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Cut-out and keep

Henri Matisse's later-life frailties were no obstacle to his creativity, as this Tate Modern exhibition demonstrates

Like architects, artists often get better with age. Certainly in the case of Henri Matisse, advancing years and illness were no barriers to creativity, as shown in the Tate Modern’s splendid summer exhibition on the cut-outs that preoccupied him during his 70s and 80s.

We see photos and film of him in a wheelchair, his age-mottled hands confidently cutting out looping frond-like shapes with giant shears, or lying in bed and drawing with a pencil on a bamboo stick to reach the paper high up on the walls by the bed.

  • Altar at Vence Chapel. D
    Altar at Vence Chapel. D · Credit: © Isabelle Giovacchini Artwork
  • Large composition with masks, 1953.
    Large composition with masks, 1953. · Credit: © National Gallery of Art, Washington
  • Times in warmer climes: Memory of Oceania, 1952-3.
    Times in warmer climes: Memory of Oceania, 1952-3. · Credit: © 2013. The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala Florence
  • Larger than life: The Snail, 1953.
    Larger than life: The Snail, 1953. · Credit: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013
  • Blue Nude, 1952.
    Blue Nude, 1952. · Credit: Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel
  • Vence Chapel.
    Vence Chapel. · Credit: Isabelle Giovacchini Artwork

Rather than letting disability diminish his artistic capabilities, Matisse found new ways to work with cut-outs combined with vibrant colours and joie de vivre, seemingly drawing on the memory of his visit to Tahiti many years before. This is shown particularly well in the exuberant The Parakeet and the Mermaids  – one of his largest cut-outs - and in The Snail. This is such a well-known work, but I was unprepared for its surprisingly large scale – the size completely at odds with the subject.

There is also one of his most architectural works, the Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence in southern France in 1947-51. Here Matisse took on the whole interior design scheme from the richly hued stained glass to the colourful priest’s robes, creating it first in his studio and bedroom before finalising the design. This wonderfully bright design turned out to be loved by the nuns who worshipped there but hated by the Catholic hierarchy. But as Matisse largely financed it himself, it’s fitting he got his way.

His cut-out work was particularly well-suited to stained glass, the subject of the exhibition’ final room. This displays both the cut-out and stained glass for the Christmas Eve window, commissioned for the Time-Life building in New York.

This final phase in Matisse’s career, prompted by a near fatal brush with cancer, was a bonus second life which the artist embraced with gusto. Redolent of hot sunny days in faraway climes, it’s the perfect summer show.

Henri Matisse The Cut-outs, until September 7, Tate Modern, Bankside, London