I am sorry if this letter takes you by surprise. You may not know me, but you are my master and main inspiration for my art, hence the reason of my imaginary and spiritual friendship with you. I took the liberty of writing this letter mainly to thank you for your wonderful exhibition at Tate Modern of your Cut Out’s. You will be pleased to know that it is a blockbuster (perhaps you don’t know that word but it means that you are a sort of celebrity in the art world and everybody wants to see your work!): the visitors are gathering in hordes, but this time it is not to ‘boo’ your work (as in your lifetime, when your paintings were misunderstood)! in fact, I could only hear gasps of admiration and exclamations of joy. There were all sort of people, not only the normal art-loving crowd, but there were group of children, people from all over the world who perhaps have been planning to come to London just to see you!
While writing this letter I also discovered a number of my paintings inspired by you and sketches from my pilgrimage starting in Nice (where you spent a great deal of time) and the drawings from this exhibition. Please accept this humble homage to your genius! (also as a replacement of the images that for copyright issues cannot be included here :-)
Tea with Matisse
(Acrylic on Canvas, Original by Beatriz Acevedo)
I love the fact that this exhibition is all about JOY, imagination, visions and the miracle of being alive. We know that you have been a survivor, going through major conflicts in the history of Europe (the Prussian war when you were just born, the first world war and the horrors of the second world war!), and surviving the terrible ordeal of your cancer! Perhaps this feeling of having a second chance allowed you to free all the marvelous creatures that appear in the exhibition. The 12 rooms are all about different universes and sensations, organised in a sort of evolutionary way, from the discovery of the magic of cut paper, toward the spiritual epic of the Chapel in Vence!
The exhibition shows the care and expertise of people who admire your work! The joined teams of the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art (NYC) seem to have been infected by the joy of the exhibition and it shows through: from the graphic designer, the curators and editors of the wonderful catalogue: Karl Buchbert, Nicholas Cullinan and Jodi Hauptman, the staff, the people who welcome you in the ticket office, the communication team, to the big bosses Nicholas Serotta and Chris Dercon (Tate Modern), who smile widely in all the pictures. Aiding in this adventure, the great work of Hilary Spurling, who have regaled us with a thorough biography of yours (including letters, historical context, cultural milieu, etc) and the small informative book of Alastair Sooke “Henri Matisse: Second Life”, helped us to follow you in this exuberant journey!
But I don’t want to rush my dear Matisse, hence please allow me to go through each of the wonderful landscapes created in the rooms…
Like in the genesis, at the beginning there was obscurity…
“The spring light gets through the heavy curtains of the spacious room in the Hotel Regina, in Nice. An old man lies in bed, imagining forms and shapes. His daring adventures with wild colours have taken their toll on the vision of the great master… he spends the days recovering from the near death experience and the operation that would give him a second lease. What to do when a whole life has been dedicated to paint? Confined to a wheel chair, unable to move, the Master creates a pole with a piece of charcoal on its end, waved like a “magic wand” helping him to paint on the walls of the studio. Working on a new commission, Matisse re-invents his trade: paper cut outs that lie on the floor of the studio, helping to create the combinations of light and movement… and from this apparently innocent device, the magic emerges. Aided by his assistant, the officious Lydia, the master starts playing with colour paper: nothing onerous, just big pieces of paper painted in bright colours. Surrounded by paper, the Master takes the big scissors and carves amazing shapes and silhouettes dancing through the room: “drawing with scissors”….”
The forms are dancing without a clear melody, they are improvisations, both musical and whimsical. The name is appropriate: Jazz, as this is an improvisation of sounds and shapes, adorned by your own sweet handwriting. All of which is incredible modern: the black silhouettes dancing to the sound of iPhones or the quirky advertisements of cafes and boutiques using “lettering” as a way of contesting the mechanization of writing through a computer.
Matisse, your scissors are magical wings and the dancers and figures fly off the walls in daring acrobatics: visitors are warned about the potential malarkey! And this is just the beginning… advancing to the next room, one can hear the fanfare of the circus getting to town: acrobats and clowns, sword swallowers and fortune tellers, ballerinas in sky scrapping trapezes, jugglers, pierrots and colombinas, and the legendary Icarus flying so close to the sun. The shapes cut in black and bright primary colours are striking: they convey both exhilaration and the distant memories of the circus and gypsies in your childhood, bringing the marvels of the world: the beauty of ice and the mystery of mirrors. But, I must say Matisse, that somehow these joyful shapes are a bit disturbing: the times are dark, the war advances and the sound of bayonets and shells exploding in yellow stars impact the viewer. Yet, you are not prisoner, and your heart is beating through your cut-outs….As you said: “An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of a style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success…”
From the Exhibition Sketchbook (Beatriz Acevedo)
Bang bang, light/dark… shocking vibrant colours, a way of keeping sane in the midst of the barbaric. This clearly is a daring response of your political commitment and your awareness of the world… but once again, critics can only see the surface, and the accusations of superficiality are just so silly! How they can not see that Jazz is a testimony of the war is far more profound than any other political statement! The role of beauty is often misunderstood; it is taken as something superficial, decorative, and superfluous! But beauty has the power to change the world; it is by living beautifully taking care of ourselves and our communities that we can also start implementing the solutions of our environmental and social crisis. Beauty, Arts and Politics are all part of being in the world, and your legacy reminds us of the marvels of our responsibility as humans.
From the Exhibition Sketchbook (Beatriz Acevedo)
How else can we react to the exotic seascapes of the mural Oceania? Your submerged memories of travels to Tahiti and the South Seas are transformed into marine creatures: jellyfish, manta rays, molluscs, sea slugs, sharks and algae… how all these forms emerge from your own bed, aided only by white humble paper and scissors? Perhaps by accident or design, the fact that these are white shapes on a canvas colour background is even more striking. Through the white shapes one can see the crystalline waters, the topaz and the turquoise, and the little drawing you made of swimming happily in those waves! Oh Matisse, you would be devastated to learn that those clear waters are polluted on the account of the so-called “development”… the world you knew of advanced industrialization has taken all over our blue planet! And there is your reminder of the beauty of the world and our responsibility to look after it!
“One must grow with the tree”
Another political and environmental statement in the time of climate change.
But apart of the context and the historical facts that some of us may know about you, I really think that the exhibition lends itself to playfulness and joy. I somehow found myself zentangling (following the steps of my dear friends Ann Rippin and Donna Ladkin, who are completely addicted to this meditative doodling), and here are my own drawings:
From the Exhibition Sketchbook (Beatriz Acevedo)
Throughout the rooms we are transported to your very own garden in Le Rēve, near Nice, when the city was threatened by a potential invasion. How many people begged you to emigrate! How brave of you…
Indeed your whole life was an act of courage and you were actually called a “wild beast”, some called you a “lion”: Your art and the use of such a wild colors, the boldness of your figures, the simplification of painting in favor of directness, the fight against conventionalism, fashions and poses. It just hard work, you said, even though people called you “boring” because you did not have time in celebrity or bohemians, as you said, it is all about hard work! But also, what I love about your work is that you did it for yourself, but also, because what you wanted was a type of art to “soothe souls” appealing to everybody:
“What I dream is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing=, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.” (Matisse in ‘Notes of a Painter’ 1908, cited in Sooke, p. 64)
An Angel for Ana Maria (Original Acrylics on Canvas, Beatriz Aceved)
And in doing so, you also encourage people to see art as an spiritual experience, as reminded us by Alaistair Sooke, “For Matisse, sketching flowers and trees held almost spiritual significance. His garden at Vence was a private Arcadia in which he loved to observe the natural world. there, he could foster an artistic innocence that was untainted by the classical training against he had rebelled in his youth.” (p.13)
After Matisse (Acrylic on Canvas, Beatriz Acevedo)
Now that I am taking on gardening, I felt transported to the flowers and palms and trees in the mediterranean climate. During years I’ve followed your work and life, staying near your house in Felix Place in Nice, or going to the most moving experience of the Chapel in Vence. The work you called “your masterpiece”, against the protests of an angry Picasso, always eager to know what you (as his major rival) were doing! And I must agree with Tate boss Nicholas Serotta when he compared the ecstasy produced by your work in Vence with the Sixtine Chapel (quoted in Alaistair Sooke book). I’ve been there a couple of times and it is SUBLIME (in the best of Burke’s statements), the primary colours of lemon yellow, green and ultramarine Mediterranean blue; the simplicity of the chapel, the light, oh! the light reflected in the white walls, and the loving and painstakingly work you did in designing the doors, the cross, the chandelier, the table cloths and the robes for the priests! it is sublime truly spiritual!
From the Sketchbook of Vence (Beatriz Acevedo)
So in all my dear Matisse, I think that the exhibition is a complete success, and I hope that this is not going to be my first time visiting it. As in many other times, it is in the second or third visit when the real meaning of your magnificent work starts to reveal. I cannot but encourage every single person who is in London until September to go and visit it. And once again, THANKS, for making of the world something sublime and wonderful.
Sooke, A. (2014) Henri Matisse, a second life. Penguin.
Buchberg, Cullinam, Hauptman, Serota (2014) Henri Matisse The Cut Outs. Tate Modern.
Spurling, H. (2005) Matisse the Master: A life of Henri Matisse. The Conquest of Colour: 1909-1954. Hamish Hamilton.