Matisse: The Cut-Outs. A review and other thoughts by AHA tutor Richard Stemp

Starting, unconventionally, in Pittsburgh, Richard Stemp looks forward – and back – to Matisse’s Paper Cut-Outs on display at Tate Modern, and then looks forward again to living happily ever after.

I have been to Pittsburgh four or five times, more often, in fact, than I’ve been to Boston or Washington DC, and most Americans would ask, horrified, ‘Why?!’ It still hasn’t recovered from the reputation it gained in the early 20th Century as the soot-blackened, smog-ridden steel capital of the States. But when I first went, way back in 1986 (ah, how time flies), it had just been voted America’s Most Liveable City. Andy Warhol was from Pittsburgh, as was Henry Clay Frick, a coke and steel industrialist whose vast wealth (from all that pollution) allowed him to put together one of the greatest individual art collections, the Frick, which found its home in New York and is one of the highlights of any visit to that remarkable city. Andrew Carnegie, another Steel Magnate and philanthropist from Pittsburgh, is perhaps not as well known, but you can still find Carnegie Libraries across Britain. It is intriguing to think that in the early 20th Century an American thought that the British needed to read, but he was British – a Scottish émigré, in fact, from Dunfermline. He gave his name to Pittsburgh’s wonderful Carnegie Museum of Art, well worth a visit, and home to probably my favourite work by Matisse, a paper cut-out called The Thousand and One Nights.

 

The Thousand and One Nights (1950) Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

I know this image remarkably well. Having seen it several times in the late 1980s, it was still in my mind when I moved in the late 90s.  The new flat was in the basement, and had a long, narrow room underneath the ground floor entrance, ideal as a study. At the far end was a window, perfect for a coffee table and an armchair, so I could sit and read, work and relax at the same time (Matisse once said that art should be like a comfortable armchair). I thought The Thousand and One Nights would look perfect there, and planned to write to Pittsburgh to see if they did a poster. But before I got round to writing, I was forced to go to IKEA. That’s what love does – it makes you go to IKEA. It makes you go to Pittsburgh. True love means you don’t have to do these things if you don’t want to, and, a couple of exes later, I haven’t been to either for a long time now. But this was Kismet – a perfect concept, in this context – as IKEA actually did do a poster, and it fit perfectly on the wall by the window at the end of the study for four years. And, when I moved ten years ago (exes being what they are), it found a place above my bed.

 

I don’t always sleep very well (though better, I’m sure, than Matisse, who suffered terribly from insomnia), but The Thousand and One Nights is the perfect companion for a sleepless night, a great tale well told. Scheherazade knows that the King, angry at the infidelity of his first wife, has killed many subsequent wives after just one night of marriage. Nevertheless, she accepts his proposal, and to save her own life she tells him a story, keeping his attention throughout the night, and leaving off half way through as dawn breaks. She lives to see the day – and to tell the rest of the tale the following night. Only she never finishes. Well, not for a thousand nights, by which time he has fallen in love with her, and from the thousand and first night, we presume, they live happily ever after. Matisse tells his tale in separate sections, using five main ‘blocks’, which he developed separately and then joined together, chapters in a story. The first, a smoking lamp, as night falls, is followed by a stylised, blue female form: Scheherazade herself, perhaps, in obeisance before the King. Flashes of stars, and leaf-like forms take us through the night, which draws to a close with another, smokeless lamp. Day has dawned. And finally, a rich, round, red oval – the rising sun? The warm heart of the story? Or something more sensually direct? And then the image opens up, a red leaf crosses from the hard edge of the last ‘block’ and brings the white background into play, an open-ended, happy ending. Red and pink hearts trail along the bottom, and along the top, black hearts, which alternate with green, trail off into words: “…she saw the dawn appearing, and discreetly fell silent”.

The Dance (1932-33) The Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.

I’ve always loved the cut-outs, and when I heard that Tate would hold a major retrospective this year I was very happy. Even more so when I heard that the Carnegie – who don’t always display The Thousand and One Nights, paper being so fragile – are lending it to this exhibition. It was remarkable to see it, like meeting an old friend, with whom you’ve been asleep for ten years, for the first time in twenty-five. It’s far larger than I remembered, and the colours far more subtle. Its physical presence, as a made object – not a machine tooled, flat plane of colour – is also essential for its understanding. The flatness of the printed versions of his cut-outs was something that disappointed Matisse himself, even though he developed them, in part, to avoid other disappointments of printing – the subtle shifts in colour, for example, between the preparatory maquette, or model, and the finished edition.

 

Two Dancers (1937-8) Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Initially, paper cut-outs were just a tool for him. He would use them while developing other works, a form of sketching, or drawing with colour. As such it was vital for the development of his mural, The Dance, of 1932-3, for another great American entrepreneur, Albert C. Barnes: the more-or-less vertical bars of pink, blue and black relate to cut-out elements in the preparatory stages. His interest in dance led to a commission to design the ballet, Rouge et Noir, for choreographer Léonide Massine. The stage curtain design is still held together with pins, the same colour as the paper, showing how the individual elements could be moved and adjusted to find the right combination of line and colour. But it was with Jazz – undoubtedly one of the most important artist’s books of the 20th Century – that he began to realise the full possibilities of the cut-out.

 

The Heart (1943), maquette for plate VII of Jazz (1947) Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Jazz is exhibited in its entirety in the Tate exhibition, and is one of the highlights. Indeed, it is exhibited twice, as the final, printed version is displayed alongside the original maquettes. Frustrated, as I have said, by the changes in colour from design to print, Matisse decided to cut into colour itself, using paper painted in exactly the same pigments as the printer’s ink. The original idea was to illustrate poems, but instead Matisse wrote notes about his ideas, his working practice and about the inspiration for the images. The text functions formally, a black and white breathing space between the brilliant intensity of the images. Already, with The Heart, we have the seed for the later tale of Scheherazade, with the same combination of black and green, pink and red, in adjacent blocks, and with the tell tale heart. This is by far one of the simplest of twenty vibrant images. It is wonderful to see them all together, and instructive, too: given the accuracy of the colour, Matisse was now disappointed by the flatness of the final image, and, of course, he was right. Side by side they are still glorious, but somehow lifeless, and later cut-outs were arranged together, loosely pinned to the wall so that cut leaves would wave in the breeze, as three-dimensional works. Different combinations of colours were tested against one another, much as Albers would focus on the square, or Riley on the line. Indeed, the undulating leaf forms so beloved of Matisse allow the maximum interaction between two different colours, in the same way that Riley uses long lines, straight or curving, to maximise the contact between the elements of her chosen palette.

The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Matisse used the technique to design book covers and posters, ceramic wall panels and stained glass, and even the decoration of an entire chapel (including the priest’s vestments) for the Dominican Nuns of Vence, in the South of France, one of whom had nursed him through a serious illness. But before long he realised that the paper cut-outs could be an end in themselves, they could live free of the restrictions of the canvas, and take up entire rooms. The Parakeet and the Mermaid, for example, was developed on the walls of his studio, and originally wrapped around a corner of the room, while the Oceania works developed, in part, as a way of covering marks on the dull and shabby walls of a room in Paris. As you go round this wonderful exhibition the works get steadily larger, his ideas become freer and you gradually find yourself encompassed by colour. If you do go – and you should – it will be the most positive, glorious and life-affirming thing you see this year – this decade, for that matter, or this millennium – and it will leave you happy, if not forever, at least for now.

 

Celebrity Art Charades: an AHA tradition in fashion shoots – by Helena Roy

When I did my AHA course in the summer of 2012, an evening activity we were introduced to was (prosecco-fuelled) ‘Art Charades’. The group splits into judges and two teams, and each takes turns re-enacting artistic masterpieces live on the streets of Venice, Florence or Rome (much to the amusement of perplexed locals).

Art Charades on the AHA Northern Italy course 2012

It seems the fashion world has been at it too – albeit on a slightly more professional scale. Artists from Salvador Dali to Barbara Kruger have been invited to direct fashion shoots. Throw celebrities into the mix, and their recreations comprise a hilarious, odd, fantastical and real-life response to visual fictions.

Saoirse Ronan as Sir John Everett Millais' 'Ophelia' (1851-1852) in Vogue December 2011 by Steven Meisel
Modelling Roy Lichtenstein in Zink magazine by Mike Ruiz
Angela Lindvall as Andrew Wyeth's 'Christina's World' (1948), Vogue October 1998 by Carter Smith

A recent cover shoot for US Vogue depicted Jessica Chastain in a series of art-inspired portraits; striking poses from Matisse, to Van Gogh and Klimt. Models have recreated works from Magritte to Vermeer‘Girl with a pearl earring’ is a fashion favourite, having been modelled by Julianne Moore, Katja Borghuis and Scarlett Johannson (to promote her film about the subject).

Vincent Van Gogh painted 'La Mousme' in 1888, here's Jessica Chastain recreating it in 2013
Rene Magritte's 'La Robe Du Soir' 1955 sold at Christie's in London for 1.6mn dollars in February 2010, and has not been available for public view since
On the cover of US Vogue - the inspiration was Frederic Leighton's 'Flaming June' of 1895

Mimicking paintings spreads from photography to live fashion. Marc Jacobs caused quite a stir when he sent ‘sexy nurses’ down the Louis Vuitton catwalk, inspired by Richard Prince’s ‘Nurses’ painting series. Another example would be Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Mondrian’ collection, which became the epitome of Swinging Sixties fashion.

Models present creations by US designer Marc Jacobs based on Richard Prince's 'Nurses'
Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian Dress at the V&A

Why does fashion take such obvious inspiration from art, when it is meant to be such a source of vision and creativeness itself? Perhaps to borrow some of the power of the art world’s most iconic, beloved and recognisable pieces. Or, perhaps simply for the fun of dress-up and charades…

With thanks to Vogue, W Magazine, Zink Magazine and Wikipedia for photos.

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg: Too big for it’s own good?

The museum as seen from the Neva river.

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel St. Petersburg, Russia for a long weekend. Whilst there I took a trip, two trips in fact, to The Hermitage Museum, and it was quite frankly the most astonishing art gallery and museum experience I’ve ever had. This revelation comes as a result of numerous factors, however the most obvious of these is the sheer size of the place, and the volume of art contained within it. A quick search on the ever reliable Google tells me that the Hermitage is the 4th largest museum in the world in terms of area. I’ve never been to the Smithsonian, the Acropolis Museum, or the Louvre, so I can safely say it is the biggest museum I’ve ever visited. Honestly, it makes gargantuan sites like the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the British Museum and others feel very small indeed. As well as the size of the museum, what is equally as astonishing is the sheer variety of art and artefacts on display. Objects range from paintings by Rembrandt and Leonardo, to Japanese Samurai armour and Egyptian sarcophagi, right back to classical sculpture from Ancient Rome and Greece.

'The Sacrifice of Isaac' by Rembrandt (1635)

One issue I have with the museum is that it doesn’t seem, to my admittedly amateurish eyes, to be particularly well curated. Granted artworks are grouped by nation and period, but beyond that, it seems that they’ve all just been hung with little regard for creating a real flow within the gallery. I think this may be something to do with the vast size of the collection held within the Hermitage. To give an example, part of my second afternoon in the museum was spent in the ‘French Painting of the 20th century” section, which is unfortunately tucked away in a stuffy corner, in what is essentially the attic of the Winter Palace. Housed within this are innumerate works by the likes of Cezanne, Matisse and Derain, which are hung with what appears to be little concern towards style, period etc.

Henri Matisse's 'The Dance'. One of numerous works of his held in the museum.

My family and I spent nearly two days in the Hermitage complex and I think we saw most of what was on offer, but I’m certain that I missed a lot, and I feel that I was only really able to see most of the art superficially as there is just so much to look at, and to be to totally honest, one needs to sift through a lot of very average paintings before finding the good stuff.

Canova's 'Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss'

To sum up, I must say that the Hermitage Museum complex holds one of, if not the most impressive collection, of paintings, sculptures and antiquities I’ve ever seen. However it is let down by poor curation, and I think this is a real shame. That said, if you’re a lover of art (and if you’re reading this blog, I assume you are) then I’d say that if you’re ever given the chance to go to St. Petersburg, you should bite off the hand of whomever afforded you the opportunity. Not just the Hermitage, but the entire city, is quite spectacular!

For more information about the Hermitage museum, visit http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/