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Aug 2014 Journal

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Art Notes

The late-life blossoming of an artist can be full of surprises, as demonstrated by Henri Matisse, who, following a colon operation in 1941 at the age of 71, spent the last 13 years of his life wheelchair-bound and doomed to abandon the easel.
But the fighting spirit of one of the most imaginative artists of the 20th century turned disability to creativity. As we see from Tate Modern’s Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (until 7 September 2014), a new oeuvre began to take shape with the help of assistants prepared to do the heavy work.
Dance, colour and movement had always fascinated Matisse. In 1937, he designed the scenery and costumes for a ballet by Shostakovich; now, he used scissors instead of brush to cut into coloured paper. He admitted that the conditions of the journey were 100 per cent different, causing the artist to use different criteria for observation.
And the figures he created from this medium flow with an unending fluidity. His gorgeous blue nudes, 1- 1V, are divided and yet synchronised by space and jagged line. He called this ‘cutting directly into colour’. Contours are carved into the outline of the figure. The limbs intertwine as his technique seems to blend drawing and sculpture, celebrating the nude sculptures he created in earlier times. These too are on display, a reference to his genius with shape, movement and space. His assistant, Lydia Delectorskya, describes his cut-out figurers as ‘modelling it like a clay sculpture, sometimes adding, sometimes removing’.
There are birds, fishes, flowers bursting out or floating into kaleidoscopic colour and even humour, and the cylindrical shapes of the limbs have a pleasing co-ordination, even where details of hands and feet blur into nothingness. And what is interesting is that the colour is always primary: few muted tones find their place on the wall.
There are other discoveries. In designing the décor for the Vence chapel in 1941, Matisse created one of the most vivid and deceptively simple versions of the Madonna and Child I have ever seen. The charcoal drawing is almost womb-like, with the infant Christ’s hands suggesting the cross.
In Matisse’s late flowering, there is a sense of the sheer pleasure he takes in endless colour and harmony, whether flowers, nudes or blocks and strands of colour. Everything moves with the relentless and innocent majesty of a child. The simplicity is disturbing, suggesting that after 60 years as an artist, this has become the Matisse line: a return to first principles, to the basics of what art is really all about. In rediscovering that first joyous thrust of youth which marked his ascent as an artist, he has gifted us his vision of eternity.
At the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition (until 17 August 2014), I was impressed by Frank Bowling RA, who moved to London from Guyana in 1950. His colourful abstracts achieve vibrancy through complex layering, taking the works to the very edge of the canvas, one colour leaving the next exposed. Two acrylics, About Recent Weather and Fire Below, give you the idea. Anselm Kiefer’s Kranke Kunst, with its historical references, demonstrated his usual energy and dynamism.

Gloria Tessler

Gloria Tessler

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