were the best aspect of the church. Photo Credit:Digital Image: 2013 The Museum Of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence Succession Henri Matisse/Dacs 2014

In 1943, he moved into the Villa le Rêve, a roomy house set in extensive gardens in the old stone village of Vence in the hills above Nice. Here he started work on Jazz, a book of handwritten text and cut-outs, which sees a re-simplification and flattening of form. It includes images such as The Clown that hint at a disquiet about the violence of the war that is never far away, even in the collaborator regime of Vichy France.

Cover maquette for magazine Verve, issue I, winter 1937, from Hilti Foundation, Lichtenstein
Cover maquette for magazine Verve, Issue I, winter 1937, from Hilti Foundation, Lichtenstein. Photo Credit:Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

But the full development of the cut-out needed a big working space -- such as a wall. With the war over, Matisse was able to return to Paris, and Delectorskaya recalled that in his flat in the Boulevard Montparnasse in 1946 he had 'cut out a swallow from a sheet of writing paper... [and] put it up on this wall, also using it to cover up a stain, the sight of which disturbed him'. More white shapes followed, pinned to walls and spreading across them, making a Miro-esque field of isolated yet connected elements, but more regularly configured and with very different, organic shapes, including birds, dangly things and ones fringed with amoeba-like curvy extensions. When a textile manufacturer visited, Matisse proposed them as patterns. He had been brought up in a textile-manufacturing town, and in earlier paintings, such as the odelisques, fabric design had become what Frigeri calls 'part of his painterly language'. Now, the motifs shaped by his scissors suggested new textile patterns, something he suggested to the textile manufacturer.

Two Dancers
Two Dancers (1937-38), from a private collection.Photo Credit:Succession HenriMatisse/DACS 2014

When Jazz was published in 1947, Matisse was disappointed that the materiality of his colourful maquettes for it was lost on the printed page. He realised that the paper cut-outs themselves 'must stay as the are, originals'. Thenceforth the 'gouaches decoupées', as Matisse called them, would become his life. Back at the Villa le Rêve, the house became the studio, and the very walls became his work-surfaces. On them, as well as drawings of faces or masks, his vividly coloured cut-outs were pinned up.

Cover maquette for magazine Verve, issue IV, 1943, from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Museum Berggruen
Cover maquette for magazine Verve, issue IV, 1943, from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Museum Berggruen. Photo Credit: Digital Image: BPK Museum Berggruen, Privatbesitz Jens Ziehe

When mounted on differently coloured rectangles of paper densely packed across a wall (and sometimes moved like chess pieces), he considered them a composition. Frigeri says that his earlier paintings and drawings were 'finite works', but that with the cut-outs 'there's a shift... he allowed himself to be completely spontaneous'. Matisse had always been a perfectionist, labouring long on works that ended up looking impulsive, but liberated from the canvas he really could be immediate and carefree. In 1948, he finally abandoned painting, and an easel in the house would thereafter remain unused. A photograph from that time shows him sitting in bed, shirt and tie on, busily cutting away.

The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, a maquette for a plate in the illustrated book Jazz, published in 1947
The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, a maquette for a plate in the illustrated book Jazz, published in 1947. Photo Credit: Digital Image: Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci, Rmn- Grand Palais/ Jean-Claude Planchet

This may well have been how his ex-nurse Bourgeois, now a Dominican nun called Sister Jacques, encountered Matisse when she came seeking advice about a window in a chapel her order wanted to build, a field away in Vence. Matisse offered more than advice -- he decided to take on the whole project of decorating this Chapel of the Rosary. As Frigeri notes: 'It was this opportunity to construct a full environment that first appealed to Matisse...like an artist today would make an installation.' A young man from the Dominican order, Brother Rayssiguier, was next to visit to discuss it, at the end of 1947. Matisse compared cutting stained glass with cutting his gouache shapes. He started designing the first windows, two of the narrow windows that line one side of the chapel, inspired by a text from the Book of Revelation that Rayssiguier had read to him. The building itself was designed by Father Marie-Alain Couturier, consulting with architect Auguste Perret, who had pioneered reinforced concrete in France at the turn of the century.

from the illustrated book Jazz: The Lagoon, July 1944
From the illustrated book Jazz: The Lagoon, July 1944. Photo Credit:Digital Image: Centre Pompidou, Paris, Mnam-Cci, Rmn-Grand Palais/ Phillipe Migeat, Jean Claude Planchet Succession Henri Matisse/Dacs 2014

Couturier was keen to bring in Matisse, because he wanted to revitalise what he saw as 'anaemic Christian art'. Not everyone would be thrilled that Matisse -- who was not religious -- was working with the church. His Communist friend Picasso suggested he should put his energies into painting fruit and vegetables for market buildings.

The Clown, June 1943
The Clown, June 1943.Photo Credit:Digital Image: Centre Pompidou, Paris, Mnam-Cci, Rmn-Grand Palais/ Phillipe Migeat, Jean Claude Planchet Succession Henri Matisse/Dacs 2014

But Matisse immersed himself in the work, taking it with him to Paris over the summer of 1948, and the next year into the Hotel Régina in Nice, which became his last residence and the third studio location for the chapel project. One room there had about the same dimensions of the chapel's, 15m by 6m. Minimalist ink drawings with featureless faces (which might nowadays be seen as quite Opie-esque) would become large ceramic panels of the Virgin and Child and the Stations of the Cross, the latter an ensemble of 14 harrowing scenes leading to the crucifixion, while a third, narrower, work of St Dominic is beside the altar.

Icarus, July 1946

Icarus, July 1946.Photo Credit: Digital Image: Centre Pompidou, Paris, Mnam-Cci, Rmn-Grand Palais/ Phillipe Migeat, Jean Claude Planchet Succession Henri Matisse/Dacs 2014

Gouache cut-outs climbed Matisse's walls in the hotel, which developed the designs for the high, narrow windows with semi-circular apexes, punched through the long wall of the chapel and the nuns' small side-nave that extended perpendicularly off from the altar in an L-shape. Construction on site began in December 1949.

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Violet leaf on Orange Background (Palmette), 1947, owned by Mr and Mrs Donald B Marron, New York.Photo Credit: Succession Henri Matisse/Dacs 2014

The narrow stained windows are a simple repeated leaf pattern that flood the chapel with blue and yellow light. Matisse's trademark amoeba shapes distinguish two wider windows, called Tree of Life, behind the altar. Reflected off the white ceramic works, coloured light creates an ambience that is instantly tranquil yet also vibrantly alive. He also designed the furniture, stoup, various ornaments, and more. The chapel is mounted by a 13m-high wrought-iron cross with golden crescent moons that give it an almost whimsical aspect. The final chapel work was designing the wizardly priest's robes, in sets of different colours including red/gold and black/white, the maquettes for which were cut-outs mounted on canvas. Picasso said they were the chapel's best aspect. The project is sometimes described as Matisse's best work, and is certainly a stunning holistic tour-de-force from an artist who was 81 when it was consecrated in 1951.

Amphitrite, 1947, from a private collection

Amphitrite, 1947, from a private collection. Photo Credit:Digital Image: Alex Jamison

By then, Matisse was already busy with new projects in the Hotel Régina, and the shapes were getting larger. The Negress would stretch to the ceiling, a pure, primitivist single figure in cut-out parts that suggests such latent energy it might animate any moment. Nudes returned to his output, notably the striking, pared-down Blue Nudes of 1952, modelled by Delectorskaya. In that particular year a frieze of stars and fluid forms, including swimmers in motion called The Swimming Pool, spread around a room. In 1953, Matisse made The Snail, a vast work almost 3m square that evokes the creature in its ring of almost childish gouache blocks, and was originally to be part of a larger work called The Garden (a term he used anyway to refer to his walls, with their ecology of cut-out life).

Blue Nude I, II and III, all 1952, are gouache-painted paper cut-outs on paper, on canvas. They were modelled by his muse Delectorskaya
Blue Nude I, II and III, all 1952, are gouache-painted paper cut-outs on paper, on canvas. They were modelled by his muse
Delectorskaya. Blue Nude 1- Digital Image: Robert Bayer, Basel, Blue Nude II And III Digital Image: Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cc, Rmn-Grand Palais/ Droits Reserves

The Snail may be his most abstract work of all. Matisse was well aware of the rise of New York's abstract expressionists -- he was in regular contact with his son Pierre, who since 1930 had an art gallery on West 57th Street and handled there exactly what was 'in' (including his father's work). Matisse's last commission was for a rose window in upstate New York, which he was working on when he died in 1954.

The Snail (1953) is gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper then mounted on canvas, from Tate
The Snail (1953) is gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper then mounted on canvas, from Tate. Photo Credit:Digital Image:Tate Photography

Matisse's cut-out works have a vivacity and immediacy that might otherwise suggest a young artist in his prime, but they are images that pulse with life rather than shout about it, and they belie decades of painstakingly accrued insight and experience. Matisse was never a youthful prodigy -- even his first works to wake up the art world, back in his fauvist period, were made in his 30s. His steps forward into colour and abstraction can be traced in all the decades after. In his final years, and especially after the chapel when his productivity surged forward, it was as if he was in a race against time, and certainly against failing eyesight. Happiness fuelled the work.


Matisse at work in his studio, using a wheelchair after an operation following a diagnosis of cancer
Matisse at work in his studio, using a wheelchair after an operation following a diagnosis of cancer. Photo Credit:Lydia deLectorskaya succession Henri Matisse

This year, recollections from an art dealer friend have surfaced that say Delectorskaya and Matisse were in love -- though unconsummated, the passion clearly would have driven him. His sensibilities may have been bourgeois, contrasting with, say, Picasso's more raw, radical nature, but Matisse too was a revolutionary, right up until the end.





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