Matisse in Focus at Tate Liverpool brings together fifteen paintings from the Tate collection to provide an overview of the artist’s work across five decades. Its centrepiece is The Snail, the largest and most popular of Matisse’s cut-out works; after this show closes, it will never travel outside London again.

For such a small exhibition, this display succeeds in providing a sense of how Matisse developed his response to colour and the portrayal the human figure at key moments in his career. In a single room we get a manageable overview that ranges across portraits, landscape and still life – with The Snail and his monumental series of sculptures, The Backs, being the undoubted highlights. Alongside are several less familiar examples of his earlier paintings.

Studio Interior c.1903-4
Matisse, Studio Interior c.1903-4

The earliest painting here is Studio Interior, from 1903-4. It dates from the time when Matisse lived in Paris, attending regular life drawing and sculpture classes.  It shows a corner of Matisse’s apartment at 19 Quai St. Michel, where he lived from 1899 to 1907. The carefully arranged still-life of a vase of flowers, jugs, a glass containing a long spoon and a lemon on the small stand reflect the importance of domestic interiors and still-lifes in Matisse’s work around the turn of the century.

Andre Derain 1905
Matisse, Andre Derain 1905

In the summer of 1905 Henri Matisse left Paris for the quiet fishing village of Collioure on the Mediterranean. After settling with his family in a hotel, Matisse invited his friend, the young painter André Derain, to join him. Both artists were captivated by the brilliant light reflected from the sea, and they worked every day, often using paints straight from the tube with little mixing to capture  vibrant colours on their canvases.

During this time, Matisse and Derain painted portraits of each other using vivid, apparently arbitrary, colours. Here, Matisse captures  the sensation of sunlight striking his friend’s face. Dynamic colours complement each other, and are  intensified by being juxtaposed. This non-naturalistic use of colour was a radical development out of Impressionism, and was what led critics to label Matisse a ‘fauve’ (wild beast).

Trivaux Pond 1916 or 1917
Matisse, Trivaux Pond 1916 or 1917

In 1917 Matisse bought a car and began to to take his painting equipment into the woods on the outskirts of Paris. This is one of several works he made at Trivaux Pond, in the landscaped park of the Bois de Meudon. The verticals of the trees establish a strong rhythm, and forms are simplified. To me, it brought to mind Cezanne’s studies of trees a couple of decades earlier – and upstairs Tate Liverpool currently has one of those on show.

At a time when much of the art in the possession of London galleries remains hidden in storage, and museums are being urged to be more generous in sharing it with the rest of the country, it’s good to see three floors of Tate Liverpool filled with pieces from the capital. Visitors to Matisse in Focus encounter signs that encourage them to step upstairs for Constellations, nine presentations which each display a ‘trigger’ work alongside artworks from often very different art traditions alongside each other, ‘making visible hidden connections and involving audiences in formulating the reading and understanding of art.’

The Cezanne constellation
To help explain the thinking behind each grouping, the curators display diagrams to suggest how the surrounding works relate to the trigger work, and to each other, across time and location. Constellations features two works by Cézanne, one of them The Grounds of the Château Noir, painted in the first five years or so of the 20th century.
Paul Cézanne The Grounds of the Château Noir c.1900–6
Paul Cézanne The Grounds of the Château Noir c.1900–6

In paintings like this, Cézanne was attempting to portray the fleeting sensations of light and movement that we experience when looking at a landscape – while at the same time communicating the underlying order in nature. This is one of several works he made around the Château Noir, about three miles from Aix-en-Provence, where he lived. By applying varied tones of colour in distinct but overlapping brush strokes, he achieved a sense of depth, light and structure. Shortly before his death, he wrote: ‘I am becoming more lucid before nature, but with me the realising of sensations is always painful. I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses.’

Paul Cézanne, The Gardener Vallier, c1906
Paul Cézanne, The Gardener Vallier, c1906

This constellation is ‘triggered’ by Cezanne’s The Gardener Vallier, painted around1906. It’s a portrait of the gardener and odd-job man at his home, and is one of his last paintings. The work follows the same method of capturing the exact shade, tone and luminosity of each element, in distinct but overlapping brush strokes.

William Ratcliffe, Attic Room 1918
William Ratcliffe, Attic Room 1918

Staying with this Constellation, opposite the Cezanne was a this painting by a British artist who was new to me.  William Ratcliffe had worked as a wallpaper designer in London before making this painting, which perhaps explains the careful attention to the wallpaper in this view of the bedroom at his niece’s house in Berkhampstead. The pair of boots at the centre of the picture suggests  that Ratcliffe was himself the occupant of this room at the time it was painted.

Paul Nash, Harbour and Room 1932-6
Paul Nash, Harbour and Room 1932-6

Also here is a painting by Paul Nash, made when he stayed at a hotel by the sea during a trip to the south of France in the early 1930s. The image was inspired by the reflection of a ship in a large mirror which hung in front of his bed, and has a dream-like quality reflecting Nash’s interest in Surrealism.

Pierre Bonnard, The Window 1925
Pierre Bonnard, The Window 1925

Finally, the great pleasure of meeting a Bonnard. It’s one of his many paintings that blend a cool, shaded interior with a sunlit exterior. It was made in a rented apartment at Le Cannet, the town which the artist’s wife Marthe looks down on from the balcony. The sensuality and warmth of the south entranced Bonnard, but in his paintings he often framed the landscape with windows or doorways.

Matisse, The Inattentive Reader, 1919
Matisse, The Inattentive Reader, 1919

The sun and warmth of the south entranced Matisse, too – and painting a sunlit scene framed by a window was something that he also often did. Returning downstairs in the Tate, we find The Inattentive Reader, painted by Matisse during an extended stay at the Hotel Beau Rivage on the Promenade in Nice. This daydreaming woman caught in a moment of reflection is one of several paintings Matisse made of women reading (such as The Reader, 1906; Woman Reading, 1909; and Reader on a Black Background, 1939).

Reading Woman with Parasol 1921
Reading Woman with Parasol 1921

Or this one – Reading Woman with Parasol, from 1921. Here, far from daydreaming, the woman appears completely absorbed in her book. The relaxed, relatively naturalistic style is typical of his work of the early 1920s. Offered the painting, the Tate initially turned it down, though accepted it in 1938.

Cap d'Antibes 1922
Cap d’Antibes 1922

From the 1920s Matisse spent much of the year in Nice, returning to Paris only in the summer months. In Nice he painted figures, often the semi-clothed ‘odalisques’, in exotically-patterned interiors (such as Draped Nude from 1936 on display here). However, he also painted several landscapes in soft-toned colours, such as Cap d’Antibes in 1922 in which a woman sits on a bench gazing at the view.

Draped Nude 1936
Draped Nude 1936

Draped Nude is one of a series of four pictures painted in the spring of 1936. In quick, flowing lines Matisse traces the woman’s limbs, her gown and her left hand as it hangs limply over the edge of the chair. The floral patterning of the gown and the exotic plant behind her are reminders of the theme of the harem girl, or odalisque, a theme which Matisse returned many times.

Back I c.1909-10, cast 1955-6
Back I c.1909-10, cast 1955-6

It was great to see The Backs again. Matisse’s largest sculptures, they were honed over twenty years during which he progressively refined the original pose until he had achieved the massive simplicity he was seeking.

Matisse’s decision to show the back view of a woman on such a monumental scale was unorthodox. By concealing her face, he was able to focus on the nude body as an arrangement of forms that he could simplify and stylise. In the final sculpture, the gently curved spine was replaced by an abstracted plait.

Although Back I had been exhibited in 1913, the series remained almost unknown until 1949–50 when the plaster Backs I, III and IV appeared in exhibitions in Paris and Lausanne. Back II was only rediscovered after Matisse’s death. All were cast posthumously in bronze.

Shape and Make station
The Shape and Make station

And so finally to The Snail, the culmination of this small exhibition. This will be last time that this example the cut-outs Matisse made in the last years of his life will travel outside London. Conservation requirements mean that the work – already preserved by being applied to canvas – will be kept in London as part of the Tate’s permanent collection. So it’s a privilege to be able to see it in Liverpool on the final leg of a European tour.

As a primary school teacher, my daughter regularly uses The Snail to inspire children and help them see that you only need a few sheets of coloured paper and a a pair of scissors (or your bare hands) to create a work of imagination. Right next to The Snail was the Shape and Make station, where visiting children are encouraged to produce their own cut-outs.

The work is complemented by the short film Making the Cut-Outs, made by the art collector Adrien Maeght, which shows the artist wielding his scissors.  As I wrote after seeing it at Tate Modern in 2014, the dynamism that Matisse exhibits as he cuts with swiftness and absolute sureness, the shapes twisting and falling around him, is astonishing. Most importantly, the film also shows The Snail displayed in its original context, pinned to his studio wall.

The Snail 1953
The Snail 1953

You can still make out the pin holes in the corners of the torn paper which form the work, made in the period after 1948 when Matisse was prevented from painting by ill health.  Confined to bed, he produced the works now known as cut-outs by cutting or tearing shapes from paper which had been painted with gouache. The shapes were then placed and pasted down by an assistant working under Matisse’s instruction. Some of the later ones, such as The Snail, were of very large dimensions.

Matisse’s secretary Lydia Delectorskaya described the making of The Snail in a letter to the Tate in 1976:

The Snail was made in the Hôtel Régina at Nice. H. Matisse had at his disposal sheets of paper painted in gouache by assistants, in all the colours he used for the ‘papiers découpés’. A background of white paper – of the dimensions indicated by H.M. – was put on the wall and the assistant pinned onto it the pieces of gouached paper which H.M. passed to him indicating exactly where they should be placed. When H.M. decided that his composition was finished, it was lightly stuck to the background. The panel was taken down when H.M. needed the wall for a further work. When later on it was sent to Lefebvre-Foinet [in Paris] to be pasted down, before anything was moved, an extremely precise tracing was made to ensure that no changes were made in the composition, not even by so much as a millimetre.

Matisse’s daughter said that her father made many drawings of snails at this time and that the idea for this work came out of these. The concentric pattern formed by the coloured shapes in the centre of the work echoes the spiral pattern found in the snail’s shell. Matisse told André Verdet:

I first of all drew the snail from nature, holding it. I became aware of an unrolling, I found an image in my mind purified of the shell, then I took the scissors.

Matisse in Focus continues until 2 May 2016. A roomful of works by Matisses, and upstairs a couple Cezannes, and a gorgeous Bonnard: what more could one ask?

See also

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