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In recent years, a decent slice of the British public has warmed to the idea of the exciting blockbuster art exhibition at the Tate Modern. Recent years have seen Roy Lichenstein, Paul Klee, Kurt Schwitters and Damian Hirst getting major showcases to huge lines spreading across the main floor of the iconic building. It’s a huge pull for tourists of course, but each time that I have been there has been a buzz of excitement for casual and hardcore modern art fans.
This time the focus is on Henri Matisse. After a successful early career painting relatively innocuous still lifes (until an influential friendship with Picasso) Matisse was struck with ill health that forced him towards a new direction for his creativity. He began to cut large shapes out of coloured paper and arrange them to produce huge new creations. This period of his life was eventually to become known as The Cut-Outs.
The exhibition winds itself round Tate’s second floor and begins with a number of smaller sketches and pieces that pre-empt the striking larger visual treats towards the end.
The most famous piece is almost certainly The Snail (1953)– a dazzling 6’x6’ explosion of abstract colour that beams down from the brilliant white wall. It could be easy to dismiss as a kind of enlarged experiment from a preschooler getting their hands on their first sugar paper, but that would ignore its overwhelming size and playfulness and to disassociate it from it’s first release. To consider the impact it must have had during first exhibition; it must have been truly shocking.
The more interesting pieces are The Parakeet and the Mermaid and The Sheaf – two calmly sub-aquatic visions of coral reef and shell shapes in stark and bold pastel colours. Both of the pieces are huge and dominant and feel strangely three-dimensional as they engulf the field of vision.
Other works, such as Pale Blue Window, have an overtly religious temperament feeling like cartoonish stained glass windows, strengthening the art-gallery-as-church metaphor.
Although Matisse doesn’t have the range or breadth of a Hirst or Lichenstein exhibition, mainly due to the production method that he was reduced to in later life leading to a single style of two-dimensional visual art, it is fascinating to see the evolution of his style – A style which grows in size, creativity and vision as the show builds to the final illuminated works. The exhibition is leaving for New York’s MOMA before dispersing to private collections around the world, so it is an essential highlight of the London art calendar – cut out your other engagements and make haste to Matisse!
The exhibition runs until the 7th of September and tickets can be bought here
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