Photography: Gareth Jones

Matisse: Drawing With Scissors

Lady Lever Art Gallery - until March 2020

HENRI MATISSE’s famous cut-out images can be found on postcards, fridge magnets and bookmarks worldwide. They’re as ubiquitous as they are well-loved, so it’s pleasing to see the Lady Lever Art Gallery host this touring exhibition from the Southbank Centre in London.

This exhibition consists of 35 colourful lithographic reproductions made posthumously for the French art magazine Verve in 1958, based on the original cut-outs produced in the later years of Matisse’s life. As the viewer goes through the galleries, they are enticed into worlds of mermaids and dancing figures.

The cut-outs, which include the renowned L’Escargot and Nu Bleu (I-IV), were produced between 1951 to 1953 by Matisse when he was rendered immobile as a result of chronic illness. Each work was completed with the aid of assistants, but very much under the watchful eye of Matisse, who was such a perfectionist that one of the assistants was near to physical exhaustion by the end of her time with him. His eye for perfection means that the works are beautiful and the figures fluid: the vivid pictures jump out at you across the room. There’s a sense of movement and vitality to the figures and the places they depict, referencing dance and Matisse’s travels to Tahiti, which he had visited in 1930.

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L’Escargot – Henri Matisse, 1952-53 (lithographic reproduction, 1958). © Succession H. Matisse, DACS 2018

One of the astounding things about the originals is their size – L’Escargot is nearly three metres by three metres. The only clue to the scale of the originals is a small black and white photograph of Matisse directing an assistant from his wheelchair, pointing imperiously with a cane with the massive parakeet from 1952’s La Perruche et la Sirène looming large in the background. You can only imagine the effect these originals would have had – a charming detail is that Matisse’s doctor advised that he wear dark glasses to protect him from the visual assault – as even the smaller reproductions brighten up the galleries.

It almost goes without saying that the prints are beautiful, and the trajectory through the exhibition, whichever direction you come in from, makes sense. The lighting levels mean the exhibition mercifully lacks the glare on the glass which hinders viewing other works in some galleries in the Lady Lever.

Pieces have been metaphorically reframed for 2019. The curation is caught between letting the art speak for itself and intervening and placing them in their cultural context and explaining, quite heavy-handedly at points, how and why the cultural context has changed.

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Nu bleu II (Blue Nude II) – Henri Matisse, 1952 (lithographic reproduction, 1958). © Succession H. Matisse DACS 2019

Undoubtedly, it’s good to reappraise art in light of new and welcomed cultural and societal norms and use pieces as a vehicle to discuss values and raise issues of inequality. At points, however, it seems unsure whether this is an exhibition where emphasis is on the art or whether the pieces are used as a vehicle to discuss society. This was particularly evident from the picture of Danseuse Créole where the accompanying description gives biographical information about the dancer Katherine Dunham on whom the picture was based. A 1963 quotation from the dancer Josephine Baker, another of Matisse’s muses, about the horrendous effects of segregation, is painted across one of the galleries and could potentially have been better used or linked.

The ‘pay what you think’ scheme for admission means the works will hopefully be seen by people whose purses don’t quite stretch to the £10 plus admission fees of the blockbuster exhibitions – which, let’s be honest, are most people in the current climate. It’s definitely worth a visit and will lift your spirits through the dark winter months.

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Matisse: Drawing With Scissors runs at Lady Lever Art Gallery until March 2020.

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