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Numinous: "The Horse, the Rider and the Clown" by Henri Matisse (1943-44), a maquette for plate V of "Jazz"

In 1941 Henri Matisse, then aged 72, was diagnosed with cancer. The disease that could have ended his life instead brought him to artistic fulfilment. While the operation to remove the tumour was successful it nevertheless left him largely immobilised and it was from his wheelchair and his bed that he began what he called "une seconde vie", which was to last until his death in 1954. Although Matisse's geographical world had shrunk his imaginative world expanded: "You see," he told a friend, "as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk . . . There are leaves, fruits, a bird." The garden was not  botanical but one he made himself out of brightly-coloured paper cut-outs.

Although collages were an established genre, Matisse's cut-outs — gouaches découpés — represented a new art form. He would get his assistants to paint sheets of white paper with colours of his specification (often using gouaches from the Linel range because they corresponded most closely to commercial printers' inks) which he would then cut with scissors. He arranged the freeform shapes — organic forms, arabesques, stars — on the walls of his studio until he had a satisfying composition. The process could take months as he added and subtracted new pieces: he liked to watch the pinned shapes flutter in the breeze. Only when he was finally content would he glue the pieces on to another sheet of paper or a board. 

Throughout his career Matisse's primary concern was with colour, and the cut-outs were the culmination. He likened making them to "painting with scissors" and "carving into colour" and he went on to assert that: "Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated."

The cut-outs are the perfect subject for Tate Modern's big spring exhibition. The display is unprecedented: 120 works made between 1936 and 1954, an array of brilliant colour and fluidity of such intensity that Matisse's oculist warned him that he could permanently damage his eyesight if he continually worked at such a chromatic pitch. The only notice Matisse took of the warning was to work sometimes in a darkened room so the effect of the colours wouldn't be so intense.

Matisse himself thought that the cut-outs were not substitutes for painting but something else: decorations whose patterns, as his biographer Hilary Spurling put it, "corresponded to the inner movements of his mind". Some people, including Picasso and his lover Françoise Gilot, compared the snipping Matisse to an acrobat or juggler. Gilot recalls watching him at work in his modest home in Vence: "We were spellbound, in a state of suspended breathing. We sat there like stones, slowly emerging from a trance." Matisse himself described the cutting as performance art — as being "like a dance". He claimed that he became so practised with the scissors that he wielded them as deftly as a pencil. What he discovered with the cut-outs was what he had always striven towards: certainty of execution. 

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