I had the privilege of spending the afternoon with Henri Matisse and his cut-outs at the Tate Modern in London a month ago. The expo, Matisse Cut-outs, ranks in the top-5 of my all time favorite expositions in the history of me. It was simply remarkable, and a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many of his fanciful and inventive works all in one place.
Matisse came to this scissors and paper form of art late in life. It was a brave and radical departure from what was going on in the art world and the real world at the time. One critic described his new form of expression as “a pot of paint flung in the face of the public.”
At the time he started the cutout phase of his career, he was mostly confined to bed. Sheets of pre-painted paper in every color he could imagine, piled high in his bedroom were his palette. His many pairs of scissors were his only tools. Working from his bed, he cut the shapes and his glamorous assistants would move them around his bedroom walls. Together they would trim and slash the pieces until the picture he had in his mind was realized. I imagine the room in a shower of colored paper, trimmings flutter down and swirling around as the work emerged.
Working during the dark days of the WWII, Matisse sought to created a world in harmony and peace, and heartily embraced his carefree and colorful cutouts. He defied the Nazis and the blacked out windows with his outrageous colors and forms. Rotating, inverting and changing his art as he worked must have been quite liberating in a time of occupation and strife. As the war wore on, his extraordinary works became both grander and, at the same time, simpler. He produced an enormous body of work, both in number and size.
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in his bedroom studio in Vence, France and watch him work with those dazzling piles of paper, a cane tipped with charcoal to draw his visions, those hypnotizing gliding scissors, and a simple bamboo wand (and elegant assistants) to place them on the studio walls.
The Tate Modern expo is jammed-packed with so many of his famous pieces, but I was particularly taken with his blue nudes. It was striking to see all four of these joyful and seemingly effortless women in the same room at the same time, I was also caught by one of his most abstract works, The Snail, and the fascinating story of how it was recently and lovingly resorted by the museum.
A spiritual soul, his art wasn’t limited to wall cutouts, in his last years, at the age of 77, he began worked on the redesign of the small Dominican Chapel of the Rosary (Chapelle du Rosaire) on the hills above the Mediterranean at Vence, not far from Nice. The views of the sea from the chapel are stunning as is the chapel itself. Rising up from the rocky terrain, the blue and white tiles and the lofty cross, bejeweled with gilded fires and crescents, seem to rise out of nowhere. Matisse “wanted those entering the chapel to feel themselves purified and lightened of their burdens,” and that he has achieved. The chapel is his self-proclaimed chef-d’oeuvre. “It isn’t perfect, but it is my masterpiece…and the fruit of (my) whole working life,” he asserted. He was the architect, designer and artist from start to finish. Everything is Matisse’s work from the altar and furnishings to the liturgical items, and simplistic passion triumphs throughout. The stained-glass windows are of course breathtaking, especially in contrast to the stark white walls. First designed as cutouts, they are humble, yet dramatic, as are the priests’ vestments, still worn for mass today. A perfect study in how stripping away the details lead to the most pure expression, it is a colorful and calm escape. Simply exquisite.
Matisse Cut-outs, Tate Modern, London
ends 7 September 2014
Chapelle du Rosaire
466 av. Henri Matisse, F – 06140 Vence, France
Hours: Tue and Thu 10am-11.30am, 2pm-5.30pm;
Mon, Wed and Sat 2pm-5.30pm
closed Fri, Sun and Bank Holidays