© Succession Henri Matisse, Paris/ARS, New York.

© Succession Henri Matisse, Paris/ARS, New York.

“Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs”

WHEN WE PICTURE Henri Matisse at work, two scenes generally come to mind, and in both he is bedridden. In the first, known only through his own account, he is a callow twenty-year-old recuperating from appendicitis who finds his vocation when his mother gives him a box of paints to pass the time. In the second, at the other end of his career and documented in countless photographs and eyewitness reports, he is a venerable master, white-bearded and bespectacled, propped up against a pillow and scissoring into sheets of colored paper.

Matisse worked hard to place these images in our heads. He recounted his discovery of painting to convince an initially skeptical public of the essentially benign and restorative nature of his work, an effort crystallized in the famous statement that art should be something like an armchair for a tired businessman. The photographs of the aged Matisse working on the cutouts sought likewise to legitimize his work in a medium many saw as a frivolous diversion by emphasizing his ongoing attachment to the sensuous gratifications of art and his undimmed devotion to his craft even as he recovered, once again, from a life-threatening illness.

Such image management helped Matisse to pacify his critics, but it came at a cost, lodging in the public’s imagination the idea that his work concerned itself merely with the hedonistic pleasures of color and semiabstracted form. That the cutouts are widely considered to be the fullest realization of these concerns explains the tremendous popularity of Tate Modern’s exhibition, its rooms jammed with dazed pleasure seekers. (The Tate’s recent Richard Hamilton show, offering a more ambivalent take on the satisfactions of art and mass culture, was, on my visit, far more sparsely populated.) The public, in this case, has it about right: Many of the cutouts are uncomplicatedly beautiful—decorative would be Matisse’s preferred term. But the work that Matisse began making in the last two decades of his life could also generate more complex and challenging meanings. The great strength of the Tate’s exhibition—curated by Nicholas Cullinan, now curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Nicholas Serota, director of Tate Modern, with Flavia Frigeri, assistant curator at the Tate—is that it brings both sides into view.

For the most part the show presses the case for seeing the cutouts as sensuous distraction. In the first room, the grainy footage of a home movie shows Matisse in flannel dressing gown, bedcover drawn up around his knees, chatting with an unseen interlocutor as he slices into a sheet of paper. This scene of apparently effortless creation sets in motion one of the exhibition’s central narratives: that the cutouts released Matisse’s art from physical constraints, whether imposed by the supposed difficulty of uniting line and color in other mediums (the hackneyed claim that “drawing with scissors” overcame the age-old divide between contour and color is trotted out more than once on wall panels and in the catalogue) or by the artist’s frailty. We are told, for example, that the sprightly contortions of Matisse’s paper acrobats compensated for his own impaired mobility, and that Memory of Oceania, 1952–53, conjured up a radiant vision of a world to which the elderly artist could no longer hope to return.

These well-worn claims are not wrong: The later works in particular tend to register as insubstantial shapes and colors rather than as physical objects. But when Matisse first made use of the cutting technique, it was precisely the materiality of the paper that interested him. Two Dancers, 1937–38, a stage-curtain design for a Léonide Massine ballet, is a mass of jagged paper shards and colored thumbtacks, its emphatic physicality a tactile analogy for the dancers’ dynamically animated bodies. The studies for Jazz, 1947, are equally adept at using the palpable solidity of paper to generate meaning, as when a blankly impenetrable gray rectangle that allows the radiance of the white page around its edges to catch the eye is pasted alongside a section of Matisse’s hand-scrawled text that describes the limitless space of the sunlit heavens temporarily obscured by a dense layer of cloud.

The physicality of the process of cutting and pinning could also yield connotations far removed from the decorative. A maquette from 1951–52 for André Rouveyre’s book on Apollinaire positions the poet’s name in simple white letters against a blue ground pierced so repeatedly by pinholes that we feel ourselves to be looking less at evidence of careful composition and rearrangement than at a sublimated attack on a man with whom Matisse’s relations had long been tense. That the artist sensed the violence implicit in the technique is suggested by an extraordinary photograph showing cutouts arranged on the studio wall alongside four shooting-range targets, each carefully dated, their central rings pockmarked by lead shot.

Such meanings were lost when the layers of paper were translated into colored shapes imprinted flatly on the pages of Jazz or the cover of Rouveyre’s book. The publication of Jazz in 1947 was for this reason a great disappointment to Matisse, and he feared that his later cutouts also suffered when pasted down flatly to be sold as finished works. (The curators usefully draw attention to the contingent nature of the cutouts in Matisse’s studio, where they were constantly rearranged and recombined, paralleling Piet Mondrian’s contemporaneous practice in New York). In truth, though, much of their material presence had already evaporated by the later 1940s, when Matisse cut shapes in a single action from monochrome sheets rather than composing figures from multiple paper shards. As a result, the paper registers less as physical presence than as abstracted decorative form.

The idea of the decorative comes to the fore in the second half of the exhibition, which is punctuated by film clips of Matisse directing female studio assistants in elegant frocks as they delicately tack paper shapes to the wall. With hammers hung like pendants around their necks and pincushions adorning their wrists, the women are presented as objects of visual delight (in one particularly telling scene, the camera observes Lydia Delectorskaya at work before slowly tracking down to linger fetishistically on her ankles and stylishly shod feet). The clips ask us to view the cutouts similarly as decoration, and often the works comply. Oceania, the Sky, 1946, one of the first large-scale cutout compositions, was reproduced as a luxury wall hanging by the textile manufacturer Zika Ascher. The exhibition also includes head scarves designed for Ascher and a maquette for an American carpet company. This is cutout-as-template-for-soft-furnishings, an almost literal putting into practice of art-as-armchair. That Oceania, the Sky was begun when Matisse pinned a cutout swallow to the wall to hide a disturbing stain suggests the degree to which such works became a means of keeping the messy materiality of the world at bay. (The studio photographs reproduced in the catalogue underline how far removed the cutouts’ first settings were from the Tate’s white cubes: We see the works wedged into spaces cluttered with personal effects, mismatched furniture, and awkwardly located radiators).

The expansive compositions of semiabstracted female bodies and stylized plants and animals that Matisse created in the later ’40s and early ’50s—works such as The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952—seem equally designed to keep reality at a distance. The curators link these pieces to the contemporaneous interest in mural-scale work (Clement Greenberg’s 1948 essay on this question, “The Situation at the Moment,” gets a mention), but their hypnotically repeated patterns and panoramic scale inculcate a distracted spectatorship more reminiscent of the experience of cinema. Matisse’s contemporaries made the connection: Aimé Maeght, gallerist and publisher, suggested that the cutouts could form the basis of an abstract film of rhythms, colors, and sounds—something like Disney’s Fantasia (1940), he proposed, only better. The suggestion was not far-fetched: The storyboard sequencing of images in The Thousand and One Nights, 1950, Matisse’s recasting of the Scheherezade tale, recalls Lotte Reiniger’s classic full-length animation of the same story, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), itself created using paper silhouettes.

When Matisse spoke of film’s impact, however, it was primarily as a hindrance. Echoing the Marxist skepticism of Greenberg and Theodor Adorno, he worried in 1953 that cinema’s “flood of ready-made images” might distort his vision. In good avant-garde fashion, he insisted that the artist must resist such prepackaged solutions, but he himself often failed to do so. La Négresse, 1952–53, a work not in this show but inspired by the films of Josephine Baker, reiterates racialized clichés in the enlarged belly and hips and in the abstracted yellow form that represents Baker’s notorious banana skirt. (In the catalogue, the curators celebrate Matisse’s invention of a new visual sign for the skirt, but it is a sign utterly reliant on ready-made stereotypes.) And in a general sense, the experience of dazzled amusement encourages precisely the unfocused and uncritical viewing feared by Adorno. The cutouts thus proved useful in designing diversions for the businessman (Christmas Eve, 1952, a radiantly backlit stained-glass window displayed alongside the paper maquette upon which it is based, was created for the Time Life Company in New York) or in serving up a hit of Marx’s opium for the masses (as with the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence [1949–51]).

Nevertheless, one learns when encountering the works in the flesh shows that this was not always so. Large Decoration with Masks, 1953, utterly tame in reproduction, is disturbingly confrontational when experienced in person. Hemmed in by its overpowering scale, one is acutely aware of one’s own body in a gallery space that feels suddenly claustrophobic. The effect is of being singled out amid the crowd of contented visitors, pinned in place by the work’s rigidly arranged flowers and by the impassive gaze of two masks, whose hostile address recalls the unsettling stares emanating from Music and Dance, both 1910. Nothing could be further from an armchair, nor from mainstream cinema. This flip side to the dominant note of sensuous relaxation makes clear that the cutouts were not merely a search for restorative beauty on the part of a master in his dotage. As with the violence implicit in the act of slicing and pinning, we sense darker currents below the decorative surface. The curators are alert to this aspect, linking the violent imagery of Jazz and the cutouts’ wild proliferation on the studio walls to the artist’s anxieties about the war and his own impending death. These darker intimations lie in wait for the unsuspecting seeker of pleasure, and the exhibition deserves much credit for bringing them into view.

“Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” is on view through Sept. 7; travels to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Oct. 12, 2014–Feb. 8, 2015, where it is co-organized by Karl Buchberg and Jodi Hauptman with Samantha Friedman.

Alastair Wright is an associate professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford, UK.