Old age is no respecter of genius. True, there have been some artists — Goya, for example, or Monet — who managed one final great surge of creativity, but the sad fact is that far more end up plagiarizing themselves, or simply peter out. Not Henri Matisse. In January 1941, already aged over 70, he underwent a operation for cancer that nearly killed him and left him a permanent invalid. Aware that every day could be his last, he drove himself hard in the last ten years of his life. Partly because of the need for a less exacting technique than painting, he also developed what was essentially a new art form, the “cut-out.”
Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota has promised that this exhibition, organized in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art in New York (to which it will travel in October 2014) will be “the most evocative and compelling show that London has ever seen” and “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
It’s certainly comprehensive: spread across 14 rooms is almost every work of importance that Matisse made in the medium. The Pompidou Centre in Paris has lent the 20 original studies (“maquettes”) for the illustrated book “Jazz” (1943-44), which are displayed alongside the corresponding pages from the published work. The famous “Blue Nudes” (1952), usually divided between Basel and Paris, are together again — a rare event. Three works, “Large Decoration with Masks,” “The Snail” and “Memory of Oceania,” conceived as one vast composition, are reunited for the first time since they left the artist’s studio in 1953. There’s also a room devoted to designs for the famous Dominican Chapel at Vence, which Matisse called “the result of all my active life.” With so many wonders on view, it’s probably churlish of me to point out that perhaps his most innovative and personal work, MoMA’s room-sized “Swimming Pool,” is absent; unseen for more than 20 years and newly restored, it will surely be the highlight of the New York show.
The effect of seeing these iconic images together, along with scores of less familiar works, is spellbinding. It’s probably the colors that strike you first: not only their radiance and vibrancy but also the way they work together, nowhere more so than in the Tate’s own “Snail,” which is really just an essay in pure color. Then there’s the energy, exuberance and endless inventiveness of the forms: dancers, acrobats, cavorting nudes, bees in flight, strange vegetable shapes — your eye is never at rest. Most of all, if like me you mostly know them from reproduction, there is the sheer scale of some of the cut-outs, particularly the later ones: “Large Decoration with Masks” is over 10 meters across.
Matisse had long used cut paper to plan the elements of his compositions, as early examples shown here demonstrate, but it was only after the success of “Jazz” that he began to conceive of cut-outs as works of art in their own right. In documentary films he is shown cutting into the gouache-colored paper in a bold, freehand style — “painting with scissors,” he called it — and he certainly did produce spontaneous work like that: “Creole Dancer” (1950), for example, is known to have been completed in a single day. But even the smaller pieces were carefully planned beforehand, and it’s one of the merits of this show that you can trace in detail how Matisse went about it. Many still bear the faint charcoal marks that he used as a template before positioning the paper, often superimposing the pieces like collage. And if you get in really close you can even see the pin holes left when (under Matisse’s close supervision) his assistants endlessly rearranged the various components on the walls of his studio.
This exhibition is a revelation and a joy. To be honest, although I’d always thought of Matisse’s cut-outs as fun and uplifting — life-affirming, even — I saw them as products of necessity, not works that stood serious comparison with his paintings. After seeing this show, I realize how wrong I was: Matisse really did save the best till last.