Saturday, April 19, 2014

'Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs' at the Tate Modern, 18th April 2014

Uh-oh.  I don't get it.  This dawns on me as I stand in a sea of carefully bearded and expensively handbagged Tate Modern visitors, smack dab in the middle of one of the most critically acclaimed exhibitions of the year, surrounded by countless priceless works by one of the universally acknowledged masters of 20th century art and... I feel nothing except a vague sense of samey boredom.  Is it just me?  It's gotta be me.  Right?

The Cut-Outs showcases what Matisse was up to for the last seventeen years of his life. In his old age he himself unable to paint with the skill, speed and precision he once possessed. But though the flesh was weak the mind still burned, and so Matisse embarked on an entirely new discipline; cut-outs.  He'd used this method in the past to visualise arrangements when planning paintings, but he soon began to realise that this could be an entirely new method of expression.  

So, chunky scissors in aged hand, he commenced a one man war against reams of paper, slicing, cutting and pasting them into shapes, layering colours upon each other and creating a huge number of works that combine an attractively primitive childishness with a master's eye for composition, colour balance and reducing objects to their essential forms. 

Polynesia, the sea (1946)
There's a few videos throughout this exhibition that show Matisse at work on these pieces. He works his scissors like a top class butcher, trimming away extraneous paper, working in one smooth motion to reveal a shape that comes out so fully formed it's as if he's freeing it from the paper rather than merely creating it.  As a placard within the exhibition explains, it's by seeing these videos that you understand that this creation is a three-dimensional process, the paper flopping and rolling over the old man's hands as he works at it.

An old master discovering, learning and mastering a new form of creation in his final years is an undeniably cheery narrative. It's difficult not to feel a tingle of happiness for him as you read of his happiness with the works, explaining that he's realising ideas and visions that he's been unable to before.  This optimistic mood buoys up an exhibition that, with its explosions of colour and vibrant organic shapes, couldn't be better suited for a big summer exhibition.

But I didn't like it very much.  It almost feels rude to say that.  Who the hell I am to come wandering into the Tate Modern and start dissing Matisse... Matisse for god's sake!  I've always held that art should make me feel something - and trying understanding why I feel a certain way is the basis of every article I write; whether it makes me laugh, makes me sad, makes me curious, even infuriating me or making me bored as hell.  I just want some kind of emotional response, a foothold through which I can better understand the work, the world and myself.

The Sheaf (1953)
But I didn't feel much of anything when I was looking at any of this  They look like something you'd see on the side of a mug in a middle-class housewares shop, or perhaps stuck on the wall of a mid range hotel lobby.  I guess this isn't Matisse's fault, the reason I make the link is because middle-class housewares and hotel lobbies have appropriated and homogenised this style because a) it's pretty and colourful and b) it's so safely abstract that it can't possibly offend anyone.  It's this middle-of-the-road-ness that leapt out at me, reminding me of joyless corporate art whose aim is simply to throw a splodge of colour onto a grey office wall.

I'm sure there are people who will thrill at the sight of the hundredth piece of decoupaged seaweed but aside from a basic admiration for the artist in being so productive in his later years, this straightforward focus on colour and shape just doesn't do anything for me. Intellectually I can understand these geometric interplays and composition as some kind of 'essence of art', a sublimation of why humans appreciate visual imagery at all.  But even with that in mind I'm not particularly enjoying or appreciating this stuff at all.

The Snail (1953)

Perhaps I just don't have the eye or the education.  My tastes skew towards aggressive, forceful poppiness; art that boots down the front door of the mind and chucks a hand grenade in.  In comparison this is detached prettiness, nothing much to communicate other than what I'm looking it exists and it's somewhat pleasing to the eye.

I feel like such a dick saying all that about Matisse but there you have it.  As I put together the bones of this review while walking about the exhibition I seriously debated just pretending that I'd enjoyed it.  It'd be far easier to mouth a bunch of platitudes about the joy of seeing shapes interplaying with each other and the vibrancy of colour and whatnot, -but it'd have all been a big fat lie.  The simple truth is that all this apparent virtuosity did bugger all for me and if I'd have paid £18 to get in I'd have felt disappointed and short-changed. 

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is at the Tate Modern 17th April - 7th September 2014.  Adults £18 / Concs £16.

Thanks to Chris Wilcox for taking me!

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