Henri Matisse : The Cut Outs at Tate Modern London


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Henri Matisse : The Cut Outs

In the late 1940s, Henri Matisse turned almost exclusively to cut paper as his primary medium, and scissors as his chief implement, introducing a radically new operation that came to be called a cut-out. Matisse would cut painted sheets into forms of varying shapes and sizes—from the vegetal to the abstract—which he then arranged into lively compositions, striking for their play with color and contrast, their exploitation of decorative strategies, and their economy of means. Initially, these compositions were of modest size but, over time, their scale grew along with Matisse’s ambitions for them, expanding into mural or room-size works. A brilliant final chapter in Matisse’s long career, the cut-outs reflect both a renewed commitment to form and color and an inventiveness directed to the status of the work of art, whether as a unique object, environment, ornament, or a hybrid of all of these.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is a groundbreaking reassessment of this important body of work. The largest and most extensive presentation of the cut-outs ever mounted, the exhibition includes approximately 100 cut-outs—borrowed from public and private collections around the globe—along with a selection of related drawings, prints, illustrated books, stained glass, and textiles. The last time audiences were treated to an in-depth look at the cut-outs was in 1961in New York.

This exhibition at Tate Modern London was sparked by an initiative to conserve The Museum of Modern Art’s monumental cut-out The Swimming Pool (1952), a favorite of visitors since its acquisition by MoMA in 1975. The Swimming Pool is the only cut-out composed for a specific room—the artist’s dining room in his apartment in Nice, France. The goals of the multiyear conservation effort have been to bring this magical environment back to its original color balance, height, and spatial configuration. Newly conserved, The Swimming Pool—off view for more than 20 years—returns to galleries as a centerpiece of the exhibition.

With research on two fronts—conservation and curatorial—this exhibition offers a reconsideration of the cut-outs by exploring a host of technical and conceptual issues: the artist’s methods and materials and the role and function of the works in his practice; their environmental aspects; their sculptural and temporal presence as their painted surfaces exhibited texture and materiality, curled off the walls, and shifted in position over time; and their double lives, first as contingent and mutable in the studio and, ultimately, as permanent, a transformation accomplished via mounting and framing. The exhibition also mines the tensions that lurk in all the cut-outs, between finish and process, fine art and decoration, drawing and color.

This exhibition was busy and I was surprised by the varying demographic of art lovers who were fans of Matisse, compared with other exhibitions I have been to. It was a joy.

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