A major exhibition of Henri Matisse's cut-outs is now in London at the Tate Modern and will be traveling to the Museum of Modern Art on October 25, 2014 (through February 8, 2015). Until fairly recently, this late work of Matisse's, like the late work of Monet and Picasso (and I believe De Kooning can be added to the list), was wrongly belittled as the frivolous art of an old man. I've long believed, however, that Matisse's innovations are similar to, and at least as radical as, what the Abstract Expressionists were doing at the time; and that Matisse's cut-outs should be considered among the greatest work of the twentieth century. They certainly are among the most joyful art ever made.
Matisse described his new medium in a 1952 interview with André Verdet (Pretiges de Matisse): "... drawing with scissors on sheets of paper colored in advance, one movement linking line with color, contour with surface." Cut-outs are simultaneously drawing and painting – a phenomenon analogous to Jackson Pollock's drip and drawing, and Clyfford Still's shape and color field. (And since it was Matisse doing the "drawing with scissors," the images are drawn with masterful economy, distilled down to their bare essence.)
|Matisse working on a cut-out in his studio in Vence, 1947 (Financial Times).|
|Matisse's studio, The Snail, 1953 on the left and Memories of Oceania, 1953 on the right, with a section of Large Composition with Masks, 1953, in the center.|
Matisse's environments are more palpable and immediate than any room decorations of the past. Rooms painted by Fragonard in the 18th century, for example, are imaginary worlds set in a space behind the frame – a different space from our own. We look through the picture plane at a fantasy world. With Matisse's cut-outs, the viewer becomes a participant in a "real world" experience.
|The Fragonard Room, The Frick Collection.|
|Henri Matisse in his studio in Nice, 1952 (photograph: Lydia Delectorskaya © Succession Henri Matisse).|
The tactility of cut-outs was important to Matisse who was disappointed with the flat, even color of the stenciled version of his Jazz suite, complaining that the printing "removes their sensitivity."*
|Henri Matisse, The Sword Swallower, from the Jazz suite, 1947, stencil, planographic color stencil, printed from multiple cut paper stencils, lithograph, edition of 250, 15 3/4 x 11 3/4 inches (National Gallery, Washington).|
The spontaneous, casual, handmade quality of the cut-outs, all but lost in reproduction, is perhaps even more important. As with Mondrian's paintings, little imperfections make it viscerally obvious that the art is made by a human being.
|Detail - Piet Mondrian, Composition with White and Red, 1936, oil on canvas (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1952-61-89).|
|Close-up detail of Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks (National Gallery of Art, Washington).|
|Close-up detail of Henri Matisse, La Negresse, 1952-53 (National Gallery of Art, Washington).|
|Interior of the Matisse Chapel.|
In a 1952 interview with André Verdet (Pretiges de Matisse), Matisse responded to Picasso's angry objection to his involvement with religion:
My only religion is the love of the work to be created, the love of creation, and great sincerity. I did the Chapel with the sole intension of expressing myself profoundly. It gave me the opportunity to express myself in a totality of form and color.
And it was a "totality of form and color" indeed. Matisse converted his entire studio into a mock-up of the chapel so he could more easily work on the designs – literally surrounding himself with his art.
|Matisse drawing a head for the decoration of Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence (The Matisse Chapel) in his studio/room in the Hotel Regina, in Nice-Cimiez, 1950.|
The National Gallery's Matisse Room was the only place one could experience a room of Matisse's cut-outs close to the way he arranged them in his studio. Unfortunately, the entire East Wing of the National Gallery, including the room with the Matisse cut-outs, is closed for renovation and won't open until sometime in 2017. For some reason, the National Gallery doesn't even have reproductions of these cut-outs on their website – but I managed to download this one from the Arts Observer website.
|Installation view, Henri Matisse, La Négresse and Large Composition with Masks in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.|
|Henri Matisse, The Swimming Pool (left portion on top, right on the bottom), 1952, gouache on cut paper, overall 73 inches high x 70 feet wide, installed as nine panels on burlap-covered walls, 11 feet 4 inches high (MoMA).|
|Henri Matisse, Women with Monkeys, 1952, gouache on cut paper on white paper, 28 1/4 x 112 2/3 inches (Museum Ludwig).|
|Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953, gouache, 113 x 113 inches (Tate Gallery, London).|
|Henri Matisse, Memory of Oceania, 1953, gouache on paper, 112 x 109 inches (MoMA, NY).|
|Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks, 1953, gouache on paper, cut and pasted on white paper, mounted on canvas, overall (five joined panels) 139 3/16 x 392 5/16 inches (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1973.17.1).|
And here, for no particular reason other than for your visual delight, is this beauty from the Tate/MoMA exhibition:
Henri Matisse, Sorrow of the King, 1952, gouache on paper cut and pasted, 115 in × 152 inches (Musée Nazional d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris).
* Although these quotes are cited in many different places, I have not been able to discover the original source for any of them.