Saturday, 19 April 2014

Matisse: colour, light and form to soothe the soul

The Mermaid and Parakeet (1952-54)
It might have been officially organised; it might not. In room five, hung to reflect the studio at Vence, sprawled or kneeling or seated on the wooden floor below the frames was arrayed a group of small girls, dressed in pink princess attire, studiously drawing and crayoning away, working to reproduce what was in front of them.

If ever you wanted to illustrate the point that ‘no, your five-year-old could not do that’, this seemed the perfect way.

Matisse: The cut-outs opened just three days ago at the Tate Modern to almost universal critical acclaim – I say “almost,” because Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard could not resist the sort of characteristic sneer that makes the reader feel they’ve just bitten into a lemon.

Not that Sewell was alone in his carping. Positive reviews in both the Guardian and Telegraph were followed, online, by post after post trumpeting the view that a tot could do the same. It was like the old fuzzy felt toys, someone asserted, while another proclaimed the works as being akin only to the halved potato prints of primary school.

The Horse, the Rider and the Clown (1943)
Mind, they’re in good company, since Matisse was on Hitler’s list of ‘degenerate’ artists.

One poster – revealing that depressing, dismally British distrust of anything that could be remotely construed as ‘intellectual’ – berated another poster who had admitted – shock horror – to having actually read a book about art.

‘Can’t you judge a painting without reading about it?’ came the sneering question.

You can enjoy a Beethoven sonata without reading about it, but that’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to learn – and more to then appreciate – if you have the inclination to explore further.

The cut-outs are a very good illustration of why having some background knowledge is helpful – although I’m equally sure that many who visit the exhibition will enjoy it regardless while, of course, some with knowledge might well dislike it.

But there are a number of things to bear in mind.

To begin with, something that appears simple and effortless does mean it was, and simplicity itself does not equate with childishness.

Composition on a Green Ground (1947)
Technically, I challenge any of the naysayers to take a piece of paper – any paper will do – and cut the sort of shapes from it that Matisse did as he “carved into colour”. To say that I’d struggle would be an understatement. And yet, with scissors that look like dressmaking shears, he cut into paper with extraordinary speed and confidence, as film reveals.

The shapes he cut, from gouache-painted paper, were often curvaceous, sensual and flowing: there is nothing clumsy about them.

And then there are the eventual compositions – sometimes pasted onto more paper, sometimes pinned – which have a rhythmic, harmonious quality. There is nothing haphazard about the placing.

After an initially crowded few rooms, the throng thinned out and we were able to sit on a bench and get lost in the vast, wall-filling Mermaid and the Parakeet (1952-54), which is a perfect illustration of what I mean.

Matisse also created a wonderful sense of movement in many of these works. The Other Half pointed out, when I mentioned this, that yes, well the room we were in at the time did feature works related to dance.

But there is movement here in a way that doesn’t exist in Degas’s beautiful paintings of the ballet.

Such movement is not unique to Matisse’s latest period. You can find it in the earlier (1932) vast pieces he worked on in paint for US collector Dr Albert C Barnes and in Dance (II), an oil on canvas from 1910.

Woman with Amphora  (1953)
Even in Toboggan (1943, for Jazz), the figure falling off is doing so in a sensual way, yet one that has movement too.

These works radiate energy.

And not just energy, but life.

Matisse was an old man when he created them. Often in pain after a botched but still life-saving operation for stomach cancer, much of the final years of his life were spent in bed or in a wheelchair.

But he didn’t stop. Though he could no longer paint, he developed into an art form in its own right what had begun as a way of testing composition for paintings.

It was “a race with death”, says biographer Hilary Spurling, but for all his sense of impending mortality, and for all the frustration his infirmity caused him, there is nothing here that suggests an artist sinking into despair.

Quite the opposite. And as death neared, the scale of the works increased.

It’s surprising to see The Snail (1953), a vast, abstracted square that perfectly shows that reproduction doesn’t always do a work justice. Reduced to a small copy, it loses its power.

There are within these works, recollections of a trip, 40 years previously, to Tahiti, and of an earlier one to North Africa. But the exoticism is utterly different to that in the works of Gauguin.

Blue Nude II (1952)
We can see two versions of Woman with Amphora (both 1953), one a ‘negative’ of the other: blue on white and white on blue. They reside in Washington and Paris, meaning that this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view them side by side.

The Blue Nudes, seen in the UK for the first time, are iconic. And the same can be said of The Fall of Icarus, which, along with less-familiar maquettes, was created for the seminal book, Jazz, which is displayed in both original and printed versions.

Matisse himself was never fully satisfied with the printing process: no matter how good it was, it didn’t reveal the layers of works he created, and seeing each maquette against each printed page you understand what he meant.

Having grown up in an area of northern France that specialised in textiles, Matisse had always loved fabric, collected scraps throughout his adult life and often reflected that fascination in his paintings.

And at this stage in his career, we find a fusion, a seamless blending, between ‘fine art’ (whatever that means) and graphic design.

Two of book covers are worth particular mention – one was for the 1952 book, The Decisive Moment, a collection of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who photographed his fellow artist more than once, and the second was for a 1949 title, Les Fauves, by Georges Duthuit. It was as though Matisse had come full circle.

The Fall of Icarus (1943)
Not only was he often in physical discomfort in his later years, but there was an emotional toll too.

His wife had left him; one son was in New York and another in the Resistance along with his daughter, who was incredibly lucky to survive torture by the Gestapo at the end of the war.

In the plate for Jazz, Monsieur Loyal, we surely see a silhouette of de Gaulle and with it, a rare political statement from the artist.

Picasso regarded his long-time rival as “a magician” when it came to colour.

Ah yes: colour. A passion for colour imbued by the revelation of the dazzling light of the south in a son of the north, so like van Gogh before him.

And the vibrancy of these works is astonishing. Surely, you find yourself asking, that colour should not sit well with that one? But they do.

There is a luminosity too.

Christmas Eve (1952)
Some works were intended as maquettes for carpets or friezes and stained glass, including the windows at the chapel at Vence, which he designed and oversaw the building of – he even designed the chausables – as a way of thanking a nun who had nursed him. It had church leaders squirming at his approach.

Matisse himself was a non-believer, having thrown off the oppressive, dark religion of his youth, but it’s hard not to see something spiritual in these works: a light that burns ever brighter as he moved toward the inevitable.

The final room pairs one maquette with the stained glass window that was subsequently produced. Christmas Eve (1952) contains little in the way of obvious religious iconography, but it radiates something that goes beyond simple colour or form or, as some might patronisingly describe it, ‘decoration’.

A life struggling to put onto canvas or paper what he saw and felt was almost over. But in these final works it is undoubtedly the case that Matisse created something extraordinary and very special: something continues to glow like a star.

And no: your five-year-old really couldn’t do the same.

Henri Matisse: The cut-outs is at the Tate Modern in London until 7 September and then, from October, at the Museum of Modern Art in new York.

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