The Tate Modern in London is gearing up for an unusual show - "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs." Bedridden in his last 10 years, too hobbled to work at his easel, the painter turned to cutting his imagery out of paper.
The odd thing is, that's how he began making art in the first place - in bed.
Art didn't enter Matisse’s mind until he got sick and his mother gave him son paints to cheer him up. This may account for why happy pictures became Matisse’s signature style. His history suggests that he associated making art with getting cheered up.
Matisse’s pictures – mainly females - remained cheery and even decorative, through two world wars. And they stayed cheery and decorative when best pal Pablo Picasso painted the unrest and discontent of their time. He stuck to his happy and decorative picture-making even despite his pal telling the world, “Painting is not meant for decorating apartments. It is an instrument of war against the enemy.” Ouch.
In his "Notes d’un Peintre," Matisse explained that he saw his pictures as “mental soothers, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.” By equating his work with rest from fatigue, he unwittingly connects the dots straight back to his initiation to art during illness.
Not that his cerebral sedatives mean a subdued or lackluster palette. Brightly-lit and high-colored and ongoingly decorative. But he favored the human figure throughout his life:
“What interests me most is neither still life not landscape but the human figure. It is through it that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life..."
The Tate Modern show will feature 120 cut-outs made between '43 and his death in '54. How unusual is such a show? As Tate director Nicholas Serota told the press, "It is quite simply the most important exhibition of this phase of Matisse's work that has ever been staged and I think will ever be staged. It has never been done before, in part because the works are fragile: they are in paper, they are in color. The colors have proven astonishingly durable and they are amongst the most treasured works."
How unusual was it for a painter to end up making cut-outs? Exhibit curator Nicholas Cullinan points out that Picasso, who lived near Matisse in the south of France, was "stunned and more than jealous of his work...This is an incredible thing for an artist at the end of their carrier to pull off, to invent not only a new style but essentially a whole new medium."
After the show leaves London, MoMA will run it from October 14 to February 9, 2015.