The Snail. Blue Nude. Icarus. The Dance.
Matisse’s works are some of the most recognisable images in modern art. Now Tate Modern in London is hosting an exhibition devoted to his cut-outs, which he made during the final 17 years of his life.
Master of colour
Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was born in a cloth-making town in northern France. He worked in the courts until a bout of appendicitis left him bedridden. His mother bought him a set of art supplies to keep him amused, and he soon became fanatical about painting. He gained traditional technical skills by copying the works of the great masters in the Louvre, but it was a visit to southern France that inspired his unique, colourful style.
His shocking paintings were dismissed by the establishment, who called him a madman and a Fauve (wild beast). However, he soon became friends with Picasso, Braque and Gertrude Stein. He began painting popular images of nude women and in the 1930s he received his largest ever commission: to create a mural for the Barnes Foundation. This project allowed him to develop fully the distinctive style that characterised all of the works that followed. By the end of the 1940s he was acclaimed as the master of colour, and one of the greatest modern artists.
Painting with scissors
However, Matisse’s health was sharply declining. Although he was elderly, tired and frail, his final years were a period of determined creativity. No longer able to paint, he turned instead to paper collages, known as gouaches découpés. Confined to a wheelchair or sometimes to his ‘taxi bed’, Matisse began to ‘paint with scissors’ – as he put it – in order to ‘cut directly into colour’. He used large shears and painted paper, working quickly and intensely. The works too are vibrant and energetic. Matisse himself described the dazzling cut-outs as being most akin to stained glass, saying: ‘I cut out these gouache sheets the way you cut glass: only here they’re organised to reflect light, whereas in a stained-glass window they have to be arranged differently because light shines through them’. At the time, he did not realise the significance of the comparison.
During this period Matisse developed a close friendship with Sister Jacques-Marie, who had earlier been his nurse and model. Although a staunch atheist, Matisse recognised something of himself in her life at the convent, saying to her: ‘I live with my forces directed towards that same spiritual horizon. My effort differs from yours only in appearance’. Sister Jacques approached him to ask for advice about the design of a stained-glass window, but soon Matisse had taken on the project of designing an entire Dominican Chapel.
His work on the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence is shown in Room 7 of the Tate’s exhibition. The project took him four years to complete. He designed everything from his bed, using paper cut-outs that he stuck all around his room. As well as the luminous stained glass, he also created huge images of the Virgin, the Stations of the Cross and St Dominic. He planned every detail, from the crucifix on the altar to the priest’s garments. When he had finished, he declared the chapel was his masterpiece and called it ‘the result of all my active life’.
All art is religious
With the Chapel of the Rosary, Matisse had finally managed to use light not just as his inspiration, but as his material. He had always been fascinated by this idea, claiming: ‘the artist or the poet possesses an interior light which transforms objects to make a new world of them … which is in itself an infallible sign of the Divinity, a reflection of Divinity’. What might an atheist artist mean when he speaks of Divinity? Matisse explained: ‘All art worthy of the name is religious. Be it a creation of lines, or colours: if it is not religious, it does not exist’.
In fact, Matisse has been described as ‘instinctively religious’ and he repeatedly used the language of spirituality when speaking about his work. Through painting, cut-outs and stained glass, he was able to express what he called his ‘almost religious awe towards life’.
Of painting, he once claimed: ‘The essential thing is to put myself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer’. By comparison, the frame of mind that he wished to create for viewers was one of ‘balance, purity and calmness’. Through art, he said: ‘I wish to create a spiritual remedy … which provides relaxation from physical fatigue’.
Such comments led essayist W.S. Di Piero to claim: ‘Matisse’s career was the most sustained and variegated exercise of religious imagination of our time’. Even the Tate exhibition booklet states that Matisse’s work ‘conveys the spirit of religious expression without explicitly addressing religious subject matter’. What would the atheist Matisse make of this interpretation? ‘Do I believe in God?’, he asked. ‘Yes, when I work’.
Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com