Unable to paint after surgery, Matisse took up a pair of scissors. It led to his boldest and most revolutionary art. Alastair Sooke tells the story behind the masterful cut-outs
A few years ago, I flew to New York City to interview the French artist Françoise Gilot, not about her former lover Picasso – with whom she had two children – but about Matisse.
Following years of questions about Picasso, whom she met in a Paris restaurant during the Nazi occupation in 1943 – and against whose wishes she published Life with Picasso (1964), a scintillating account of their decade-long affair – she seemed delighted to change the subject.
After all, her first love, as an artist, wasn't Picasso, but that courageous colourist, Henri Matisse (1869-1954). One of her sharpest memories of her initial visit to Picasso's studio-apartment at 7 rue des Grands-Augustins was encountering Matisse's vivid Moroccan still life Basket of Oranges (1912), which Picasso had bought during the Second World War.
"Matisse, really, was my god," Gilot, then in her late eighties, told me. "So, I gasped and could not prevent myself saying, 'Ah, it's so magnificent.' And [Jaime] Sabartes, Picasso's secretary, said: 'Here, there is only Picasso.'"
Luckily for Gilot, if he ever got wind of her faux pas, Picasso did not hold a grudge. Aware of her admiration for his great friend and rival, he offered her a present one day in March 1946, when they were both in the south of France: to take her to meet Matisse.
In those days, Matisse was renting an unremarkable villa called 'le Rêve' ('The Dream') on the outskirts of the ancient hilltown of Vence, a few miles west of Nice. Still frail following a life-threatening operation in 1941, he had moved to Vence in 1943, after an air raid struck Cimiez, the Nice suburb where he owned a double apartment on the seventh floor of the old imperial Hôtel Régina, which had been converted into a conspicuous block of flats. Eager to impress her 'god', Gilot put on dark green trousers and a light purple top: "I knew Matisse would like those two complementary secondary colours,"
she recalled, before smiling. "And so we went to see him. I was astonished." At the door, they were met by Matisse's model, secretary and studio manager, Lydia Delectorskaya, a blonde, Siberian-born former film extra whom the artist's son Pierre once described as "the green-eyed dragon".
"She took us inside," Gilot told me, "and, to my utter surprise, everything was in darkness. There was even a large aviary full of birds, in darkness at 3pm. I was not expecting that from the painter of colour."
'Madame Lydia', as Matisse called her, led Gilot and Picasso to a smaller room where a little daylight was permitted. "And there was Matisse, with blue eyes and pale skin, in bed," Gilot recalled. "But, even though he had been ill, he was still impressive: full and sturdy, with a distinguished expression on his face."
She paused. "He looked like a king, with a beautiful Chinese decoration behind the head of the bed that was purple and black."
In his hands, he held a large pair of scissors, like a tailor's shears: "And as he was talking – he got animated when he spoke about art, it was marvellous to listen to him – he cut out a mask from a piece of painted paper."
Her eyes narrowed. "It was one of his cut-outs. I could not believe that he was able to make something so fine using scissors so big." Anyone who, in 2014, visited Tate Modern's magnificent exhibition, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, will understand Gilot's wonder and disbelief. That show chronicled the final decade and a half of the artist's life, when he left behind easel painting to concentrate instead on a new technique of cutting into painted paper, which he compared to "drawing with scissors".
Today, it is commonplace to marvel at the joyful, fluid nature of Matisse's 'late style': for most people, the paper cut-outs – which include the sublime series of four sensuous Blue Nudes of 1952, as well as Tate's The Snail (1953) – convey a freshness, exuberance and spontaneity belying the age and physical weakness of their maker.
Yet, when Gilot first beheld them, and was dazzled by the dexterity of Matisse's scissor-work, her enthusiasm was exceptional. In the 1940s and '50s, many art critics were scathing about the childlike simplicity of Matisse's new cut-paper forms, which, they believed, were the ravings of an enfeebled artist in his dotage.
When the cut-outs were exhibited for the first time in Paris, as part of a celebration of Matisse's 80th birthday at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in 1949, Christian Zervos, co-founder of the French journal Cahiers d'Art, attacked them: "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."
Matisse was phlegmatic: "The creators of a new language are always 50 years ahead of their time," he told one of his models, Annelies Nelck, who, like Gilot, was bewitched by his masterful ability to cut out intricate paper shapes with such verve. Matisse generally kept his scissors wide open, as if 'carving' into pure colour. "I would say it's the graphic, linear equivalent of the sensation of flight," he once said.
He started making cut-outs for prosaically practical reasons: his operation for possible duodenal cancer of 1941, a two-stage colostomy in which surgeons removed 14 inches of diseased intestine, left him unable to paint.
During the 1930s, he had worked with cut paper on several occasions, but chiefly as a compositional aid to help him plot paintings or design magazine covers – indeed, his first independent cut-out was an abstract design for the cover of Cahiers d'Art.
Around 1943, though, when he was still so weak that he could not paint standing up, Matisse began to amuse himself by cutting into sheets of paper that 'Madame Lydia' had saturated with quick-drying gouache. One of the benefits of working in this fashion was that he could do so – as Gilot witnessed – sitting up in bed.
Some of his earliest cut-paper compositions were eventually reproduced among the 20 bright colour-plates of the artist's book Jazz, his first important cut-out project, which was published in 1947.
Surprisingly, given its fame today, Matisse considered Jazz a failure. He called it a "penny plaything" and confided to a friend that the "transposition" of his original cut-outs "ruins" them and "removes their sensitivity", lending them "the character of a puzzle".
"I know that these things must stay as they are, originals – very simply, gouaches," he wrote. Around the time of Gilot's first visit to Vence, then, Matisse was realising that his paper cut-outs had special qualities: they deserved attention as stand-alone artworks.
A series of black-and-white photographs taken by Michel Sima in May 1948 documents the interior of Villa le Rêve during this period, when Matisse was increasingly excited about the possibilities of paper cut-outs.
In one, an entire wall is decorated with his inventions: sinuous, luscious forms that loop and sway, evoking leaves, floating clumps of seaweed, submarine sponges, algae, and coral. And there, clearly visible third from the right in the second row down, is Arbre de Neige (Snow Tree)(1947), which is to be offered in New York's Impressionist and Modern Sale in May. With its characteristically curvaceous, coral-like form, branching out, it seems to squirm against a background of blazing pink.
At the start of 1949, Matisse returned permanently to the white-marble Hôtel Régina, overlooking the Bay of Angels. Arguably, it was there, in his high-ceilinged, sun-filled old apartment, which Matisse called "the factory", that the cut-outs truly came into their own.
From this point until his death, in 1954, Matisse surrounded himself with vast cut-outs that conquered walls, corners, even entire rooms: The Swimming Pool (1952), for instance, a panoramic frieze of blue female swimmers frolicking in water, dominated the entire dining area.
Nor were these swimmers the only azure figures to come tumbling out of Matisse's imagination during this annus mirabilis: the Blue Nudes, acrobats, bathers and frisky monkeys all cavorted on his walls.
Matisse lived with these sprawling cut-outs for weeks and months on end, studying their visual rhythms, scrutinising tiny details, and instructing his assistants to move bits around until he was satisfied. "I have attained", he liked to say, "a form filtered to its essentials."
In a sense, the provisional, shifting appearance of his studio during these heroic years may be understood as a precursor to environmental or installation art. "One day easel painting will no longer exist because of changing customs," Matisse said in 1952. Personally, though, he was more excited by the irrepressible creative fervour that he felt the cut-outs had unleashed within him.
In 1941, he had travelled from the Côte d'Azur to Lyon for his operation, fully expecting to die. Surprised by his recovery, he always described his final years as a kind of miracle: he was experiencing, as he put it, "a second life".
It was a miraculous second life, too, in terms of his art – one in which painting, after the exquisite final flourish of the so-called Vence Interiors of 1947-1948, no longer played any kind of role.
"What I did before this illness, before this operation," Matisse wrote to a friend, "always had the feeling of too much effort; before this, I always lived with my belt tightened. What I created afterwards represents me myself: free and detached."
This sense of freedom – of loosening the constrictive 'belt' of self-consciousness to unleash effortless, instinctive art – is something Gilot recognised in both Picasso and Matisse. "There are other interesting 20th-century artists, like Kandinsky," she told me.
"But Matisse and Picasso are closer to instinct. That's why they are so strong: they don't refine. They serve it to you as it comes out of the furnace. They have the innate instinctive strength of a wild animal. You could say they are not civilised. They never make art to please."
Alastair Sooke is art critic and columnist for The Daily Telegraph and the author of Henri Matisse: A Second Life (Penguin Books).
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