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Matisse’s colours shone in the century’s darkest hour

This article is over 10 years, 1 months old
Illness turned Henri Matisse from painter to pioneer of collage. His cut-outs come alive in a landmark exhibition at Tate Modern, says Peter Robinson
Issue 2401
Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4
Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4 (Pic: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013)

Henri Matisse was one of the greatest and most radical artists in the first half of the 20th century—and the last ten years of his life were among his most creative. 

In 1941, with France under Nazi occupation, Matisse was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent serious operations where his life hung in the balance, and until he died he had to work from his wheelchair and bed.

He developed a completely new style to his art, leaving painting behind for colourful collages.

Tate Modern’s blockbuster summer exhibition covers these years. It is the biggest ever exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs.

The 14 rooms are a riot of intense blocks of vibrant colour. The shapes are laid out in harmonious rhythm, creating an overwhelming sense of beauty and exuberance.

The cut-outs are made from pieces of paper covered in gouache—a paint usually used for posters because of its rich colour. They can’t be mixed or blended so the range of colours is limited. 

Assistants would cover the paper with paint to Matisse’s specifications. He would then sit in bed with a huge pair of scissors and cut shapes that seemed to come to life in his hands. 

People who witnessed this process found it hard to believe how much intensity and energy he had. 

He would then direct an assistant to pin each piece to the wall and gradually assemble a finished piece. He called it his production line. 

This method thrilled him. Instead of having to draw a line and then fill it with colour he saw it as cutting directly into colour as if sculpting it.


He worked on books and periodicals using this method, most famously Jazz, which contains delightful scenes from circuses and folklore. The compositions seem to dance with life, as in The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, pictured.

But Matisse was disappointed in the printed result as it had removed the sensitivity of his hand-made pieces.

For a time his eyesight was affected from living too long with what he called “enchanted colours”.

Matisse saw his masterpiece as the chapel in Vense near Nice in the South of France. 

Over four years he turned his studio into a replica of the chapel and designed everything from the stained glass windows to the priests’ garments. The colour and light create a sumptuous celebration of life.

The exhibition also includes huge pieces that began on the walls of his flat in Paris. He covered up a stain with a cut-out swallow. 

Then, inspired by his memories of Tahiti, he went on to fill the walls with birds, sea life and plants. Many of his works come from his memory, including designs for a tiled patio which recalls the geometry and rhythm of Islamic art.

He would completely fill the walls of his studio with startlingly bright forms from nature pinned loosely so that they waved in the breeze. He said, “I can’t go outside so I have brought a garden inside”.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, Tate Modern, central London. Until 7 September, £18/£14


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