Dancers, bees, swallows, sharks, sword-swallowers, mermaids, stars: even first thing on a Sunday morning, the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern felt like a live show. Jazz (1947) was his first venture into cutouts, or ‘drawing with scissors’, as he put it. It features assemblages of dancers, elephants, clowns, pierrots, knife-throwers and most famously, Icarus – and is accompanied by Matisse’s swooping handwriting on the nature of his work. The process of creation is foregrounded throughout. Tate runs films on a loop of Matisse cutting into paper, and the speed and the dexterity with which he wielded the huge tailor’s scissors are remarkable. The famous blue nudes, too, are presented as if on a loop, staged on different walls around the room, allowing the viewer to circle from I to IV, and assess their variations.
Découpage is about the rough edges. It bears the marks of its construction. This performative element is signalled in this exhibition, which also features Matisse’s designs for ballet and the chapel in Vence. When he was commissioned to design the chapel he didn’t just stop at the stained-glass windows; his work extended to the chasuble worn by the priest, an adroit linking of man and place – or in the Catholic terms that the atheist Matisse would not have acknowledged, the linking of the human with the sacred space, which sees the priest as vessel.
Tate presents the work in clear biographical terms. Shadowed behind these visions of light and colour and memories of the South Seas is the enclosed space of the artist’s, one of which you occasionally catch a glimpse through Matisse’s figurative inclusion of a door or window to the garden beyond his room.
Ah, yes. The suffering artist in his room, the poignancy of his frailty, the picture of the door leading to a world that was denied to him. It’s all a bit close to the familiar trope of the tubercular/syphilitic artist (Van Gogh, Maupassant, et al) that riddles French cultural history. The pathos is a plangent counterpoint to the vibrancy of the colour, but I’m not sure we should be too hung up on Matisse’s immobility, since his cloister midwived a radical reinvention of his art.
Matisse’s friend, the avant-garde communist poet Louis Aragon, who is referenced numerous times in the Tate commentary, would have had none of this mimsy biographical approach. Aragon came to visit Matisse in the 1950s. In Henri Matisse, Roman, Aragon’s lengthy compilation of his memories of the artist – itself a bit of a découpage, by all accounts – he meditates on the relationship between painting and writing and argues for the work, not the man, to be considered. It all sounds suspiciously formalist for an intellectual who was so high up in the French communist party; his uncoupling of the art from the artist doesn’t entirely fit in with a Marxist aesthetic in which literature and art cannot be understood independently of its material production. But then, Aragon’s socialist realism never quite held fast. His collected essays on art written between the 1920s and 1960s and called – yes – Collages (1965) show him incessantly wrestling with the political and aesthetic problems of art and representation.
Anyway, Tate’s nod to Aragon’s dialogue with Matisse is an important reminder of the milieu in which Matisse operated prior to the Second World War and after his Fauvist period. Paris in the 1920s and 1930s was a laboratory of modernism; jazz was arriving, Russian, American and German emigrés thronged the Left Bank and the Surrealists had changed the game in art and poetry. You get a sense in the Tate exhibition of this creative explosion with Matisse’s scenery and costume design for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Rouge et Noir, choreographed by Léonide Massine to Shostakovich’s first symphony, but it doesn’t go near to expressing the ferment of ideas that was taking place at the time.
What really connects Matisse and Aragon is their interest in the relationship between art and poetry, and also a shared fascination with collage. Aragon’s early poetry conspicuously used collage techniques before his conversion to communism. Both men were trying to invent a new language, and in Aragon’s terms this went hand in hand with a political project (although like so many intellectuals he became disillusioned with orthodox communism after the invasion of Hungary in 1956.)
Just as Aragon mused on art in his essays, Matisse – who read poetry every morning before he worked – put out engraved illustrations of poetry that run the gamut of French literary history: medieval (Charles d’Orléans), Renaissance (Pierre de Ronsard) and nineteenth-century Symbolism (Stéphane Mallarmé). The backstory of the Matisse exhibition, then, is a sense of joint artistic enterprise and ardent experimentation in the mid-twentieth century Paris. It sure puts the Bloomsbury Group in the shade.