More than five years in the making, the most comprehensive survey ever staged of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs opens at Tate Modern this month. The exhibition, which is co-organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, assembles 120 works from the extraordinary late period of the Modern master, who abandoned painting to invent a new form from cut-and-pasted shapes of coloured paper during the last 13 years of his life.
Museums and collectors across the world are lending their fragile cut-outs, motivated by the opportunity “to see them all together for perhaps the last time in our lifetimes”, the curator Nicholas Cullinan says. Significant loans include the largest group of blue nudes ever exhibited and the first presentation outside France of the artist’s book Jazz, 1947, in its two forms: the 20 printed plates from Tériade’s limited edition alongside Matisse’s original cut-outs.
“I’ve been amazed by the number of very large-scale works that are travelling,” Cullinan says. Among these, Memory of Oceania, from the Museum of Modern Art and the 33-foot-long Large Composition with Masks, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington are joining Tate Modern’s own The Snail (a favourite of the director, Nicholas Serota, who takes on a rare curating role for this show) for the first time since they were created and photographed together on Matisse’s studio wall in Nice in 1953.
The reunion, a feat only made possible by recent developments in transportation technology, is a long-standing curators’ dream. The Museum of Modern Art hoped to borrow The Snail for the Matisse retrospective in 1992, but it was too large to be packed and flown at the time. It will finally cross the Atlantic when “Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs” travels to New York in October.
The show’s chronological arrangement charts the rapid evolution of an art form born from necessity. Recuperating from a cancer operation in 1941, in his early seventies, the bed-bound Matisse chose scissors as an easier alternative to the pencil or paintbrush. The paper cutting technique he had used to design costumes for the Ballets Russes in the 1910s and the mural for the millionaire Albert Barnes, The Dance, 1932-33, enabled him to produce maquettes for books and periodicals quickly and to exact colour specifications.
The cut-outs had become a form in their own right by the early 1950s as Matisse embarked on increasingly abstract compositions that assumed, then exceeded, the dimensions of paintings. His assistants painted sheets of paper, from which he cut the shapes, and pinned them to the walls of the studio. Belying the childlike immediacy of their appearance, the intensely coloured arrangements would “often gestate over a period of months”, Cullinan says. Matisse reconsidered and reconfigured them in the room where he also slept, suggesting a new understanding of the all-consuming, three-dimensional process as “more akin to installation art”.
Where some critics during Matisse’s lifetime compared the cut-outs unfavourably to his paintings, this show places them at the pinnacle of his creative output. In fact, Cullinan says, they were an innovative “synthesis of all the different aspects of his life’s work... colour, line, form. They were ahead of their time and people were baffled that one of the greatest painters of the 20th century would choose to stop painting, to focus on a medium he’d invented. I think it’s unparalleled in the final period of any artist’s career.”
• Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs, Tate Modern, 17 April-7 September