Light, immediate, pure—just don’t call them naive. Matisse’s cut-outs, or gouaches découpés as they are more seductively known, may look simple to an untrained eye, with their loose, irregular shapes, but they have a sculptural precision. If the pinks, yellows and greens are garish rather than pretty, they sit in harmony and throb with energy. Seen en masse for the first time, they should take us inside the mind of a great artist who had found a new way to turn the depredations of old age to advantage.
It was during the war that Matisse, in his 70s and besieged by illness and immobility, began to play with scissors. From his bed or wheelchair, he cut confident, unpredictable silhouettes from stashes of paper, prepared by his doting assistants. Pinned to the walls, each shape was moved around like a jigsaw slowly coming to life—until Matisse said stop. His bedroom morphed into a studio, and the studio became a whirlpool of intense experimentation.
The cut-outs are much more than impromptu experimental studies. Stripped back and uncluttered, they show a cool, calm clarity of thought—a calculated balance between form and colour. Each component is like an abbreviated sign: an emotional, unrehearsed response to reality that interacts with the rest to form a unified whole.
Look at “Blue Nude I”, 1952. It is part of an iconic series and a good example of Matisse’s ability to make use of everything inside the picture plane. The supple, elongated limbs, the bulge of the breast and the heavy thigh work together effortlessly—but they only make sense thanks to the empty space that surrounds them. Unlike his paintings, the cut-outs are not about detail. Matisse is concerned with the broader context, the spirit and substance of his subject, and it is the conversation between the components that allows him to capture the essence.
This gives the cut-outs a fierce sense of freedom. Vibrant and unrestrained, they are charged with a power that is hard to put into words. They are a rich culmination of experience—the fruit of half a century of sharp observation. Here is Matisse’s closing statement, and it is dusted with magic. ~ Olivia Weinberg
Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs Tate Modern, London, Apr 17th to Sept 7th
EXHIBITIONS AT A GLANCE
Vikings: Life and Legend (British Museum, London, to June 22nd). A jam-packed show full of wonderful artefacts from all over the world launches the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, the museum’s first purpose-built space for temporary shows. (See feature.)
Gauguin: Metamorphoses (MoMA, New York, to June 8th). With a focus on his less well-known prints and transfer drawings (works with a print on the front and a pencil drawing on the back), this exhibition should tell us something new about an artist who is too often buried underneath predictable corn.
Vincent van Gogh/Antonin Artaud. The Man Suicided by Society (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, to June 15th). In 1947, Antonin Artaud, the French playwright and poet, wrote a fiery homage to Van Gogh having just been released from a psychiatric hospital. “Le Suicidé de la Société” is a rich, evocative text that forms the heart of this show, alongside drawings, letters and paintings.
Yoko Ono. Half-A-Wind Show. Retrospective (Guggenheim, Bilbao, to Aug 31st). A big, kooky exhibition from a figure who is revered by fellow artists and musicians. For the general viewer, a sense of humour may be needed.
Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice (National Gallery, London, to June 15th). Veronese was a superb painter—full of grandeur and glory, his enormous canvases are out of this world. Add Venice and you get some of the most exquisite paintings of the Italian Renaissance.
The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 (V&A, London, Apr 5th to July 27th). The dream team: Prada, Missoni, Valentino, Armani, Pucci—together on one fierce catwalk. An overview—and a chance to spot some of the new kids on the block. ~ OW