Henri Matisse FROM - 17 Sep 2016

HenriFew artists have ever been so widely celebrated as Henri Matisse.

A leading luminary of the Fauvist school of painting, close friend of the notorious Picasso, and best known for his enormous papiers découpés cut-out collages, the shadow of Matisse’s extraordinary influence looms large over the 20th century art world.

The Fauves painted in bright, bold, and unnatural colour, imbuing their landscapes and still lifes with vibrancy. Although Fauvism would only last a few years, the principles of colour theory which underpinned this work would stay with the artist for the rest of his life.

After the First World War Matisse began to expand his artistic repertoire, in particular to printmaking. French poetry, both modern and medieval, provided the inspiration for his most significant suites, the first being a series of etchings for Stephane Mallarme’s Poésies (‘Poems’) in 1932. This was followed by three more suites based on French poetic texts: the complex Florilege des Amours Ronsard, by the 16th Century French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard (1941); illustrations for the Poemes de Charles d’Orleans, with text written in Matisse’s own hand; and the 1946 Visages suite, a series of 14 lithographs with accompanying poetry by the contemporary French poet Pierre Reverdy.

Characterised by a clarity of line and calligraphic touch, these lithographic suites demonstrate the assurance of Matisse’s draughtsmanship and the power of his restraint.

But despite being arguably his most productive years, the early 1940s were also Matisse’s most debilitating; surgery left him chair-bound and bedridden, restricting his ability to paint; he needed the help of assistants to continue his work. Matisse seized the opportunity to develop new techniques. He devised a method by which assistants would paint pieces of paper with colourful gouache which he would then transform with a pair of scissors into cut-out shapes. These ‘paper cut-outs’, or papiers découpés, were soon covering the high walls of his apartment, with bright birds, flowers and dancing figures spread around the room. The directness of the cutting process greatly excited Matisse: Instead of drawing an outline and filling in the colour, I am drawing directly in colour… Scissors can acquire more feeling for line than pencil or charcoal.

Keen to make these compositions more accessible to the public, Matisse worked with the Mourlot Frères atelier to reinterpret the collages as lithographic suites. Jazz, written and illustrated by Matisse, was published in 1947 and in the last years of his life, the collaborators agreed on a final suite of lithographic reproductions titled The Last Works:a selection of what are probably Matisse’s most important large-scale cut-outs. The series stands as a final testament to the sheer artistic strength and facility of an ageing an ailing man.

A giant in the history of French art, Matisse’s extraordinary influence is perhaps best captured by the words of fellow innovator Pablo Picasso: All things considered, there remains only Matisse.

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