In later life Henri Matisse became a warrior in a wheelchair. Armed with long-bladed scissors and sheets of paper painted in dazzling hues by a team of doting assistants, in the late 1930s he waged war on old age and illness the only way he knew how – with art. The exuberance of Matisse’s cut-outs hits you from the off in this spellbinding show (OK, perhaps not in the first room, which sets the scene with a transitional cut paper version of ‘Still Life with Shell’, 1940, but from the second, where his dancers start to leap into your consciousness). But, in case the faintly disparaging terms ‘sweet’ or ‘decorative’ start to creep into your mind, the Tate is quick to banish any sense of an artist indulging himself – or being indulged – in his dotage. Instead, the curators have done a sterling job in bringing into focus the complexity – both visual and emotional – of these late, great works.
From small studies that show him using cut-outs as compositional tools, to his prophetic final works, like the ‘Parakeet and the Mermaid’ (1952), Matisse’s genius soars, growing room by room as the works themselves become ever more ambitious. Rational and practical to the end, we see him tailor his art to suit his diminished mobility. And how agile the results seem. In films and photographs we see his bedroom/studio becoming a kind of canvas for elaborate arrangements of paper shapes pinned to the walls. Some of those papercuts wind up with hundreds of puncture marks as Matisse has them moved again and again before allowing them to be fixed into position on a paper or canvas support.
Of course, rehearsal for these works began decades before they appeared. The overriding sense here is of an artist pushing himself forward while also looking back. So much of Matisse’s work here is about memories – of gardens, landscapes and travels – heady and often, you sense, intimate experiences of younger life. Yet, just as Matisse isn’t compromised by physical frailty, he isn’t imprisoned by his recollections. He invents a whole new means of expression and the results are exultant. By the exhibition’s close, you’re convinced that good old gouache paint is the most radiant substance on earth – appearing in the final room to outshine even a stained glass window.
As the afterglow of the exhibition starts to fade you might find yourself wondering why colour, light and love, all those qualities we find so vital in Matisse, are rarely considered virtues in contemporary art today. You could argue that we need them now more than ever.
Read about all the reunited masterpieces in London this year here.