There are three ways to understand the colourful cut-outs that Matisse made at the end of his career and which are now the subject of a superb tribute at Tate Modern. The first way, the way chosen by Tate Modern itself, is to see them as some of the greatest art of the modern era: the stupendous culmination of a glorious career.
The cynic’s way, the second way, is to dismiss them as “the product of a second childhood” and to gaze with dismay at the outpourings of an 80-year-old artist making kiddie art with a giant pair of scissors. This, by and large, was how the cut-outs were received when they were produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s. An unconvinced art world was loudly critical of them.
The third way, my way, and surely the right way, is to see them as a happy development with mixed results. Many of them are utterly gorgeous and constitute a remarkable adventure in image-making. Others are run-of-the mill.
What is not in doubt is that Tate Modern has pulled off a coup in bringing them all together and parading them before us in this outstanding investigation. As a piece of exhibition-making, Matisse: The Cut-Outs is flawless: a careful, insightful and engrossing celebration of a great artist’s extraordinary decision to stop doing things one way and start doing them another way. Although that is not what actually appears to have happened.
In 1941, aged 72, Matisse had to have an emergency colostomy. It was a dangerous procedure, and the doctors were unsure he would survive. When he did, they warned him he may have only a few months to live. Instead, nourished and strengthened by exciting new ambitions for his own art, he squeezed out a further decade and more of artistic creation. No longer able to paint, he needed, however, to develop a new way of making art: the cut-out. That, at least, is how the mythologised account of these events that has come down to us.
The actual creation of the cut-outs is described in some flickery snippets of film scattered about the show. Sitting in a wheelchair in his pyjamas, armed with a notably large pair of cloth-cutter’s scissors, the avuncular Matisse holds up the paper with one hand and slices into it with the other like a practised village butcher boning a cow. No fuss. No hesitation. Slice, slice, slice. Once the papers have been cut, they are handed to a bevy of studio handmaidens, who pin them to the wall, directed by the watching artist. Lots of adjustment. Lots of hesitation. A fluid and intriguing process that appears closer to dressmaking than the usual ways of making art.
However, one of the first and best points the show makes is that the cut-outs should be viewed as a continuation of Matisse’s journey, not a departure. The first exhibits here were both made in 1940, before the operation. One is a painting, a still-life, with apples, a shell and a coffee pot arranged across a typical Provençal table. The other is the same image, reworked with paper cut-outs. It turns out that Matisse was a habitual user of cut-outs to help clarify his compositions. Long before the cancer, he was already shifting paper shapes around to find the best position for them.
This news that Matisse had been cutting out for decades casts his paper achievements in a different light. For one thing, it ties him in firmly with the earlier experiments in collage of Picasso and Braque. Instead of a Matisse who suddenly invents a decorative new technique in his old age, we have a Matisse who is secretly developing and adapting the lessons of the cubists.
Once this is understood, his art, in the flesh, feels immediately weightier. I say “in the flesh” because the exhibition’s next revelation is to make clear how very different the original artworks are from the reproductions of them. Images that, in their printed form, are fridge-magnet-friendly and decorative, turn out, in their originals, to be scratchy and ruffled and intriguing and complex. It’s particularly true of the designs for Jazz, an artist’s book from 1947 that never fails to persuade me to quicken my stride when encountered in a museum vitrine. Even Matisse himself complained of the flat and insensitive presence of Jazz the book. But look how progressive and experimental the originals were. In the flesh, Jazz’s bright, emollient, South of France imagery toughens up immediately into a fabulously inventive outpouring of hardcore, post-cubist collage.
All the way through the show, the point keeps being made that Matisse’s cut-outs were one thing in the studio, and another thing when they left it. Oceania, from 1946, began life as an installation that filled the room. Dreaming of a visit he made to Tahiti in 1930, in the days before illness and war, Matisse began cutting out tropical shapes and sticking them to his walls. One wall became a sky filled with dipping swallows. Another became the sea, rippling with coral and passing fish.
In the photographs of the studio where all this took place, Oceania is revealed as a parallel reality created by an ageing artist who could no longer leave the room. But the actual panels on display here — rescued from the studio, and framed — are merely charming. The sense of a total submergence in hypnotic memories has gone.
The cut-outs spend their entire early history uncertain of their finished form. In every case, the originals have something that the reproductions do not. The turning point comes at the end of the 1940s, when Matisse began working on his celebrated decorations for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence. As an atheist, he had no ecclesiastical axe to grind in his church designs. But stained glass is stained glass, and it would have taken a tougher atheist than Matisse to resist the spiritual temptation of a set of cobalt-blue windows shimmering in the Mediterranean sun. If you’ve been to Vence, you’ll know that the intense colour flooding into the white interior does something to you. Thus the enveloping effects of the cut-outs in the studio have found a way to travel.
One of the key revelations of Hilary Spurling’s award-winning Matisse biography was the connection she established between the clothmaking traditions of Picardie, where Matisse grew up, and the coloured patterns of his mature art. Nowhere is that connection more evident than in the cut-outs now created by the old man with the big scissors. In a century notable for its inability to produce great religious art, how delightful that some of Matisse’s most beautiful paper works were the designs he created for the priest’s garments in the Chapel of the Rosary.
The cut-outs now discover illusion and boldness. Zulma, a full-size nude from 1950, sees them expanding into the third dimension, with the angles of a table pushing the striking nude into our space. In the show’s most elegant moment, the four Blue Nudes have been brought together for a rare gathering of the full harem, and compared delightfully with a set of earlier sculptures. Creole Dancer, from 1950, was apparently inspired by a dancer who came to the studio to enchant Matisse and who seems to have brought the rest of the carnival with her.
More obviously than in any other stretch of his work, the cut-outs shiver with longing for exotic places and distant lands. Precisely because he could not move, Matisse, you feel, was desperate to voyage. The huge murals that result sometimes steal too obviously from the decorative shorthand of other lands. The Parakeet and the Mermaid could easily be a Tahitian sarong. And at some point near the end, he switches over from pleasing himself to pleasing others.
The Sheaf, produced in 1954 for a pair of rich Americans in LA who wanted a floral mural in their garden, is pretty patio art — and little more. The show’s final image, a stained-glass window for the Rockefellers in New York, is a cheerful Christmas pattern. Thus the journey doesn’t culminate in the big finale it has been building up to. But, as the saying goes, ’tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive.