Henri Matisse, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, was almost 80 years old when he developed the method of cutting out colored paper—gouaches découpées—that revolutionized modern art. Today, London’s Tate Modern Gallery brings us the largest exhibition of cut-out watercolors by the artist, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, from April 17 to September 7, which will continue its international sojourn at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City from October 14 to February 9, 2015.
As it only happens with true geniuses, Matisse managed to turn a limitation into a virtue when, almost in the twilight of his life, aged and sick, he could barely hold the brushes. “During the last decade, he found it incredibly difficult to paint. From the early 1940s, he began to pick up the technique that he had experimented with earlier in his life, of taking increasingly large pieces of coloured paper, cutting into that paper and making compositions” said Sir Nicholas Serota, director of London’s Tate Modern.
Although, at the time, some critics considered these works the result of Matisse´s senility, history has vindicated his genius. Even some of his contemporaries defended Matisse’s creative sensibility. Pablo Picasso, for example, expressed his own assessment: “It’s amazing that an artist, toward the end of his life could be able not only to invent a new style, but a new medium.”
A total of 120 works from international private collections and museums will be included in largest exhibition ever organized of the artist’s cut-out works. Among the items on display are Blue Nudes, Icarus, Mimosa, Memory of Oceania, The Snail and Large Composition with Masks. The last three works will be shown together for the first time, the way the artist intended as revealed in a photograph found in his studio.
Blue Nude 1 (1952), featured at this exhibit, reinforces Matisse’s renewed interest in the human figure towards the end of his life. Also, at this late stage the artist becomes even more focused in the explosive use of color, evocation of water and vegetation, which are present in many of the pieces on view.
Matisse invented a new medium by carving into color. This versatile artist had previously excelled in sculpture, painting, drawing and printmaking. His first cut-out watercolors were done between 1943 and 1947 and were featured in his book Jazz, where they appear alongside handwritten notes.
The shows also explores methods and materials used, by the artist, to create his final artistic triumph, as well as his concerns about art and decoration, contemplation, usefulness, drawing and, especially color. These pieces are punctuated by the presence of rhythm and a sense physicality and harmony.
The cut-outs “are more like installations or environments than paintings, and they seem very contemporary now”, said Nicholas Cullinan, the show’s curator. This landmark exhibition, comprehensive and inspirational, shows how a genius can overcome the adversity of life and, at the same time, revolutionize the history of modern art. ■