Signs of ‘Mortality’ | Henri Matisse: ‘The Cut-Outs’

[Image – above]

Henri Matisse (1869 -1964)
The Horse, the Rider and the Clown 1943-4
Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947
Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet
Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014


Between the 17th April and 7th September 2014, the Tate Modern gifted both avid admirers and the curious alike, the chance to experience The Cut-Outs. This series of works by French artist Henri Matisse narrate a time in the artist’s life that was shaped, literally, by illness and ailment. An inability to paint allowed for the ability to cut-out, so should we feel uplifted or sedated by such a circumstantial heavy exhibition?

The word that kept springing to mind, for whatever reason, was delicious. Not just because this presentation was a once-in-a-lifetime feast for the eyes, but also because this accumulation of cut and painted works encouraged us to consider art singularly, progressively, and in relation to its artist. Matisse was just one of those creatives that hit the nail on the head, seemingly without fail, even in the late and challenging stages of his life. No, you couldn’t have done that. But that’s the point. And one which I’ll come back to when I’ve ironed out my thoughts.

Being well aware of the adversities that back-boned this series of delightfully instinctual and surprisingly hopeful pieces of art, it is perfectly acceptable to assume signs of deterioration and mortality. In actuality, hindsight allows us to feel enlightened by such works born out of an inability to create in a familiar and comfortable way. And I don’t think this is a case of rose-tinted glasses here, for one that would have distorted Matisse’s use of unmistakable colour, but also because it seemed as though this exploration marked a releasing of inhibitions for the artist, and the realisation that work can be produced for nothing more than personal enjoyment and enlightenment.


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Henri Matisse (1869 -1964)
Blue Nude (I) 1952 | Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas
Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel
Digital image: Robert Bayer, Basel
Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014


The evidence of jagged edges and imperfection – being a result of either deterioration, instinct, or both – are actually conducted with such purpose. In this instance, signs of humility and vulnerability allow the viewer to obtain feelings of relation and attainment, not because they think they ‘could have done that’, but because they wholeheartedly believe every cut, every mark, and placement, was conducted with purpose. Mathematical or instinctive measure? We may never know. But we have the pleasure of pondering over signs of ‘mortality‘ within Matisse’s later works, and whether these relate to potential and encouragement, rather than deterioration or death. I’ll just plant that seed.

Although I have proposed that The Cut-Outs was conducted for the sake of doing and being, it’s inclusive in its exclusivity. To reiterate, these works are confessional in their construction, and therefore encouraging, stimulating and telling as and when viewed. The irregularities and nicks are what we cling onto. The Tate must also be praised for its methodical layout of quite cognitive pieces, in order to respect the artist’s instinctive process, whilst maintaining viewer engagement.


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Henri Matisse (1869 -1964)
The Snail 1953 | Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas
Digital image: © Tate Photography
Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014


The exhibition itself was rather busy – admittedly because I left it ‘til the last week to see The Cut-Outs (the more fool me) – but I liked that. Seeing others’ intent and navigation was part of the experience. We all considered beyond the image in tandem and arrived at unparalleled conclusions. One thing was for sure though, everyone was moved by the essentiality of the work in the space. By space, I refer to every inch from entrance to exit. By entrance, I correlate artistic enlightenment. And by exit, I subtly imply departure.

The gouaches decoupes are nutritious and wholesome. Their vitality suggest an awareness and acceptance of what was to come. Curiosity and playfulness allow these works to carry on and adapt beyond their creator, as well as be endlessly relevant. They will experience many a “Seconde Vie” (Second life), just as Matisse described the latter stages of his life that were both debilitating and enlightening. Matisse’s ‘The Bees’ exemplifies the ominous nature of the artists situation. Signs of repetition, development and progression are obvious, whilst you would neither be right nor wrong to detect the depiction of bees in flight, or the sun beating down on the heads of nuns. I guess these lapses in clarity allow instinct to kick in, which in this case, results in both physical and psychological curvature.

So just as ambiguity can be positive, so too can signs of mortality. The mortality of measure is succumbing to natural occurrences, which in art can be an incredibly rewarding experience.

Olivia June Bambrough


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Photo by Olivia June Bambrough


Filed under: Art & Photography