Creative Sketchbook, Module 1,
An Additional Activity – A Visit to the Matisse Cut-Outs
This is a prequel to ‘Finding Out About Henri Matisse’ in Chapter 8, because I’ve been to see the Cut-Outs Exhibition at Tate Modern, and Chapter Five is all about Cut-Outs
I’ve never been the greatest fan of Matisse. That’s not to say I dislike him, but I wouldn’t stick a postcard of his work on the wall. However, since I have to do a bit of research on him for this course, and since ‘Henry Matisse: The Cut-outs’ is the current major exhibition at Tate Modern, and since my Younger Daughter lives in London, what better way to spend a day than to mooch around the gallery and meet up with YD!
And I’m awfully glad I did, because the exhibition was quite awesome. I was quite unprepared for the scale of the cut-outs – many of them are huge, and the vibrant colours, the shapes, and the sense of movement are stunning.
I came away converted. Not only do I begin to understand a little about some of Matisse’s work, but I like it, and I can see how it relates to what we are doing. His use of colour and shape, negative and positive space and so on was very inspiring, and it was interesting to see how he worked – there were a couple of short films, showing how he wielded the most enormous pair of shears, ‘cutting into colour’ as he himself described it.
In the films he cut freehand, producing wonderfully fluid shapes, but I gather that sometimes he did draw an outline on the paper. And, in case you’re wondering (well, I certainly did), he had an array of scissors in various sizes. So presumably he used smaller ones for the more detailed and intricate work.
I hadn’t realised that for the last 17 years of his life (he died in 1954) Matisse was confined to a wheelchair and was unable to paint, so he turned to paper cutting to express his ideas. It was a technique he had used on occasions in the past to create drafts of his paintings, but he took it to a whole new level. He cut shapes from paper painted by his assistants, who used gouache, producing a flat, even colour, with no shading. The colours were selected by Matisse – he had sample squares prepared to show exactly what he wanted. The assistants lightly pinned the cut-out pieces of paper to the walls of Matisse’s studio, leaving them free to move in the wind. Bits were added, taken away, altered and moved until Matisse was satisfied with the composition, and it was finally stuck on paper, canvas or board.
When you look at the pictures they are so seamless it’s hard to remember they are created from pieces of paper – in fact, I’d always assumed things like Blue Nude and The Snail, which are among his most iconic images, were painted.
A lot of the shapes turn up over and over again in different pictures, in different colours, set against different coloured backgrounds. Those flowing leaves, looking like fronds of seaweed, seem to be a favourite, and so are the little heart shapes, which could be fruit or leaves or flowers. The shapes are there on their own, joined and overlapped and layered. Sometimes bits of a shape are repeated, enlarged or made smaller, and sometimes it’s the negative shape which seems to the focal point.
Then there are the human figures, reduced to their simplest form, but it’s a deceptive simplicity, because these are the stars of circus and stage, acrobats and dancers, swooping and leaping with joy. How can anyone convey movement and energy in just a few flowing blocks of colour?
And such colours! They are amazing: bold, bright, loud, and pure, they sing and shout from their paper settings, demanding attention. My personal preference has always been for a more muted palette, with shades of pale, harmonious colours (you won’t find anything bright or clashing in my house or wardrobe). I should be well out of my comfort zone at this exhibition (even more so when you consider that on the whole I tend to like paintings that look like what they are meant to be). But I love it! It’s one of those ‘wow’ moments when something I’ve never understood suddenly starts to make sense, and I can enjoy it.
Having read this through, it strikes me that it’s less about Matisse, and more about my response to the Cut-outs, and somewhat jumbled at that. But I came away with so many thoughts and images buzzing around inside my head it’s hard to know where to start, and how to put things in any kind of cohesive order, so I hope a little of my enthusiasm comes across. And in this piece I haven’t mentioned his painting… I’ve left that for chapter 8, because the more I find out about Matisse, and more I look at his work, the more interested I get, and the more I like him. He was constantly evolving and trying new techniques, and new ways of looking at things, but he never saw himself as a revolutionary.
He believed exactitude in art was not important. He stressed that when he painted grass it was not real grass. Like Cezanne, who tried to create the essence of what he was painting, rather than an exact replica, Matisse felt it was the emotion of the thing that mattered. “I simply try to use colours that express my feelings,” he explained.
He sought the strongest colour effect possible, claiming that colour ‘contributes to the expression of light’, and that it is a ‘liberation’. I think it was that freedom which enabled him to embrace cut-outs so whole-heartedly and so successfully when he was old and ill, and to abandon any remaining shreds of traditional brush and paint methods. His figures, in particular, are pared down and simplified – not quite abstract, but definitely a logical progression from his controversial ‘Dancer’ paintings.
When talking about his cut-out figures Matisse said: “One mark is enough to evoke a face. There is no need to impose eyes or a mouth on people – you should leave the way clear for the spectator’s daydreams.”
And I think that’s a pretty good ambition, to engage the viewer and draw them into the picture, and make them think about it, and create their own story about what it represents, I could have stood and daydreamed for hours in front of any one of the 120 pictures in this exhibition.
(All Information is from the Tate website).