Striking simplicity: Matisse at the Tate Modern

On entering I am instantly reminded of the year one classroom my mother taught in.  Closer examination of the pieces in frames results in a wave of nostalgia: the slightly shaky scissor cutting, the flaps of paper not quite glued down properly and the huge sheets of pastel-coloured sugar paper taking over the tables. Matisse’s cut outs indisputably revert to an innocent kind of creativity – and are a world away from his earlier works.  Completed in the last years of his life, the works embrace the playful, inventive and experimental side of art so often forgotten in favour of excess, complexity and, above all, seriousness.

The cut outs are unbelievably refreshing. There’s something incredibly therapeutic about sticking paper onto paper. I think back to art classes on Friday afternoons after a full day of science, maths and English, and think about the comfort in creating collages on paper. When I was younger, I filled numerous scrapbooks at my grandparents’ house with magazine cut outs, whiling away afternoons at the living room table with scissors and a stack of magazines. It feels inherently childish and inherently unrestricted – and these are the sentiments communicated by Matisse. The pieces are fun, light-hearted and colourful, displaying a beautifully uninhibited creative freedom.

One aspect of the exhibition which struck me the most was the Oceania display – birds, coral, leaves and fish cut out from white paper and pasted onto the walls of Matisse’s studio in his apartment in Paris. Originally made to cover up a stain on the studio wall, Oceania was produced in 1947 and is one of the most beautiful designs in the exhibition. It emerged from an inventive solution to a problem and grew from there; it is a result of creative simplicity – and allowing this mind-set to enter the world of adult life. When we’re younger, a blank piece of paper isn’t daunting, but inviting – yet as we grow older it’s harder to harness the spontaneous, uninhibited and improvisational method of creating, and the blank page suddenly looks terrifying. To me, one of the reasons the exhibition is so important is that it encourages us to return to our childlike state of mind as adults: fearless, creative and inventive. The cut-outs refuse to conform to artistic convention; they turn art back to its origins – creativity in its simplest form.

Did Matisse intend the cut outs to go on show? No, probably not. Although some works, like the designs for the 1947 Jazz book, were intended to be viewed, the overriding impression is that the pieces displayed are predominantly personal. They were for him alone – a way of passing the time. In my second year of A-Level, I missed studying art because it gave me an excuse to keep a sketchbook, full of not-very-good-drawings and pages of collage – a visual documentation of what I was interested in at the time (kudos to my seventeen year old self for attempting to twist every design brief to fit my own interests). There’s something so amazing about curating your own sense of self from the things around you – no matter how limited. Matisse’s health problems during the 1940s limited his mobility while creating the works, but his determination to employ the materials around him to create something so beautifully simplistic is incredible. The cut-outs are a triumph in more than one sense: not only are they proof that no explanation is required to make art, but that imagination can thrive under any circumstance.

Although the critics have hailed the exhibition as a display of Matisse’s genius, it strikes me less as a type of artistic genius, but rather a kind of homage to childhood simplicity. The claims that the exhibition is genius overlook the works at their most fundamental level: quite simply, they are pieces of paper stuck on other pieces of paper. They are not expressions of artistic genius, but a very important reminder that art can be made by anyone. It’s a return to the essentials of art: it is originality and a childlike playfulness of expression. So often art is inaccessible, aloof or unapproachable – and the cut outs are a far cry from this, advocating simple creative freedom through striking minimalism. Maybe this is a genius all of its own.

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