Matisse Cut-Outs

Posted by PH on September 20, 2014
Visual Culture

The weekend before last—how time flies—we went up to London to catch the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition at the Tate Modern. This being the last weekend of the show the Tate scheduled an all-nighter. We duly turned up at about 9:30pm and the place was absolutely heaving (although it did quieten down at about 10:30 and was actually quite civilized by about 11:30 when we left).

Anyway. Thank goodness we went. Despite being a huge admirer of Matisse’s paintings—noted in several earlier posts on this blog—I had been somewhat sceptical and had never really been enthused by his later work. But, as usual, seeing the actual works rather than reproductions made the world of difference. Firstly, the sheer scale of some of the works completely transformed their effect and their affective power:

matisse-cut-outs1

matisse_parakeet_and_mermaid

Secondly, the intensity and inter-relationship of the colours was simply astonishing. The cut-out method gives every colour block a clean and definitive edge, emphasizing contrast. The vermilion in The Dragon (below) was was almost unbelievably rich and deep. And placed next to that blue? Not obvious, but very effective:

matisse_the_dragon

The Lagoon series. Note how certain shapes are the negative of others i.e. they were all worked on together:

lagoon1

lagoon11

lagoon2

Which brings us nicely onto number three: repetition and rhythm. There is a lot of both in this series of works and in this respect it remains very modern. However, unlike most contemporary imagery of this sort—which relies on the computer’s ability to copy-and-paste ad infinitum—there is no exact repetition in Matisse: each motif in a given series is slightly different from every other because they are all hand-made. This organic element gives his work a humanity and interest simply not possible with mechanical reproduction: in fact, humanity is exactly what the repetition of identical elements destroys. There is an important lesson to be learnt here for those churning out modern computer-based music:

matisse_masks_detail

Finally, when you see these works in reproduction they lose their depth and texture. When you see the originals it is incredible how rough they are: you can see where the cut-out elements have been sliced, ripped, and torn; you can see the pinholes where they were temororily tacked up before fixing; you can see the scribbles and outlines of the pencil marks on the paper; and you can see where the colour blocks have been modified by layering. This is a detail from Blue Nude IV:

blue_nude_detail

Similarly, there are often different versions of these works in various media. Note the simplicity and flatness of the lithograph of Woman with Amphora and Pomegranates with the complexity, texture, and apparent depth in the relatively huge original:

woman-with-amphora-and-pomegranates-henri-matisse-1952

matisse_amphora_pomegranates_original

Summing up then, I think it is both exposure to the simplified lithograths and the flattening effect of reproductions in general that, in the past, have put me off these works. However, seen in the flesh, the signs of intelligent and skilled human activity are all too clear. They are a magnificent achievement.

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