Si je crois en dieu? Oui- quand je travaille. Je me sens tellement aide par quel qu’un qui me faire des choses qui me surpassent.
It is sometime in the early nineteen fifties. An elderly artist, no longer strong enough to paint on canvas after major surgery, is confined to his bed, or a wheelchair, and he sits in his studio cutting up pieces of coloured paper. They have been painted for him by an assistant and they are held up gently in front of him so that it is easy for him to guide his scissors, allowing him to take the lead. The walls around him are filled with the coloured forms and patterns that he has made. He does not have much time left, and he knows it, but do not feel sorry for him. He has been a great artist for many years, bold and controversial, never afraid to innovate, and while there is breath in his body he is not going to give up his creativity. This is not a poor old man whose strength has failed him being given art therapy. He has often used cut out paper shapes to allow him to design a composition before starting to paint and now he is, quite simply, inventing a new art form, producing work which shimmers and vibrates with movement and colour. Making art gives him a reason to live, as it always has, and for a while, during the act of creation, it allows an atheist to believe in God.
I walked around Tate Modern’s wonderful exhibition of Henri Matisse’s paper cuts in awe of the man. All around me there was work which amounted to a shout of joy at being alive. The contrast between the frail figure in video footage, filmed in his studio, and the youthful, dynamic energy of the work on the gallery walls was very moving. The core of creativity which was at his heart, his human spirit, was undimmed. Many of the images from Jazz are concerned with movement and physical energy- the joy and exhilaration of being young. Trapeze artists fly through the air, plumed horses prance, a toboggan flips up and crashes, a knife thrower is caught in the moment that he aims his knife, a creole dancer sways in full motion. Everywhere there is colour, balance and tension. Sometimes there is simple elegance too, in the flight of bees and swallows or the act of sword swallowing.
Over and over again you can see Matisse positioning, pinning, altering, until he gets the composition exactly right. It’s as if he is still there. The pins, overlays and creases are visible in a way that they are not in reproduction, something which disappointed him when they were first copied.
Here is one of his most famous cut outs, the first of the blue nude series made in 1952. It is elegant, sensual and perfectly balanced. I can’t imagine changing one iota of it without destroying it- it is exactly as it needs to be. The chance to see the whole series together in the same room was a real treat.
His skill and ambition grew as time went on and his cut outs grew with him. As you walk through the rooms you can feel his excitement growing as he realised what he could do with his new art form. I loved the parakeet and the mermaid, two elegant tapering silhouettes in a riot of coloured trailing pattern, made on a grand scale. The largest cut outs really do take your breath away.
The final room is devoted to a stained glass commission for the Time-Life building in New York. It is stunning, a yellow star shining out of a dark blue sky above balancing patterns suggesting a fertile landscape. We are able to see both the original design and the stained glass finished version. They are surprisingly different in feel, although the design is unchanged. Stained glass is a natural medium for the cut outs but it does change them. Subtlety is lost, replaced with a joyful blaze of light.
I have waited a long time to see these cut outs given the celebration that they deserve. People weren’t always sure what to make of them at the time they were made, but Matisse knew how good they were and he also knew that eventually other people would realise it too. The crowds making their way through the exhibition each day are proving him right. They included a lot of children. One tiny, excited little girl was being allowed to lead her mother from one work to another, a small boy was sitting in his expensive travel system, eyes lowered, playing on his ipad, while a third small girl simply lay down flat on the floor in the middle of one of the rooms hiding her face. I think they call it gallery fatigue. I hope that it would have made Matisse laugh.