This little book by Alastair Sooke, passed over by so many during the ‘exit through the gift shop’ moment at Tate Modern, when Matisse’s exuberant cut-outs are still imprinted on the mind’s eye (almost literally, such is the power of his later huge works) in favour of posters, postcards and more weighty tomes too, is a good read.
I can’t let you leave the gift shop without pointing out the irony of so many flat and reasonably good reproductions of Matisse’s cut-outs being offered up for sale, given the artist’s own obvious disappointment in how his coloured papers seemed in reproduction. He was disappointed in Jazz in book form. I think although he hit the drawing-pin on the head because he was so aware that the cut-outs lost something without the physical presence of the papers, as the way the light reflects off the surfaces, the nature of the edges (cut or torn, neat or bearing the pinholes of previous sitings) and surprisingly its thickness, perhaps this quality most of all, because we so need to see the papers being blown by air currents (or at least believing that they could still be repositioned) to understand the tension and power of these last, great paintings. They just work. Because they are physical things, like the paintings they are and the sculptures Matisse invoked when he described his scissors as carving colour directly. Teasingly, there is a 50-page photo essay of cutouts on his studio/apartment walls in the official catalogue (itself packed with essays that are informative, necessarily discursive and helpful) that just makes me wish (in a way) that the exhibition cut-outs could have been taken out of their frames and pinned to the walls of the Tate Modern galleries. It is already so good to see the The Snail and Memory of Oceania together again after 60 years. It would have been extraordinary to have seen them pinned directly onto the walls again. It would have been a visceral pleasure to have seen why Christian Zervos (this from Sooke’s book) wrote in 1949: “I refuse to consider these paper cut-outs as an artistic event … I will say more: all these paper jokes are so unworthy of Matisse that there is no point talking about them … At most they could be used to decorate textiles or wallpaper.” Because we see them as being ‘by the master’ in their elegant frames on the gallery wall, some of the power of the work to have the “decisiveness of a slap” (Matisse said about that good drawing should possess this quality) might have been lost.
In his book, Sooke does go on to point out (as Spurling did) that the influence of growing up in the textiles town of Bohain was a benign one, which gives his cut-outs extra poignancy. He is very good on the rivalry with Picasso and the effect of Matisse’s debilitating physical state. The pictorial success of his obsession with movement and vibrancy comes from hard work and a longing for such physicality that was now beyond him.
I do like Alastair Sooke for allowing his enthusiasm for the wall-works (and of course the Chapel of the Rosary) to be evident in his writing. He describes the cut-outs with perceptive and simple clarity.
One final thing and on the day that Abu Hamza has been found guilty in the US, and when Lawrence Whitehouse, who lost his wife in the kidnapping that Hamza was convicted for organising simply said (on the Today programme) that he was pleased that Hamza couldn’t send any more incendiary messages and talked about the harm he has done to the Islamic community, what a joy to hear Sooke telling us how Matisse wanted his Christian chapel to be – I can’t think of a more healing example in art:
“Matisse wanted his chapel to be a place where people could leave their burdens behind – ‘as Muslims leave the dust of the streets on the soles of the sandals lined up at the door of a mosque’. How striking that in this analogy Matisse evoked Islam rather than Chrisitanity.”
This seems to me to at once reassure us that Matisse is a deep and sensitive thinker and that it is how things should be.