A cut above

A landmark Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern offers a rare opportunity to view his final – and most radical – work, says the curator Nicholas Cullinan, exploring the artist’s legacy

The idea for curating this exhibition – the most comprehensive one ever devoted to Henri Matisse’s paper cut-outs – came while I was busy preparing the  Cy Twombly retrospective with Nicholas Serota at Tate Modern back in 2008. I used to talk to Cy, who had turned 80, about his work, and we kept returning to Matisse. 

In the final years of his life, Matisse underwent a gruelling operation and was often confined to a wheelchair.  Less able to paint and sculpt, he started to cut out shapes in vividly coloured paper. 

Few artists ever had such great late periods as Matisse – perhaps only Titian, Monet, Rembrandt or Picasso. Even fewer pioneered a new form. Some of the first cut-outs were made on Matisse’s lap in bed around 1943/44. He just sat there and cut out shapes using a huge pair of scissors, and they were collected together in the limited-edition art book Jazz. The book and the maquettes made for it  will be shown together at Tate Modern. 

The new technique allowed Matisse to become not only more prolific, but more ambitious – and the scale of the work grew accordingly. He could no longer walk in the garden,  so he brought the garden inside. He could no longer swim, so he crafted himself a swimming pool. The cut-outs let him recreate the outside world indoors at a time when he was largely confined to  his home. In the Twenties,  he moved to Nice and the cut-outs perfectly capture the crystalline light of the Côte d’Azur that he loved so much. 

Most of the colours are still vibrant and stable. Some hues have fared better than others, such as the blue in the Blue Nudes – the exhibition includes the largest number of these to be shown together with their related works.

Looking at pieces such as ‘Large Composition with Masks,’ you start to realise the cut-outs are more  like installation art than paintings. Now seems a good time to revisit the cut-outs, and to consider just how influential and prescient they’ve proven to be.

Artists such as Ellsworth Kelly were in Paris when they were first exhibited in the early Fifties, while Matisse was alive. You can see the legacy of the French master’s work in Kelly’s very flat, bold areas of colour and form. Later, in 1964 – a decade after Matisse had died – Andy Warhol declared, ‘I want to be Matisse.’ And there is a direct correlation between Warhol’s flower paintings, which are similarly flat, bold and deliberately decorative, and Matisse’s cut-outs. 

Two young, contemporary British artists, Lucy Skaer  and Rosalind Nashashibi, have created works that refer to the Vence Chapel, which Matisse designed. Their 2008 short film, Pygmalion Event, shows a priest wearing one of the chapel’s brightly coloured vestments, the design of which also sprang from Matisse’s rich imagination.

I hope this exhibition  will attract a new generation to evaluate the cut-outs for themselves. I think we’re now more fully equipped to really understand what Matisse  was trying to do, and the full strength of his achievement. Even some of his close friends thought he was just amusing himself – they didn’t realise how radical the art form was. 

It was difficult to get so many of Matisse’s cut-outs in one place because private owners and museums were reluctant to release them.  Not many of us will be able to see such an astonishing group of works together again: it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.