One of the leading figures of modern art, French artist Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) was a printmaker, sculptor and painter who spent over half a century producing a vast body of work. But it was in his last decade that he reached the pinnacle of his creativity when he set aside traditional methods and began to make colourful works of art using painted paper and scissors. Dismissed at the time as childish and insignificant, Matisse’s cutouts are now recognised as his most important works.
The cut-outs were produced during the most turbulent time in the artist’s life, following a bitter separation from his wife in 1939 and a botched intestinal operation in 1941. Two years later, German armies invaded France and Matisse found himself in the middle of a war zone, barely able to move from his bed. Packing away his brushes, he could have given up; instead he pioneered a radical new technique which he called ‘painting with scissors’. The first work produced, The Fall of Icarus (1943), showed a man falling helplessly through the dark surrounded by explosions, seeming to echo his own position. Indeed, when he was asked about his cut-out work, he said: ‘I do it in self-defence’. Afterwards, he went on to produce increasingly ambitious cut-paper compositions,
such as The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown (pictured)
To achieve this, his home in Nice was transformed into what he called a factory, where a string of devoted assistants would paint large sheets of paper he would then set to work on with scissors. Visitors described him during this time propped up against his pillows surrounded by a steady stream of coloured shapes spinning through the air. His studio assistants would retrieve the pieces and pin them first to the wall, and then to canvas, according to his precise instructions.
The most iconic work to emerge in this period was The Tate Modern’s mural, The Snail (above) – a spiral of colour blocks inspired by the shell of a garden snail. The exhibition will also include the largest number of Matisse’s Blue Nudes ever exhibited together, including the most significant of the group Blue Nude I (below). The nudes illustrate Matisse’s renewed interest in the figure during this exhilarating final chapter of the artist’s life and career.