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.
Matisse was not always certain though about the role of his cut-outs as independent works of art. “The walls of my bedroom are covered with cut-outs,” he wrote to a friend, “I still don’t know what I’ll do with them.” What he did with some of them was to turn them into a limited edition book, Jazz (1947), which contained 20 cut-outs related to the circus, the theatre and myth among other themes but, as the title suggests, was really about the idea of artistic improvisation. The Tate show includes the original cut-outs alongside the finished book.
He also used them to return to the naked form. His “Blue Nudes” of 1952 are not only silhouettes that he traced sinuously with his scissors but a return to the art of his youth when, along with Picasso, he had been influenced by African carvings and indeed in 1907 had produced a painted Blue Nude.
The cut-outs reached their apotheosis as designs for the stained-glass windows of the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence. The commission came about through his close friendship with Monique Bourgeois, who had nursed him in 1941 and later took orders as a Dominican nun, Sister Jacques-Marie. Matisse himself was an atheist but the chapel decorations and in particular the largely blue and yellow windows are sublime. The effect of thrumming colours and white walls carrying his simple outline drawings is numinous.
Reaction to the chapel, completed after four years’ work in 1951, was initially lukewarm. The press was more interested in the relationship between the artist and Sister Jacques-Marie, just as they were with his closeness to his beautiful young Russian helpmeet Lydia Delectorskaya. Matisse was above such nonsense. For a man in his eighties, frail but driven, the chapel was a project unlike any other. Not only did he largely finance it himself but it represented, he said, “an entire life of work”. The effort of completing it exhausted him.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Tate exhibition is that it allows the viewer to experience something of Matisse’s physical world. The cut-outs were immersive, surrounding him in a way that paintings never quite did: Large Composition with Masks (1953), for example, is 10 metres long. And they are purely joyous works, unusual for an artist in late life. For someone who was used to judging the merit of his own work according to how much he had struggled with it, the cut-outs were an expression of release. There is no brooding in them, nothing maudlin or nostalgic but rather the happiness of finally achieving what he always wanted: they enabled him to acknowledge that at last “I have the mastery, I am sure of it.”