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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (25/9/2020)

(Review of Matisse: From MOMA & Tate Modern)

Back in 2014, the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged a groundbreaking exhibition to reassess the final phase of a fascinating artistic career. Gathering over 100 items from public and private collections across the globe, `Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs' was all the more notable because it saw the return to public gaze after almost two decades of `The Swimming Pool' (1952), which Henri Matisse had created for the dining-room of his Nice apartment.

Running concurrently with this show was Tate Modern's `Matisse Live' event and Exhibition on Screen's Phil Grabsky was on hand to record the key moments for Matisse: From MOMA & Tate Modern, which is currently available on disc and download. One of the earliest entries in the magnificent EOS series, this typically thorough documentary offers intriguing insights into Matisse the man and the unique technique that helped change the course of art history.

Following an explanation of how the shows were put together from Glenn D. Lowry and Nicholas Serota, the respective directors of MOMA and Tate Modern, we see grainy home movie footage of Henri Matisse working. In voiceover (with Simon Russell Beale as the artist), we hear how he came to see the cut-out as the purest form of expression and how cutting into colour reminded him of a sculptor chiselling into stone.

A sinuous travelling shot takes us through the five rooms of the Tate display before Francine Stock stands in front of `The Snail' (1953) to ask Serota about the genesis of the show. Assistant curator Flavia Frigeri and paper conservator Elizabeth Sobczynski describe their role in proceedings before Serota tells Stock that Matisse had spent his life thinking about colour in a way that Pablo Picasso never did. His cut-outs might have varied in size as his final decade wore on, but they retained a fascination with what he called `chromatic composition'.

This was hung at Tate Modern alongside `Memory of Oceania' (1952-53) and just along from `Large Decoration With Masks' (1953) and Serota recalls the risk that Tate took in purchasing `The Snail' in 1962, a year after MOMA had dedicated a show to the cut-outs just seven years after Matisse's death. We hear Matisse reveal how he had drawn the snail from life several times and had become aware of the swirl at the centre of the shell. He explains how he rejected perspective lines and created shapes from feeling and atmosphere from colours. In his mind, there was no difference between his earlier paintings and his cut-outs, although they achieved a completeness of abstraction by filtering a form to its essentials.

Stock explains how Matisse worked in his later years when confinement to a wheelchair meant that he had to rely on assistants to paint the paper for him and manipulate the cut-outs on the wall of his studio or bedroom. In some ways, by creating gardens and swimming pools, he found an escape from his infirmities.

Narrator Rupert Young takes us back to 31 December 1869 when Matisse was born in the grim industrial town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis in northern France. His father owned a textile mill and hoped Henri would become a lawyer, but he discovered art at the age of 20, when his mother bought him a painting set while he was recuperating from appendicitis. His first work, `Nature morte aux livres' (1890), revealed his natural talent and Patrice Deparpe, the curator of the Matisse Museum, insists that his hometown and the family trade proved crucial to his artistic development.

MOMA curator Nicholas Cullinan takes us the story, as Matisse attends art school in Paris in the wake of the Impressionists capturing transient moments of life and the Post-Impressionists seeking greater psychological depth. According to art historian Philip Hook, Matisse completed a revolution in the theory and usage of colour in such pictures as `Open Window, Collioure', `The Green Line (Portrait of Madame Matisse)' and `Portrait of André Derain' (all 1905).

This year saw Matisse exhibit with friends like André Derain and Raoul Dufy, who were nicknamed `Les Fauves' for their untamed used of colour and line. He was soon departing from items like `Self-Portrait in a Striped T-Shirt' (1906) to such bolder compositions as `The Red Studio' (1911), `Still Life With Apples and a Pink Tablecloth' and `Pianist and Checker Players' (1924). Matisse claimed that the entire composition of his work was expressive and that his use of colour was purely instinctive.

At 44, Matisse was too old to fight in the Great War and, in 1917, he relocated to the Côte d'Azur, where he would spend the rest of his life. As Hook reveals, he entered into a friendly rivalry with Picasso, although he tended to steer away from psychological symbolism in works like `Odalisque Seated With Arms Raised, Green Striped Chair' (1923), in which the emphasis was on the nature of the composition. As Hook shows with `Dance (II)' (1910), the anatomical exactitude and identity of the figures is of no concern, as the kinetic potency of the design sweeps the viewer up into the ring-a-rose circle.

In 1930, Matisse went in search of a new light and energy in Tahiti and the United States, where he was commissioned to paint the vast mural, `The Dance' (1932-33), which convinced him that his future lay in a simpler style. Returning to France, he remained in Nice during the Second World War and, in 1941, he was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. Surgery left him incapacitated and he recuperated in Vence (where he famously created the Rosary Chapel). Finding solace in isolation, he began to channel his pain and awareness of his mortality into the cut-outs, which convey a joy and a beauty that he wasn't always able to experience at first hand.

Returning to MOMA, senior curator Jodi Hauptman considers how `The Red Studio' served notice of the way Matisse would work with coloured paper, as the backdrop is deep red and the furniture is etched out in thin white lines. When cutting, however, he could cut directly into colour to bring a greater harmony to the composition. Matisse himself extols the virtue of colour in enabling him to rise from his sickbed and stroll in fantasy gardens, such as the one depicted in `The Parakeet and the Mermaid' (1952).

Back on the banks of the Thames, the camera pirouettes its way through the next three rooms of the Tate exhibition to find Stock and Serota standing in front of `Blue Nude IV' (1952). Matisse created this by painting and cutting sheets until he achieved the effect he was looking for and the gallery includes three variations on the theme, as well as such sculptures as `Vénus à la coquille' (conceived 1930, cast 1951), which clearly influenced Blue Nudes I-IV. After we see the painstaking decisions made in organising Room 9, we hear Matisse claim that he feels he is glimpsing at the future in these works, which replace the slip and slide of a brush over canvas with the incision and concision of the scissor blade on the coloured paper.

Across the Atlantic, MOMA has been collecting Matisse since 1932 and now has around 400 pieces. This means visitors can pass from the cut-out show to see the rest of the exhibits while remaining under the same roof. But conservator and co-curator Karl Buchberg is planning a big surprise, as he intends renovating `The Swimming Pool', which has not been seen since 1992.

He is intrigued by the way in which Matisse sometimes created figures from single sheets, but fashioned others from layering until he got the shape and colour density he desired. In order to recreate this, Buchberg produces facsimiles to pin to boards to gain an idea of the three-dimensionality that Matisse would have seen when he pinned the originals before they were pasted down. Hauptman and assistant curator Samantha Friedman also uncover a notebook that co-founder Alfred Barr, Jr. used during a visit to Matisse at the Hôtel Régina in Nice in 1952, when he claimed that he had created this work because he could no longer swim.

Rather than sticking with this fascinating restoration, we duck back to Bankside, where Stock interviews choreographer Will Tuckett and Royal Ballet principal ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky to discuss works like `The Dance (II)' (1909) and `Two Dancers' (1937-38) and Matisse's association with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, for whom he created `a mural in motion' to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Tuckett and Yanowsky have devised a piece inspired by five colours and a monochrome flashback to a rehearsal in the Turbine Hall gives way to the clever in-camera superimpositions as Yanowksy brilliantly matches the cut-out shapes in a masterclass in movement.

Saxophonist Courtney Pine has also had his moment of Matisse inspiration and he plays a tune based on `Jazz' (1947). Frustratingly, however, none of the items included in the accompanying montage are labelled. The same goes for the exhibits pointed out by great-granddaughter Sophie Matisse, as she reflects on family recollections of him being witty one moment and irritable the next. She loves the way he spent his old age creating with the colours of youth and Flavia Frigeri wears the blues and greens she singles out for her interview with Francine Stock about Matisse's use of gouache and notepaper to become the `magician' feted by Picasso.

This leads into an appreciation of Matisse's depiction of women, which begins with the striking `Zulma' (1950) that was so admired by his descendent. We hear how he used lines to create the essence of the figure and often avoided giving them facial features so coerce the viewer into using their imagination. He talks about the centrality of his models to his work, but he was even more heavily dependent upon Lydia Delectorskaya, the Russian émigré assistant who survived shooting herself in the chest in July 1939 after Amélie Matisse had accused her husband of having an affair and ending their 41-year marriage. She ran his household and attended to his business affairs until his death, More importantly, she was the only person he trusted to handle the final stages of hanging the cut-outs.

In his final years, Matisse lived in the Villa le Rêve in Vence, where Picasso's partner, Françoise Gilot, remembers visiting him in 1946. Jacqueline Duhême also assisted Matisse there between 1948-49 and she recalls being in charge of painting the papers that he would cut with a large pair of scissors before handing the shapes to Lydia for pinning. Colour footage shows him using a long stick to point out where he wanted things to go within the composition and Jacqueline confides that, while he took his art seriously, he always worked with passion.

A last winding dolly shot takes us into Room 13, where we see `Nuit de Noël' (1952), a piece of stained glass that was designed for the Chapel at Vence, which Matisse considered his masterpiece. Serota mentions the tiles and vestments that he was commissioned to produce and how he revelled in the challenge of having total control of such a large undertaking. Wisely, the scene shifts to the chapel that he had funded and designed in gratitude for the care he had received during the war from nursing student, Monique Bourgeois, who had become a Dominican nun and was working at the convent hospice where the chapel was built between 1947-51. Despite opposition from some within the Catholic Church because Matisse was not a believer, he created black-and-white wall tiles that resembled the pages of an open book, while the stained glass reflected the colour of music. In his writings, he claimed that all art was religious, as it touched the soul. Anything less was documentary.

As Deparpe and Serota rightly conclude, the outpouring of work in Matisse's final years is nothing short of miraculous. He was a dying man in his eighties. Yet he was inspired by seeing the world anew to invent a new artform and invest it with an expertise and sincerity that now brings joy to all who see it. His influence is undimmed and the success of the Tate and MOMA shows testify to his enduring popularity.

As this film capably demonstrates, it sometimes takes time for an artist to find their signature style. Exhibition on Screen directors Phil Grabsky and David Bickerstaff have certainly evolved over the years and this early outing recalls the Tim Marlow collaborations in its use of an interviewer on the gallery floor. The shots from the `Matisse Live' event of Stock and Serota standing awkwardly in front of works of freedom and grace feel a bit incongruous, while the Tate sequences in general pander somewhat to curatorial egotism.

It might have been interesting to have pursued the contrasting approaches the two venues took to hanging the works, but the focus falls firmly on London and Serota's vision. This isn't too much of a problem, although it might have been nice to see how Buchberg's `Swimming Pool' project worked out and how it looked in its dedicated space. But, as is often the case with EOS pictures, these are quibbles, as Grabsky's script informatively covers the career path leading up to this grand finale, while the visuals do full justice to the glorious colour of the cut-outs and the genius of their creator.

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