It is appropriate to use the world `life-affirming' to describe this catalogue because of the work that it presents and also because it shows an old man, debilitated by surgery, devising a personal atrategy to continue his long-lasting love affair with primary colours. Matisse's development of paper cut-outs, his decoupages, occurred over some 15 years prior to his death, just short of his 85th birthday, in 1954.
This catalogue, accompanying an exhibition at Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2014-15, is beautifully organized. Three illustrated essays serve as Introduction, `The Studio as Site and Subject' by the curators, Karl Buchberg, Nicholas Cullinan, Jodi Hauptman and Nicholas Serota, `Inventing a New Operation' by Hauptman and `A Disagreeable Distraction' by Cullinan, followed by a photoessay `In the Studio'.
The central part of the catalogue examines the cut-outs through five complementary illustrated texts, `Avant la letter' and `Game and Endgame', both by Samantha Friedman; `Chapel Factory' by Flavia Frigeri, which considers ceramic panels, mosaics, fabrics and stained glass maquettes; `Bodies and Waves', by Hauptman, and `Chromatic Composition' by Cullinan. The final essay, by Buchberg, Markus Gross and Stephan Lohrengal addressing `Materials and Techniques' is fascinating and represents the first systematic examination of the artist's `cutting into colour', or `painting with scissors', to create small ["The Lyre", 1946] and, eventually, very large works. The catalogue also offers a Selected Bibliography, a List of Exhibited Works and an Index.
The colour illustrations, beautifully reproduce some 130 gouache cut-outs, from 1936-54, and include open-out double pages showing "The Swimming Pool", 1952, "The Parakeet and the Mermaid", 1952, and "Large Decoration with Masks", 1953. Two paintings are included, "Red Interior: Still Life on a Bllue Table", 1947, and "Interior with Black Fern", 1948. The reproduction on the front cover is "Blue Nude II", 1952, one of four versions of this motif that are brought together in one room in the exhibition; it beautifully illustrates the importance of the background between the cut-outs. The matte colours of today may not be what Matisse's eyes, protected from their glare by dark glasses, saw due to pigment deterioration.
The artist's use of scissors link back to his father's draper's shop. The same is true of the pin attachments that Matisse used to combine individual shapes into more complex forms, a process analogous to pinning a hem, to produce what the artist called `his garden'. The origins of the cut-outs lie in the effort that Matisse made to illustrate a commissioned book, `Jazz', between 1943-46. He arrived at a method for examining differing colours and shapes but then realised that he had created a new medium, part painting, part drawing, part sculpture. The diverse influences include African dancing, Islamic mosaics and jazz, and reference the Fauve decoration in "Harmony in Red", 1908, and "The Painter's Family" and "Red Studio", both 1911.
Matisse's assistants would pin individual elements to walls, rearrange them [shown by their many pinholes] according to the artist's instruction. The authors of the final essay point out that until the work was mounted, its individual elements were free to be wafted by the breeze, which would have created a naturalistic movement of leaves and vegetation, or - as in "Oceania, the Sea", 1946, by Mediterranean currents. Many contemporary photographs show this process underway, with assistants clambering up ladders and the artist moving from wheelchair to bed through his failing health. It is wondrous that the works of 1953, including the much-reproduced "The Snail", emerged from such infirmity.
The catalogue clearly shows that the paper cut-outs were not a failing artist's attempts to continue working; rather they are fresh, inspiring works resulting from a life-time of experience of colour and line, and a passionately enquiring mind.
In 1952, the artist said that `one day, easel paintings will no longer exist'. However, the most interesting feature of these late works is that no subsequent artist has taken Matisse's inspiration further. The catalogue cannot create any sense of the size of the later works ["The Snail", 1953, is almost 3 metres square], although the photoessay and other illustrations showing Matisse's studio/bedroom in Boulevard Montparnasse, Paris , Villa le Rêve, Vence 1943-48] and Hôtel Régina, Cimiez, [1949-54], give an impression of what the exhibition delivers. As is frequently the case, some works are only shown at one site.
The exhibition is co-sponsored by Hanjin Shipping, Korea's largest shipping company, who were shrewd in supporting what is sure to be one of the great exhibitions of the early 21st-century.