Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

Clar05_3611_01T.J. Clark at the London Review of Books:

The problem that follows for the critic is not to decide whether Matisse’s cut-outs succeed, much of the time, in shrugging off these limitations of social purpose or available theme – only a killjoy or an iconographer could resist the splendour on the walls – but to speak rationally about how it was done. In many ways the most useful piece of writing about late Matisse remains an article called ‘Something Else’ published in Henri Matisse: Paper Cut-Outs almost forty years ago by the poet and essayist Dominique Fourcade. It is that rare beast in the art world, a catalogue essay of high seriousness that entertains real doubts about the quality of its objects. Naturally this means that it has been shuffled off subsequently into art-historical limbo (I can’t see that it gets a mention in Tate’s book to accompany the current show), but its arguments – coming from a writer with deep knowledge of Matisse’s art and life – seem to me worth revisiting. Fourcade begins by refusing to be impressed by the phrases from books and interviews invariably brought on to define the cut-outs’ originality. ‘Cutting straight into colour reminds me of the direct carving of the sculptor,’ Matisse said inJazz. ‘I arrived at the cut-outs,’ he wrote to his protector Father Couturier, ‘in order to link drawing and colour in a single movement.’ But how is any of this new for Matisse? Hadn’t his painting ever since 1905 been an attempt to link drawing and colour in a single movement; that is, to make colour appear (it must be a matter of appearance, of contrivance, but if the spell works the result will be utterly convincing) to divulge its shape and extent, its internal spatiality, its proximity and distance? There is an oil painting at Tate which epitomises the previous colour regime. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table is one of a cluster of works from 1947-48 that said farewell, so it turned out, to the set of objects – the intimate and agitated small world – around which Matisse’s painting had been oriented for half a century. (‘Window’, ‘table’, ‘glimpse of garden’ and ‘interior’ are tropes that the cut-outs then largely abandon.) It is very hard to pin down what makes Red Interior so beautiful and hard to bear.

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