Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can’t tell them apart at all
David Bowie

He was one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life. He had nothing to say.
– Robert Hughes

Walking around Transmitting Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool, I realised I haven’t got much time for Warhol.  Oh, I get what he was saying, and I know about his impact on the art world.  But looking around this small but well-chosen selection of his work I cannot find one work that really moves or inspires me, nothing that reflects the beauty or the mystery in the world, or speaks to the realities of daily life as experienced by most people now, in our time of austerity. Continue reading “Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all”

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany British Museum

Flag of the German Confederation, 1850

After listening to Neil MacGregor’s outstanding radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, a visit to the linked exhibition at the British Museum was considered essential.  But, you might ask, was it worth it, having heard the radio version?  Yes, absolutely.  In the radio programmes, Neil MacGregor focussed on one particular object, and very few items he discussed are illustrated on the BBC website.  The exhibition, on the other hand, features 200 objects selected to reflect on a number of key themes that offer an impressionistic, but richly detailed, account of 600 years of German history, from the Renaissance to the present day.

Like the radio series, the exhibition sets out to investigate the complexities of German history.  For British visitors it poses two key questions: How much do we really understand Germany, and how do its people understand themselves?

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

When you enter the exhibition you see three things. The first is a quote from the painter Georg Baselitz: ‘What I could never escape was Germany and being German’; then your attention is drawn to a video of the joyous crowds of East Germans pouring through the hastily-opened Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989.  Finally, displayed nearby is a home-made placard made for a demonstration in East Berlin a few weeks later: cut in the shape of the united Germany and with the colours of the German flag it bears the words: ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ –  ‘we are one people’.

The point being made is how recently the Germany of today – the Germany on the placard, and the one unification created in 1990 – came into existence. The boundaries  of today’s Germany are less than a quarter of a century old, the result of the merging of the German Democratic Republic with the German Federal Republic  in 1990.

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

How this new Germany echoes and recalls older forms of Germany is the story told by the exhibition. It is a story of shifting borders and jigsaw pieces of German history, some of which are found in cities which are no longer German. Take, for example, Strasbourg, now a French border city, but for centuries a centre of German culture and industry.  In the cathedral there, Goethe thought he had found the essence of German art and history.  The exhibition illustrates the city’s key place in German history with a model of the cathedral clock, made in 1574. As well as dials to show the time, the clock strikes the hours and the quarters. On the hour, figures emerge on a revolving dais – first Death to strikes the hour, then the figure of Christ appears to banish Death. It’s a remarkable piece of intricate engineering.

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Next, a reminder that Königsberg, once home to Immanuel Kant and later to the German painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, is now Kaliningrad, a Russian city.  Here is one of Kathe Kollwitz’s intense, searching self-portrait, this one from 1904.  Kollwitz was  born in Konigsberg  when it was a Prussian city. By 1945 her home town had been destroyed by Allied bombing and, renamed Kalingrad, was under Soviet control. (For more about Kathe Kollwitz, see ‘Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story‘ on the British Museum blog.)

In this opening section of the exhibition, the theme is ‘Floating Frontiers’; the aim is to show how the geographic home of the German-speaking peoples has fluctuated widely, from an enormous swathe of princely states, loosely united  within the Holy Roman Empire, then smashed apart by Napoleon, and then re-forged under Prussian leadership.

Franz Kafka by Hans Fronius. 1937 Woodcut

Franz Kafka: woodcut by Hans Fronius, 1937 

A superb woodcut of Franz Kafka is here to remind us that the Czech city of Prague was once home to a large German-speaking community, which included Kafka, one of the most acclaimed writers in the German language. Today, however, neither Russian-speaking Kaliningrad nor Czech-speaking Prague are in any sense German.

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Nearby is this portrait of Erasmus, painted by Holbein in 1523 while he was based in the university at Basel. Throughout the medieval period Basel was a thoroughly German city – one of the first centres of the German printing industry.  Its university attracted renowned scholars such as Erasmus. In 1501, however, Basel elected to become part of Switzerland.

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling, 1526

Holbein appears again with this portrait painted during his first visit to England in 1526.  His career – and the painting – both reflect the extent of German-speaking cultural and commercial links across Europe at the time.  The lady is English, her squirrel is German, and she wears Russian-cut furs that would have come to England through a Hanseatic League merchant operating in the Steelyard, the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London, located on the north bank of the Thames roughly where Cannon Street station now stands. As this article from History Today suggests, the Hanseatic League was effectively the first Common Market. Holbein went on to paint portraits of several prominent members of the Steelyard community

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

This painting by Casper David Friedrich illustrates how the German landscape has had a profound impact on German identity. The work of 19th century Romantics like Friedrich, with their focus on wild places, mountain ranges, remote lakes and deep forests, gave new focus to the German landscape as a symbol of German identity (even today, one-third of Germany is covered by forests). The early and continuing influence of the Green Party reflects this aspect of the German identity.

Pen and ink drawing of the rhinoceros, by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

Albrecht Dürer, pen and ink drawing of a rhinoceros, 1515

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Durer’s famous rhinocerous print and a copy of it made from Meissen porcelain two centuries later have been chosen to represent two of Germany’s earliest artistic and technological achievements.  The invention of modern printing in the mid-1400s allowed Durer to become the first leading artist to gain fame for his mass-produced works.  Though he never actually saw a rhinocerous, his print – with its inaccuracies – was copied for centuries. It was such an obvious example of great German art that when porcelain was reinvented by scientists in Dresden in the early 1700s it was transformed into this example of an industry which allowed Europe to equal China’s earlier achievements.

These have been just glimpses of a wide-ranging and complex exhibition.  Inevitably, it’s the objects that represent the devastating and tragic events of the first half of the 20th century that linger in the memory. The exhibition reflects these events through the works of artists and objects of the time. There are Otto Dix prints reflecting on World War I, banknotes issued during the period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, an etching by Käthe Kollwitz created in response to the assassination of Communist leader Karl Liebknecht during the abortive socialist revolution of 1919.

Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain

Otto Dix, Der Krieg: Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain, 1922

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

In 1937 the Nazis mounted a large travelling exhibition of antisemitic propaganda under the title Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The exhibits, which included photographs, documents and charts, repeated mediaeval myths about the Jews, accused the Jews of usury, dishonest business practices, and alleged an international Jewish conspiracy that controlled both capitalism and Communism. The exhibition blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for wars and financial crises in general.  The exhibition drew large crowds. The poster for the exhibition, displayed here, emphasized supposed attempts by Jews to turn Germany into a communist state, portraying an ‘eastern’ Jew holding gold coins in one hand and a whip in the other. Under his arm is a map of the world, with the imprint of the hammer and sickle.  Kristallnacht followed one year later.

poster for 'The Eternal Jew' exhibition, Dresden 1937

Poster for ‘The Eternal Jew’ exhibition, Dresden 1937

sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers 1939

Sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, 1939

A sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, produced for children in 1939, shows how the Nazis attempted to embed the cult of Hitler and symbols of Nazism throughout German society, especially in the minds of the young.

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

On the way into the exhibition, one of the most emblematic icons of German industrial success, a post-war VW Beetle is on display. The Beetle, or KDF-Wagen as it was initially known, could trace its origins back to the late 1930s, when this brochure was printed, offering the chance to own a Volkswagens ( or ‘people’s car’), by collecting saving stamps. A large factory was built in the new town of Wolfsburg. Civilian production was interrupted during World War II with military vehicles being assembled there, mainly by forced workers and POWs. Production of the Beetle resumed shortly after the end of the war, initially thanks to the efforts of the British Army to get production back on track.  By 1955 the one-millionth VW Beetle was being manufactured in Wolfsburg, symbolizing the German ‘economic miracle’.

refugee cart 1945

A refugee cart from East Pomerania (now Poland) c 1945

Alongside a loan from the Buchenwald concentration camp – a replica of the camp’s gate with its inscription in elegant Bauhaus lettering stating ‘to each his own’ – is a simple refugee cart.  The former is testimony to the annihilation by the Nazis of the Jews of central and eastern Europe, while the cart speaks of the largest organised deportation in history – the expulsion of around 12 million Germans, forced to migrate after 1945 from areas of centuries-old German settlement across central and eastern Europe.  Using family farm carts like this to carry what belongings they could, the migrants fled before the advance of the Soviet army or were expelled after the German defeat.

Stage Set model for “Mother Courage” by Bertold Brecht

Stage model for ‘Mother Courage’, made for first German production, Berlin, 1949

Next to the cart is a model prepared for the first German production of Brecht’s play Mother Courage in Berlin in 1949. Brecht had written the play in Sweden in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  Set during the Thirty Years War that began in 1618 (an earlier age of self-inflicted German devastation), a traditional family cart was central to the staging.

The final, searing section of the exhibition is prefaced by these words from the curators:

The Nazis left a dark memory that can neither be avoided nor adequately explained.  After 1945 a once more divided Germany had to engage with this past and create a present that could accommodate it.

Here is one of the most powerful artistic statements made in Germany in the last 25 years.  In 1980 Anselm Kiefer began a series of works inspired by Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, a poem composed in German in late 1944 and 1945. Celan’s parents, along with many other Jews from Czernowitz, Romania, where he had been raised, were killed in the Trisnistria camp in eastern Romania in 1942. Celan himself endured two years of forced labor under the Germans, after which he lived in exile in Paris until his suicide in 1970.

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1980 watercolour

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1981

His poem deals obliquely with the horror of the Holocaust, stating ‘Death is a master from Germany’.  In this watercolour version of the enormous canvas of the same name which is currently on show at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy, Kiefer places the words ‘Dein goldenes Haar, Margarete’, used by Celan to represent the Aryan ideal of blonde beauty, over sheaves of golden corn.  Her blonde hair is contrasted in the poem with the ‘ashen’ hair of Jewish Shulamith, the favourite wife of King Solomon.

model of Jewish synagogue Offenbach

Model of the new Jewish synagogue in Offenbach, 1946

But the exhibition concludes with three exhibits which offer the hope of renewal and are suggestive of the way in which the German people have attempted, in the last thirty years, to come to terms with their past, openly and with honesty.

After concentration camps like Buchenwald and extermination camps like Auschwitz, it seemed that the story of Jews in Germany must come to a full stop at the end of the war. Over 90% of Jews living in Germany died in the Holocaust.  Most survivors in exile decided to remain abroad. Why would any Jew, in 1945 or after, see any part of their future in Germany? But remarkably Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe.

By 1948 there were already nearly 100 Jewish communities in Germany again, and new synagogues were being built.  In 1946 the town of Offenbach offered to build a new synagogue.  On display is the model design by Herman Guttman for a synagogue and community centre that would provide protection and refuge for every member of the community: ‘Nach au Auschwitz’ (After Auschwitz).  The synagogue was built and is now much enlarged to accommodate the large number of Russian Jews who arrived in the 1990s.

Ernst Barlach, The Floating One

Ernst Barlach, The Hovering Angel, 1927 bronze replica from Gustrov Cathedral

The end of the exhibition is dominated by the hovering figure of Ernst Barlach’s Der Schwebende, a mourning figure in solid bronze designed for Güstrow Cathedral, initially as a memorial to those who died in World War I. Its subsequent fate has meant it has become a distillation of Germany’s 20th century history and a powerful symbol of the strength of reconciliation. It has been generously lent to the Museum by the congregation in Güstrow – the first time it has left the cathedral.

Detached from earth and time, with folded arms and closed eyes, the figure expresses an internalised vision of the grief and suffering of war. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s works were among the first to be declared Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) and confiscated and removed from public display. Sadly, Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his masterwork had been taken down to be melted and probably made into war munitions.

However, some courageous friends had managed to hide a second cast, which was then hung in the Antoniter Church in Cologne after the end of the Second World War. This time, the sculpture commemorated two World Wars. During the time of the Cold War in the 1950s, the parish of Cologne made another cast of the Angel and presented it in a gesture of friendship to the parish of Güstrow cathedral. For the next few months this cast is displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition.

In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany, met Erich Honecker in East Germany, and they visited Barlach’s Angel in Güstrow cathedral. On this occasion, Schmidt said to the bishop in Güstrow: ‘I would like to thank you very much for your kind words of welcome. As you said, Barlach is indeed part of our common memory of the past. May I add, that Barlach could also stand as a representative of our shared and common future.’ Schmidt was right. Eight years later, in peaceful demonstrations, East Germans brought the wall between East and West down.

The facial features those of Kathe Kollwitz, kindred spirit of Barlach who shared his pacifist views.

Neil MacGregor recently made this comment on the meaning of Barlach’s Hovering Angel:

In Britain we have monuments to things in our past that we are very proud of.  The Germans put up monuments to their own shame, and that makes them very different from almost any other country.  They do that as a reminder of how they ought to behave in the future.

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991 (lithoprint from 1988 painting)

The last object we see before the exit is a painting by another contemporary German artist, Gerhard Richter.  It’s based on a photo of his daughter, taken as she turned to look at one of his paintings.

The young girl may be turning away from the artist – her father – or, perhaps, turning towards something else.  Fraught with ambiguity, the painting suggests conflict between generations, the interplay of past and present, and ideas of acceptance and guilt.

Richter was born Dresden in 1932 and grew up in what later became the GDR.  He escaped to the West two months before the Wall was built in 1961.

See also

Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future

Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future

TS Eliot once said that the meaning of a poem exists somewhere between the poem and the reader. The comment seemed apposite as I sat in the third room of the breathtaking Anself Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy surrounded by monumental artworks that spoke to me powerfully, though why they did I knew would be more difficult to articulate. Continue reading “Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future”

Rembrandt The Late Works at the National Gallery: unearthly brilliance

<em>Rembrandt The Late Works</em> at the National Gallery: unearthly brilliance

Rembrandt, Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul (detail)

Rembrandt, Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul (detail), 1661

On 5 October 1669 the sheriff’s men are called to Rembrandt’s house on the Rozengracht in Amsterdam, fetched there by his 14-year old daughter Cornelia, his only surviving child and sole offspring of his relationship with Hendrickje Stoffels whose death six years earlier had left him distraught.  Rembrandt lies dead, and there is a lot of sorting out to be done.  The great painter’s final years have been marked by many misfortunes – the death of loved ones, and  bankruptcy only avoided in 1656 by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities.  He has debts outstanding, there will be multiple calls upon whatever estate remains from both family and creditors, and there is his burial to be paid for.  So an inventory must be made of the contents of the house.

Rembrandt, Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple, c 1669

Rembrandt, Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple, c 1669

Scattered through the rooms of the house were thirteen paintings, judged at the time to be unfinished.  One of them was ‘Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple’, now judged to be Rembrandt’s last painting.  Fittingly, this is the final painting in the National Gallery’s unmissable exhibition, Rembrandt: The Late Works, which I went to see last week.

Though Rembrandt had long since ceased being an active member of his church,  he was, like all of  his contemporaries, drenched in the stories told by the apostles, including that told by Luke of Simeon, a man who hung around the Temple who had been visited by the Holy Spirit (as happened fairly frequently in those times) and told that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah. When the infant Jesus was brought by his parents to the Temple, Simeon took him in his arms and said, ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace’.  Rembrandt’s painting of the scene gains additional resonance from being his last – and from the fact that he has portrayed Simeon, eyes closed as if he is blind, while the three figures, seen against a background that is, in Simon Schama’s words, ‘a shadowy void’,  are illuminated by an ‘unearthly brilliance’.

That unearthly brilliance is also the first thing that strikes the visitor when entering the exhibition.  I was impressed by the staging of the exhibits: the rooms are dim, with the works hung against a background of deep, velvety darkness, each one illuminated in a pool of light.  So entering the first room, entitled ‘Self-scrutiny’, is to be confronted with the heart-stopping sight of five late self-portraits, in each one of which Rembrandt’s face glows in the gloom, his eyes seeming to follow you as you move around the room.

Blockbuster exhibitions like this are a ruck, but it was still worthwhile.  As Louisa Buck remarked in her Telegraph review, Rembrandt: The Late Works  brings together:

A once-in-a-lifetime gathering of landmark works and rare loans which strikingly confirm that the man who is now the epitome of old masterly respectability was in fact at his most daringly experimental during the last decade and a half of his life – from the early 1650s up to his death in 1669 aged 63. It also reveals that many of the qualities that we now take for granted as quintessentially and brilliantly Rembrandt-esque were not only utterly perplexing to his contemporaries but also came to fruition at a time when his career was on the skids.

I’ve already discussed some of these paintings in my post about Simon Schama’s  brilliant TV documentary. What follows therefore focusses on other works which caught my attention.  Another curatorial decision made by the National Gallery in presenting the exhibits has been to eliminate explanatory panels and labels.  Instead, visitors are given an excellent booklet containing information on each and every work, as well as a timeline and glossary of terms.  I’ve drawn upon it for this personal aide-mémoire of a wonderful exhibition.


Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1659

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1659

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1669 National Gallery, London

Rembrandt, Self Portrait (detail), 1669 (National Gallery, London)

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1669 Maurithaus, The Hague

 Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1669 (Maurithaus, The Hague)

As your eyes adjust to the semi-darkness in the first room, the first sight is that of Rembrandt’s self-portrait of 1659.  It’s a work of astonishing humanity, the artist’s illuminated against the varying shades of brown from which most of the rest of the painting is composed.  The brushstrokes are expressive, creamy swirls of paint on his brow lending him a quizzical expression, while thick strokes emphasise the heavy eyelids and thinner strokes suggest the slack flesh of his jowls. The eyes are alert, but there is sadness there, too.

Rembrandt made around 80 self-portraits – painted, etched or drawn – which make up an extraordinary record of an artist’s unflinching observation of his own features.  The self-portraits Rembrandt produced in his later years – subdued, thoughtful, and often achingly honest – seem to probe beyond external appearances.

Two years after the 1659 self-portrait, Rembrandt painted himself as the Apostle Paul (top of this post), the only time he assumed the role of a biblical figure.  Simon Schama writes in Rembrandt’s Eyes:

Was there ever so unlikely, and yet so obvious a Paul as this?  Not the long-bearded pillar of self-righteousness whom Rembrandt had painted forty years before … laying down the law, pointing to the irrefutable doctrine.  Instead the quizzical, confessional Paul … shoulders shrugged, brow crumpled, hapless yet not without hope; the author both of his blind folly and of his visionary wisdom; a vessel of sin and a receptacle of salvation; not a Paul of forbidding remoteness but a Paul of consoling humanity; a Paul for everyday sinners.

Then, before leaving the room, we encounter two self-portraits painted in 1669, when he was 63. In the National Gallery portrait he appears frail, an old man.  ‘This is the truth’, remarks Schama, ‘and Rembrandt’s face is lit only by the illumination of his unsparing frankness’.  The Mauritshuis painting is probably Rembrandt’s final self-portrait.  Still keenly observant, he records his slack, puffy face with clinical detachment.  Flesh sags beneath his chin, while a thick swipe of paint emphasises the pouch under his right eye.  It is, states Schama, ‘a ruthlessly detailed map of times’s attrition’.  Yet, by adding that fancy beret, there is still something of a swagger to the man.


Rembrandt, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, 1661

Rembrandt, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, 1661 

Much of Rembrandt’s art was concerned with the manipulation of light and shadow for dramatic or symbolic effect.  Like Caravaggio, he was interested in strong lighting contrasts which he achieved by orchestrating his colours to unify and enhance areas of light and dark, often using surface texture to add glittering highlights.

The centrepiece of this room, alongside several examples of Rembrandt’s etchings, is enormous oil painting, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis. In 1661 Rembrandt was among several artists commissioned to produce decorations illustrating the revolt of the Batavians (a tribe inhabiting the area of the Netherlands in Roman times), seen as a parallel to the revolt that had freed the Dutch from Spanish oppression in the 16th century. Rembrandt depicts the one-eyed Batavian leader, Claudius Civilis, with his followers, swearing an oath to resist the Romans.  A single lamp lights the scene, turning the tabletop into a river of gold and eerily illuminating the conspirators with reflected light.

Though the canvas was installed in the Town Hall, it was rejected soon after and cut down, probably by Rembrandt himself. His drawing alongside shows that the painting was originally even larger, with the figures situated in a cavernous space.

Experimental technique

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles

 Rembrandt, Self Portrait with Two Circles, c 1665

Rembrandt’s inventive, even unorthodox, technique is, states the guide, one of the most distinctive aspects of his late work.  He layered colours and varied the application of his paint, from thin washes to a dense impasto. Sometimes he used a palette knife to apply the paint, or scored marks in the surface with the end of his brush (I was to see a lot more of that sort of thing – on a grand scale – the next day at the Anself Kiefer retrospective at the RA).  Though this section is mainly devoted to revealing the extent of Rembrandt’s experimentation as a printmaker, it was dominated, for me, by two oil paintings that had been discussed in Simon Schama’s documentary – the Kenwood Self-Portrait with Two Circles, and Lucretia, painted in 1666. The former is, states the guide, one of Rembrandt’s most magnificent self-portraits.  It appears unfinished, perhaps deliberately so, to draw attention to the artist’s virtuosity.  In particular, the right hand is barely developed, while the left, holding the palette and brushes, is suggested with a mere flurry.

Rembrandt Lucretia 1666

Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1666

The Lucretia is displayed here as another example of Rembrandt’s unorthodox technique.  He was, suggests the National Gallery guide, probably the first artist to manipulate paint on the canvas with a palette knife.  He used the tool in the lower part of Lucretia’s shift, her white sleeves, and the sleeve covering her lowered right arm.  He layered colours and glazes on top of the textured surface. (For further discussion of these two paintings see my post on Simon Schama’s documentary.)


The next section illustrates how Rembrandt drew inspiration from the work of earlier artists, reworking motifs from a diverse range of sources, including antique statues and Italian, German and Netherlandish art of the previous two centuries.  Rembrandt probably owned many of these works.  He spent extravagant amounts of money on collecting art and curiosities, an indulgence that led him to virtual bankruptcy.

Rembrandt, The Goldsmith, 1655

Rembrandt, The Goldsmith, 1655

From this room I’ve selected a tiny etching (the reproduction above is probably larger than the original) of a goldsmith at work.  Modelled on a similar composition by the 16th century Flemish artist, Dirck Vellert, it is now owned by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.  The sculptor tenderly caresses his latest creation, a statuette of a woman with two children, symbolizing Charity.

Observation of everyday life

Rembrandt, Farmhouse on a River, 1652

Rembrandt, Farmhouse on a River, 1652

This section is devoted to drawings which reveal Rembrandt’s continuing fascination with the everyday and life’s peculiarities – its randomness, defects and anomalies.  The most striking examples of this were two small sketches made on the spot as Rembrandt observed the public hanging of Elsje Christiaens in 1664, executed for murdering her landlady.  He records her body suspended from the gibbet with the murder weapon – an axe – beside her.

Then there are quick, impressionistic sketches made whilst out walking in the countryside.  Farmhouse on a River is a pen drawing in brown ink on brown paper.  With a few quick strokes, Rembrandt has captured the impression of a modest farmhouse on the bend of a river –  a record of days when he would roam the Dutch countryside sketching such scenes.

Artistic conventions

This section demonstrates how Rembrandt continued in his final years to test the limits of what was thought acceptable or appropriate in art. In portraits, however, he had to employ subtle tactics.  Commissioned portraits required a delicate balance between the client’s expectations and the artist’s vision. In his later works especially, Rembrandt seems to embrace the challenge of reinvigorating the conventions of portraiture, and this section offers several examples.

Rembrandt, The Syndics,1662

Rembrandt, The Syndics,1662

Here is the group portrait of the sampling officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild – known as ‘The Syndics’. In this masterly group portrait (also discussed in Simon Schama’s documentary), Rembrandt shook up a traditionally staid format, whilst respecting the dignity of the officials, animating the shallow space by varying the heights and angles of the syndics heads, and turning the table at an angle ninety degrees to the picture plane, so that the corner of the table appears to jut out of the picture towards the viewer.  Accompanying drawings show how Rembrandt experimented with different positions and poses.

Rembrandt, Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (detail), c 1661

Rembrandt, Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (detail), c 1661

Rembrandt’s portrait of the Syndics was evidence that, although his style was considered somewhat unfashionable by the 1660s, his skill still appealed to the moneyed grandees of Amsterdam.  And there were none grander or richer than the Trips, ironmasters of Dordrecht who had built a global trading empire that stretched from Russia to West Africa, from Sweden to Brazil.  The Trips shipped grain from the Baltic, slaves from Guinea – and guns, lots of them.  Wherever there was a war, the Trips supplied the armaments.  In 1660 the Trips began construction of a massive private house in the city and commissioned several painters, including Rembrandt, to make portraits for the interior.

Rembrandt’s portraits of old Jacob Trip (who died in 1661) and his widow Margaretha are, writes Schama, ‘old-fashioned in conception but uncompromisingly modern in execution’.  Both are presented as severe, stony-faced individuals – patriarch and matriarch – though the portrait of Jacob is painted more loosely. Margaretha‘s frontal pose is unusual in female portraiture and serves to emphasise her iron will.

Rembrandt, Portrait of the Dortrecht Merchant Jacob Trip, c 1661

Rembrandt, Portrait of the Dortrecht Merchant Jacob Trip, c 1661

Rembrandt, Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet, 1657

Rembrandt, Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet, 1657

Although married, Catrina Hooghsaet lived apart from her husband with a parrot for company (just discernible in the darkness to her right).  She belonged to the Mennonite religious sect which forbade extravagant and colourful dress: her crisp white collar and intricate lace cap were, however, permissible displays of wealth. I was struck by Rembrandt’s detailing of her right hand and the handkerchief it holds, and by his observation of the way in which the decorative gold hairpins that hold her cap in place form impressions in her cheek.


We know from having watched Simon Schama’s documentary that Rembrandt painted many of his most emotionally powerful works in the final years of his career.  In this part of the exhibition we get to see intimate studies of human character, of friends and family, and of the nude.  These images are not solely about external appearance, but about expressing the innermost thoughts and emotions of the individuals portrayed.

Rembrandt, The Artist's Son, Titus, 1656

Rembrandt, The Artist’s Son, Titus, 1656

Rembrandt, Titus at His Desk, 1655

Rembrandt, Titus at His Desk, 1655

Here, for example, are two portraits of Rembrandt’s teenage son Titus – one, a small etching of the boy with downcast eyes and a pensive expression; the other an intimate oil painting of Titus at his desk, daydreaming as he was writing or drawing.  Titus died in 1668, a year before Rembrandt himself.

Rembrandt, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1655

Rembrandt, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1655

And here is his beautiful painting of his lover Hendrickje Stoffels, lifting the hem of her shift as she wades into a shallow pool. She might be portrayed as an historical figure – possibly Susanna from the Old Testament, who was spied upon by lecherous elders.  But, whereas the convention in such paintings at the time would have been to emphasise the woman’s nakedness and have her staring back at the viewer as if she were his possession, as Schama observes, Rembrandt paints Hendrickje not looking at him:

He admires her evidently not as a possession but for her self-possession, and he catches her, sidelong as it were, in an act of self-absorption.

Schama notes, too, how the style of the painting rejects the emerging fashion of the time for ‘a clear line, a bright light, and a smooth finish’.  The paint is thickly applied in smears and dabs, lines are suggestive and broken, the light flickering. He asks us to look closely at the way in which Hendrickje’s left hand is painted – a mere suggestion.

Rembrandt, An Old Woman Reading, 1655

Rembrandt, An Old Woman Reading, 1655

Here is an old woman, engrossed in reading a book, which seems to project from the canvas.  Shrouded beneath a dark hood, the woman’s face is illuminated by light reflected from the open pages.  ‘By drawing the viewer so close to his subject’, comments the guide, ‘Rembrandt invites intimate access to the woman’s innermost thoughts’.

Rembrandt The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c 1665

And here is the painting that made the last five minutes of Simon Schama’s TV documentary so profoundly moving – The Jewish Bride. This is the painting of which Van Gogh wrote that he would give ten years of his life if he could simply sit and meditate, with a dry crust of bread, for ten days in front of it. It is, said Schama, a painting that attacks us viscerally; one that is about the physical embodiment of love, and what it means to be touched. Being able to see it in the flesh meant being able to see the rich detailing on the man’s sleeve, and the almost three-dimensional representation of the woman’s rings, bangles and necklace.  Heart-stopping.

In his exhibition review for the Financial Times, Simon Schama wrote:

Rembrandt has matched an almost sculptural handling of paint to the theme of loving touch: physical and emotional. The picture embodies all at the same time: tenderness and desire; wistfulness and content; nature and nurture. It is above all else a play of hands; not just the hands of the couple, but the hand of the painter trowelling on layer after layer of textured complexity, especially in passages of the man’s sleeve and robe which are in themselves an almost abstract weave of pigment.


The curators note that throughout his career Rembrandt had portrayed contemplative, often elderly, people – scholars, philosophers, prophets and apostles.  In his later years, Rembrandt wrestled with how best to represent a figure immersed in thought or religious contemplation.  By presenting his solitary thinkers in spare, tightly cropped compositions, he directed the viewer’s attention to seeking evidence of meditative thought in the face of the one portrayed.

Rembrandt, The Apostle Bartholomew, 1657

Rembrandt, The Apostle Bartholomew, 1657

Rembrandt, The Apostle Bartholomew, 1661

Rembrandt, The Apostle Bartholomew, 1661

Two portraits in this section impressed me with their powerful humanistic quality.  Both are described as depicting the apostle Bartholomew, though they are clearly based on studies of a living person painted from life.  In the earlier portrait, Bartholomew is represented as a vigorous man, leaning forward as if listening intently.  Four years later Rembrandt presents a radically different image of the apostle – now facing the viewer directly, an older man, his face thickly painted with dabs and strokes.  In both portraits the apostle holds a knife, the instrument of his martyrdom by flaying.

Inner conflict

This section explores how Rembrandt refreshed traditional narrative themes by enriching the story of a key protagonist by considering their fate, their affliction, or their spiritual or emotional conflict. In his
late works Rembrandt made contemplation and introspection his dominant themes. Rather than describing a narrative with numerous characters, broad gestures and a led setting, he often concentrated the psychological power of a story into a single person.  It’s here that we encounter the second Lucretia.

Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1664

It is one of his most moving compositions, representing Lucretia’s inner conflict.  She is wracked with inner anguish, and stands with her arms outstretched just before plunging the dagger into her breast.  In his earlier Lucretia painting, Rembrandt had depicted her immediately after suicidal act.  Here she is still visibly torn between an innate desire to live and the unbearable shame of her rape.

Reconciliation: Rembrandt finds inner peace

In this final  section the curators have grouped paintings which represent Rembrandt’s effort to ‘capture the emotional core of literary, mythological or biblical subjects’.  In the latter part of his career, he tended to focus on moments of contentment and peace of mind that often followed the more usually depicted moment of intense passion of an iconic  event.

Rembrandt, Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, 1656

Rembrandt, Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, 1656 

Two paintings here provided examples of this approach.  One being Simeon with the Infant Christ which I discussed at the outset of this post.  The other was Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph – representing yet another biblical story that was very familiar to Rembrandt and his contemporaries, but unknown to me.  The national Gallery guide explains:

When the Old Testament patriarch Jacob became ill, Joseph brought his sons to receive a blessing from their grandfather.  Jacob blessed the younger son, Ephraim, with his right hand, a gesture usually reserved for the elder son.  Most depictions of this popular subject show an angered Joseph attempting – often vehemently – to correct his father’s gesture.  In Rembrandt’s profoundly moving interpretation, however, Joseph understands and accepts his father’s choice, tenderly supporting his hand as he lays it on Ephraim’s head.

This was a profoundly moving exhibition, exquisitely presented, and hugely informative.  Louisa Buck summed it up nicely in her Telegraph piece:

From the 1650s Rembrandt’s vivid rendition of emotion, his dramatic use of light and shade, and his evermore bold and loose brushwork were increasingly out of kilter with the smooth surfaces, conventional compositions and idealized images that were all the artistic rage in 17th century Europe. From being the toast of the contemporary scene, Rembrandt found himself increasingly passed over as many of his former pupils and workshop members won prestigious commissions and rose to riches and success.

Upon his death by unknown causes on October 4 1669, a year after his beloved son Titus, Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn was buried in an anonymous rented grave in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk. It would not be until the mid-19th century, when the Dutch were taking  a new pride in their national identity, that he would be seized upon and his reputation spruced up to become Holland’s cultural mascot and everyone’s favourite art historical genius.

See also

Simon Schama on Rembrandt’s late masterpieces

Simon Schama on Rembrandt’s late masterpieces

Rembrandt The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c 1662

An exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works featuring this painting, on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, has just opened at the National Gallery. I hope to see it in November and, while I would not go as far as Vincent van Gogh who, in 1885, remarked that he ‘should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting in front of this picture for ten days with only a dry crust of bread’, I am certainly looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with great anticipation.

In the meantime, I have been transported by one of the best art documentaries I have seen on television in a long time: Simon Schama on Rembrandt Masterpieces of the Late Years, shown on BBC2 on Saturday (and available on iPlayer for three weeks).  The author of Rembrandt’s Eyes was an obvious guide for a tour of the great master’s late paintings, and his survey was both informed and impassioned, culminating in a bravura assessment of ‘The Jewish Bride’ that just took my breath away.

Schama cut to the chase with a brief outline of how, in 17th century Amsterdam – ‘ the richest city in perhaps the richest country in the world’ – Rembrandt, at the peak of an immensely successful career and internationally famous, fell deep into bankruptcy and critical rejection, poverty, bereavement and loneliness. But Rembrandt faced all of these challenges with a ferocious creativity, producing works that speak to us directly with a powerful sense of humanity.

Rembrandt had been extravagant, made bad investments, and could not keep up the mortgage on his substantial studio and town house and went bankrupt.  In his last fifteen years he suffered the loss of his wife and three of their children while commissions and patronage dried up as fashions changed, and the slick finishes of the new French style were preferred to Rembrandt’s expressive use of paint.  He died in 1669, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Rembrandt Self Portrait detail

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles, c 1665 (detail)

In his final years, Rembrandt was driven by the ‘rage of age’, argued Schama; these were years in which he produced works that changed ‘what painting could be, what art is’. Beginning with the 1665 Self Portrait with Two Circles in Kenwood House, Schama examined a small number of the late works to reveal how Rembrandt was’unsparing with the truth’ in these paintings, delineating ‘every fold and wrinkle, bag, sag and pouch’ and painting ‘a symphony of defiance’.

Rembrandt Self Portrait 1662 detailRembrandt Self Prtrait 1665 detail hand

Rembrandt, Self Portrait with Two Circles, c 1665 (details)

Schama’s interpretation of the 1665 Self-Portrait with Two Circles was that it shows ‘a truly great artist under attack’, a refutation of critics who rejected his expressive painting style and put about the idea that Rembrandt couldn’t draw.  ‘You think I can’t draw?’ is what the painting asserts, argued Schama – the two perfect circles being Rembrandt’s reference to the Italian painter Giotto, who Vasari tells us, was summoned by the Pope to make a painting in his presence.  ‘What he did, was the most impossible thing – he drew a perfect circle’, said Schama – and that is what Rembrandt does here, too. While the circles demonstrate exactness in drawing, the rest of painting is ‘an explosion of painterly freedom’, a work that exudes the ‘confidence of a marriage between head and heart’.  ‘Look at the hand!’ exclaimed Schama: it is just a whirl of motion. People said it was unfinished, but, Schama argued, this was Rembrandt stating in his most expressive terms that it’s the hand of the painter which decides what’s finished and what is not.

Rembrandt Three Trees, etching, 1643

Rembrandt, ‘Three Trees’, etching, 1643

To underline the point that Rembrandt was a master of drawing, Schama looked closely at ‘Three Trees’, an etching made in 1643. Three trees dominate the design, buffeted by gusts of wind on a hill overlooking a plain illuminated by a burst of sunlight as clouds and a squall of rain move rapidly across the landscape. But look closely and you appreciate the skill that Rembrandt displays in this small work.

Rembrandt Three Trees, detail 1643Rembrandt Three Trees, detail Amsterdam 1643Rembrandt Three Trees, detail painter 1643

Rembrandt, ‘Three Trees’, details

On close inspection, the view is filled with intricate detail. On the left, a standing fisherman watches the end of his line, while his wife waits with a lunch basket. Above them, cows, horses and people are scattered in the sunlit fields, beyond which the skies above the distant city of Amsterdam darken in the squall of rain. A wagon on the brow of the hill approaches what Schama picked out as the most endearing detail – the artist himself, seated in the grass, sketching the view that is out of our sight.

Schama encountered the ‘Three Trees’ etching whilst making a tour of  the house in Amsterdam on which Rembrandt couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments.  It’s now the Rembrandt House Museum and for Schama being in the house was clearly an emotional experience.  He found the morning light in Rembrandt’s studio ‘just unbelievably moving’ and looking at the pots of paints left behind by the artist he recalled his own attempts to recreate 17th-century pigments while writing Rembrandt’s Eyes – so that I would be able to write what they smelt like’.

Rembrandt Aristotle with a Bust of Homer

Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653

Another painting examined closely by Schama was Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer – the kind of picture that I might only have glanced at, before moving on.  But Schama drew from the work another statement being made by Rembrandt to the world – and, as he explained, it’s all to do with the chain worn by Aristotle that draws the viewer into the picture.  The chain represented what was called in the 17th century ‘a golden chain of being’, and contemporary viewers would have been alerted to the connection between the three men whose portraits figure in the composition.

Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653 detail Aristotle Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653 detail Alexander

Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653 (details)

Dangling from the chain is a medallion representing the head of Alexander the Great. Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor when he was a child, and had prepared a new translation of Homer’s Iliad to teach him the arts of war.  Schama suggested that both Homer and Aristotle represented to Rembrandt ‘the complicated relationship between being acknowledged and being rejected’ – Aristotle having been forced to flee Athens at the end of his life to escape prosecution under charges of impiety. At the heart of the painting is the chain which shows Aristotle to have been honoured by a great patron. But, as Schama put it, Rembrandt remained ‘massively chain-less for his entire life’.  At the same time there is an ambivalence in Rembrandt’s symbolism: a chain will give you honour, but of course, ‘a chain also binds you, like a prisoner, to the whims of your patron’.

Rembrandt, The Syndics,1662

Rembrandt, The Sampling Officials of the Drapers’ Guild, 1662

In 1662, Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a group portrait of the staalmeesters or quality-control officials,of the Drapers’ Guild.  These were men, appointed annually by the burgomasters, to ensure that the blue and black cloth made in the city was well enough made and dyed to pass its certification. Traditionally, they had their portrait painted at the end of their term and hung in the Staalhof, the building where they conducted their inspections three times each week. Schama drew our attention to the innovative way the picture has been framed to avoid a monotonous composition in which a row of men are positioned behind a table along a rectilinear axis. Here Rembrandt has turned the table at an angle ninety degrees to the picture plane, so that the corner of the table appears to jut out of the picture towards the viewer.

Rembrandt, The Syndics,1662 detail ledger


Rembrandt, The Sampling Officials of the Drapers’ Guild, 1662 (detail)

Moreover, there is the direction of the syndics’ gaze.  They are all looking at something – someone – positioned just where we, the viewer, stand as we study the picture.  That someone, asserted Schama, is Rembrandt himself, who has just entered the room. How do we know that? Schama told us of the recent discovery of preparatory drawings for the composition made by Rembrandt on account book paper – the same paper as in the open ledger which the syndics have been studying.


Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Suicide of Lucretia, 1538

Schama was at his most compelling when he moved on to discuss the two paintings made by Rembrandt of the rape of Lucretia.  Raped by the king’s son, she can’t live with the shame and commits suicide.  In legend, her rape and consequent suicide were the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic.  The rape had been a traditional subject for painters, offering an opportunity to depict a female nude in paintings whose full-on nudity repeated the violation while pretending to be horrified by it. The subject was, therefore, an opportunity both for moralising and eroticised titillation.

Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1664

Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1664

Rembrandt first painted the subject in 1664, before returning to it two years later.  There had never before been paintings of Lucretia like these: almost proto-feminist portrayals of a fully clothed, suicidal Lucretia that expose the hypocrisy of his times, and of those who enjoyed the more traditional, eroticised portrayals of the scene.

Rembrandt Lucretia 1664 detail eyesRembrandt Lucretia 1664 detail

Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1664 (details)

For Schama, Rembrandt’s 1664 Lucretius ‘drenched in pathos and a sense of impending horror’, a painting that draws attention to Lucretius’s clothing as a layer of protection, an armour – but an armour that has been pierced. Rembrandt has emphasised the line between Lucretia dressed in the mantle of honour and the vulnerable nakedness of her flesh with brushwork that has built the paint until it is ‘as solid and impenetrable as the heroine’s virtue’.  Schama drew attention to the way in which the paint is especially heavily worked and layered in the lower part of the painting where Lucretia’s skirt is (vainly) girdled by a belt that encircles her body just below the waist – the site of her violation.

All this heavy layering of the paint on her garments is calculated to emphasise the delicate exposure of skin at her throat and between her breasts. Schama focussed our attention on the pinked-up eyes (unusual at the time) which reveal that she has been crying, and spoke of ‘the weight, the torrent, of emotion’ present here. ‘We don’t just look at this painting – we’ve heard her speak through a choke of sobs, demanding that the crime be avenged by replacing the corrupt kingdom of Rome with a republic of liberty’, said Schama.

Rembrandt’s genius is revealed in the way he has executed this moment of drama, taking us from the crust of dark green paint at the locus of her violation to the single pearl drop at her throat – the sign of virtue, of honour, of purity. While the knife hovers, about to plunge.

Rembrandt Lucretia 1666

Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1666

Two years later Rembrandt returned to the scene, but minutes later. In the 1666 painting, Lucretia has thrust the knife into her heart and is slowly dying. The achievement of this painting is that Rembrandt succeeds in communicating the depth and violence inflicted by both wounds – the rape, and the suicide dagger.

Rembrandt Lucretia 1666 detail

Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1666 (detail)

‘There had never been a Lucretia like this’, Schama wrote in Rembrandt’s Eyes: she is dying, the life draining from a face shiny and pale with death.  Unlike other Lucretias, she is not naked – yet appears utterly naked, the V-shaped opening in her gown a gash that draws our gaze towards the terrible, spreading, soaking, sticky bloodstain that extends from her heart down towards her thighs. In the TV documentary, Schama expressed it in similar words to those he used in Rembrandt’s Eyes:

Rembrandt has even made the folds of Lucretia’s shift hang forward on either side of the wound, while between them, in a saturated depression, as if rehearsing the site of her rape, the blood-soaked fabric clings wetly to her white skin.

These paintings still speak to us powerfully in a time when, opening a newspaper at random on any day of the week, we continue to see evidence of cruelty and violence against women.

Rembrandt The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c 1662

If everything up to this point in Schama’s film had spoken of an art historian steeped in knowledge and passionate about his subject being allowed an uninterrupted time to communicate his ideas without having to patronise his audience with special effects or superficialities, the final five minutes was a true show-stopper. Here, Schama stood before The Jewish Bride, painted around 1662, and undoubtedly the centrepiece of the National Gallery show. This is the painting of which Van Gogh wrote that he would give ten years of his life if he could simply sit and meditate, with a dry crust of bread, for 10 days before it.

It is, said Schama, a painting that attacks us viscerally; one that is about the physical embodiment of love, and what it means to be touched.

Rembrandt The Jewish Bride (detail hands)

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c 1662 (detail)

At the heart of the painting is a play of hands – a hand on heart, which is also the breast, a hand touching that hand, a hand round the shoulder.  It is both intimate and absolutely explicit about the nature of love – and must have been shocking to viewers at the time it was painted (especially in Jewish communities, then much exercised by the purity of morals).  This is Schama discussing the point in Rembrandt’s Eyes:

Nothing remotely like it exists, not merely in Dutch art but in the entire Western tradition to that point, save in low-life scenes of grabbing lust.  But there is not a trace of coarseness about the touch of this hand; rather it is an act of purely instinctive tenderness.  Its pressure is light; selfless, not cupping, stroking or fondling the breast as if busily seeking hardening excitement, but the palm raised slightly, only the length and ends of the fingers laid flat across the gentle swelling; a solemn and reverent pleasure. … The male hand is welcomed by the woman’s response with her own, a displaced consummation.

With the camera hovering close to the painting’s surface, Schama showed us the passages of detail on the clothes where, in his vivid turn of phrase, the paint is ‘absolutely trowelled on, an immense, coagulated, clotted crust of paint’.

Rembrandt The Jewish Bride (detail 2)

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c 1662 (detail)

Schama concluded by observing that The Jewish Bride was probably painted two years after his wife, Hendrickje, had died.  It’s not a memory of Hendrickje, and we must ‘never be sentimental about Rembrandt (he would not have liked that), Schama insisted. ‘But’, he continued:

Is it not possible that if you want to retain the memory of what connects being physically touched with emotionally touched you do it with massive, massive substance?  Underneath the mantling of all this paint is incredible tenderness.  Rembrandt is aware of mortality, of the perishability of life.  All great painting is about attempting to stop time, to make memory physical.  This is the painting of love.

Rembrandt The Jewish Bride (detail 3)

Painting with scissors: Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate Modern

Painting with scissors: Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate Modern

Henri Matisse in his studio photo by Lydia Delectorskaya

Fortuitously, my recent trip to France was bookended by visits to exhibitions that showcased Matisse at the beginning and at the end of his career.  Towards the end of the first day I visited the Musee Matisse in his home town of Le Cateau-Cambresis, which houses an astonishing collection of his work, including striking examples from his younger years.  Then, on my way back through London, I  went to Tate Modern to see Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, an unparalleled gathering of 130 of the joyous, exuberant works made by Matisse in the last decade of his life: a period which he regarded as a second life, a gift of time. A period in which he turned to painting with scissors.

What is most astonishing about these vibrant works is that they emerge from a period of personal and national darkness. After the invasion of France in May 1940, Matisse, with his daughter Marguerite and his assistant Lydia Delectorskaya, fled from Paris, joining the millions flooding the roads of France seeking shelter from the Nazi invaders.  By the end of August he was in Nice, where ‘people gloomily expected Italian Fascist forces to occupy the town at any moment’ (Hilary Spurling, Matisse The Master).  He had been experiencing knife-like pains in his gut, soon diagnosed as duodenal cancer. In January 1941, Matisse nearly died after undergoing major surgery. He was in his seventies, and though he recovered he would henceforth be confined to a wheelchair. Matisse, though, felt he had been given a second life. ‘I came within a hair’s breadth of dying,’ he told Swiss art critic Pierre Courthion at the time. ‘Long live joy . . . and french fries!’

For two years, Matisse was too frail to leave his home and studio at the Hotel Regina in the hills of Cimiez above Nice. Moving to the Villa le Reve in Vence in 1941 might seem an enviable billet during wartime, but by 1944 the mountain village was close to the front line of the Allied advance and basic necessities – food, heating, transport – were virtually unobtainable. In April Matisse learned that Marguerite, who had joined the French Resistance, had been imprisoned by the Gestapo.  She was interrogated  and tortured and Matisse feared that she would be killed. (She managed to escape from the transport taking her to a Nazi death camp in Germany).  In the context of such suffering and darkness, the life-affirming movement and colours of the cut-outs – developed by Matisse before and during the war, and then flowering when the war had ended – become an assertion of the human spirit, and an act of defiance.

I’ve dwelt on all this by way of introduction because, wonderful as the Tate’s exhibition is, I feel that both the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue fail to give sufficient emphasis to this context. I recollect that, back in the 1960s and 70s, Matisse was often compared to Picasso (who sat out the war in Paris and was so much more obviously politically engaged), being considered the more effete of the two, living out a life of bohemian luxury in a Mediterranean paradise. Read Hilary Spurling’s biography and it’s clear that nothing could be further from the truth.

There is a painting – not included in this exhibition – that Matisse made in 1940, the year of Nazi invasion, which, for me, seems to go the heart of what Matisse came to express in the cut-outs of the late 1940s and early 1950s.  It is ‘The Dream’, an image which had haunted him as he fled with Marguerite and Lydia and the teeming columns of refugees towards the south.

Matisse, The Dream, 1940

Matisse, ‘The Dream’, 1940

It’s not just the interpretation which you might make of this painting, given the circumstances of its creation; it’s also that we know, from photographic documentation, that he only arrived at this abstract, highly patterned and lyrical image after twelve months, moving from a relatively realistic beginning towards what Doina Lemny called, in the catalogue to a 2012 exhibition, ‘a prime example of Matisse’s ‘metaphysics of decoration’ in which a simple pattern could take on a powerful life of its own and dominate what could have been a simple figure study’.  In other words, it’s an example of how Matisse was already pushing towards the decorative distillation of the post-war cut-outs (indeed, had been at least since the studies for the Barnes mural, ‘The Dance’ at the beginning of the 1930s).

What the cut-outs were all about was, as Simon Schama put it, writing in the Financial Times earlier this year:

Matisse believed in the organic connection between decorative form and the irrepressibility of nature. He had committed himself to finding a visual language that would distil and translate the experience of pleasure into images with no loss of sensory intensity; that would, in fact, act as a kind of memory trigger of earthly delight.

Thinking about the decorative characteristics of the cut-outs, it seems we are always drawn back to those formative years of his youth, growing up in Le Cateau-Cambresis and Bohain, immersed in the patterns of the local textiles.  In the midst of war, and with his mobility highly restricted, he found some kind of artistic solution there, as Simon Schama observed in the same article:

Even if Matisse, while he was doing the cut-outs for Jazz, didn’t quite know where he was going or what he was doing with them, he certainly did have something to search for. That something was the sign language by which the memory of sensations could be expressed without recourse to any kind of mimetic description – except of the loosest, most analogous kind. He became more and more enamoured of the cut-out, which differed from, say, a symbolic or emblematic visual vocabulary in somehow distilling the essence of something; the experienced sensation of its presence – a nude, a jellyfish, a tobogganist – down to its essentials.

Matisse claimed that he might study whatever it was he had in mind for a cut-out for hours, days, however long it took, before he was ready with the scissors; so that the working procedure became a happy succession of meditative calculation and dynamic physical impulse. Forms of locomotion other than the pedestrian kind of which he was now physically incapable recur in the cut-outs: swimming, of course, but also flight, both of which engendered visual experiences that were, in the best sense, untethered, weightless, and in which light, space, shape, volume and mass all had to be adjusted, or rather were never finally fixed and determined. It was not just the forms that he represented accurately as in gentle, organic, kinetic motion; in that shadowless light, it was the nature of vision itself.

When he finally got going with the scissors, blades accelerating or decelerating with the variable resistance of the stock, he did, indeed, take off: ‘I would say it’s the graphic, linear equivalent of the sensation of flight,’ he said.

You can watch Matisse taking flight graphically in the first room of the Tate’s exhibition, ‘Making the Cut-Outs’, on a short film made by the art collector Adrien Maeght of the artist wielding his scissors.  It’s astonishing, the dynamism Matisse exhibits as he cuts with swiftness and absolute sureness, the shapes twisting and falling around him.

The second room, ‘Dancers’, backtracks a bit – to the late 1930s when Matisse produced preparatory sketches and cut-outs of stage designs for  for the Ballet Russe in Monte Carlo. Matisse had been fascinated by dance throughout his career, and this work seems to have evolved out of  an earlier project – the mural ‘The Dance’ commissioned by the American collector Albert Barnes for his home in Merion, Pennsylvania.

Looking closely at the cut-out designs for the ballet ‘Rouge et Noir’ displayed in this room, you can see how Matisse used cut paper as a way of experimenting: you can see how he layered pieces of the same colour to create the shape he wanted, using pins to attach them to the surface beneath.

Matisse, Two Dancers, 1937-8

Matisse, ‘Two Dancers’, stage curtain design for ballet ‘Rouge et Noir’, 1937-8

Matisse, paper cut-out designs for Rouge et Noir

Matisse, ‘Two Dancers’, paper cut-out designs for the ballet ‘Rouge et Noir’, 1937-8

Matisse, stage curtain design for Rouge et Noir

Matisse, stage curtain design for the ballet ‘Rouge et Noir’, 1937-8

In 1943, Matisse moved into the Villa le Rêve, a ‘boxlike little house’, according to Hilary Spurling, ‘plain and unassuming’ in the old stone village of Vence in the hills above Nice (Spurling tells a nice story about the first time Picasso came to visit: he found the Villa so plain and unassuming that he initially knocked at the door of a more picturesque place further up the road, and had to be escorted back by a neighbour to the right front gate). Here Matisse began work on Jazz, a book in which he develops the cut paper technique, with more intricate shapes and complicated layering.  Jazz is the subject of the third room in the Tate exhibition.

The original idea was for Matisse to illustrate poems, but the flowing hand-written notes he made as he worked on the cut-outs were eventually chosen as the accompanying text instead. I’ve seen the cut-out maquettes for Jazz before, as well as pages from the published book, but at the Tate you can see both versions side by side and compare them.

I’m always a little irritated by the title, chosen by the publisher Tériade, since it has nothing to do with the subject matter of the images (which mainly evoke scenes from the circus or theatre). But Matisse liked the title, with its suggestion of improvisation that connected with the way he worked to create the images.  In fact, Jazz was a turning point in the evolution of the cut-outs as art works in their own right: disappointed by the way in which, in the published book, the cut-outs seemed to lose the contrast of different surfaces layered on top of each other, he began to think of them as something more than stepping-stones to printed works.

Matisse, cut-out version of Fall of Icarus Matisse, Jazz, Fall of Icarus

The cut-out version of ‘Fall of Icarus’ (top) and print version (below)

In the exhibition you can compare the original cut-out version of ‘Fall of Icarus’ with the one included in the book: the designs are quite different. In Jazz, the Icarus figure is black, whilst in the cut-out it is white. In both versions, the figure is surrounded by jagged yellow stars, but each version has  different red shape within the chest, and the direction of the figure is reversed.

Matisse worked on Icarus through the summer of 1943, as Allied bombers strafed Nice, and Allied armies had begun fighting their way up Italy towards the Cote d’Azur.  In September, German forces heading towards the Italian front entered Nice and Matisse’s basement at the Villa Le Reve was commandeered as a canteen for German soldiers.  Air raid sirens broke the silence in Vence, while roads were blocked, trains derailed and bridges dynamited by the local Resistance, trained by Matisse’s eldest son, Jean.  Although the yellow splashes around the body of Icarus can be interpreted as stars, it seems likely that in 1943 for Matisse they were exploding shells.  Matisse continued to work on Jazz all through the first, bitterly cold winter of food shortages and disruption in Vence.  He would have seen RAF bombers pass over Vence, heading towards Nice. One night the sky was lit up after the RAF bombed the gasworks in Cannes.  One bomb fell outside the Villa le Reve, battering the front door.

Henri Matisse Oceania, the Sky summer, 1946

Matisse, ‘Oceania, the Sky’, 1946

Matisse later commented, ‘Only what I created after my illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.’ Freedom of another kind came – both for the nation, and for Matisse personally – with the liberation of France in summer 1944. The first great triumph of his liberated creativity was Oceania, the subject of room 4.  In 1945, Matisse told his daughter that he felt he had gone as far as he could with painting:

Painting seems finished for me now … I’m for decoration – there I can give everything I can – I put into it all the acquisition of my life.

In July 1945, Matisse returned to Paris with Lydia Delectorskaya, travelling by sleeper on the train, and with ambulances laid on at either end.  There was a family reunion: Jean had narrowly escaped a Gestapo round-up of the Resistance on the Cote d’Azur, and Marguerite had escaped from the train transporting her to the German concentration camp, while his former wife Amelie, also imprisoned by the Gestapo after Marguerite’s detention, was free, too.  Matisse returned to the family apartment on the boulevard Montparnasse, where he began to create a world of cut-out forms on the walls of his studio.

Boulevard Montparnasse, Paris, October 1946

Matisse’s apartment, Boulevard Montparnasse, Paris, October 1946

Lydia Delectorskaya later recalled how it began: in 1946 he had ‘cut out a swallow from a sheet of writing paper… [and] put it up on this wall, also using it to cover up a stain, the sight of which disturbed him’.  The swallow was joined by cut-out birds, fish, coral and leaves. His inspiration was the memory of the visit he had made to Tahiti sixteen years before. ‘It’s as though my memory had suddenly taken the place of the outside world’, he explained. ‘There, swimming every day in the lagoon, I took such intense pleasure in contemplating the submarine world.’

When the textile manufacturer Zika Ascher visited, Matisse suggested his Tahitan shapes as patterns. Brought up in a textile-manufacturing town, fabric design was in Matisse’s DNA, cropping up in paintings such as the earlier odelisques. Now, the motifs shaped by his scissors suggested new textile patterns, something he suggested to the textile manufacturer.  The result was two large gouache paper cut-outs, mounted on paper and canvas, and realised by Ascher as printed silkscreens on fabric. The Tate display features the two original cut-outs: ‘Oceania, The Sea’ and ‘Oceania, The Sky’.  Matisse recalled their inspiration:

From the first, the enchantments of the sky there, the sea, the fish and the coral in the lagoons, plunged me into the inaction of total ecstasy. The local tones of things hadn’t changed, but their effect in the light of the Pacific gave me the same feeling as I had when I looked into a large golden chalice. With my eyes open I absorbed everything as a sponge absorbs liquid. It is only now that these wonders have returned to me, with tenderness and clarity, and have permitted me, with protracted pleasure, to execute these two panels.

This was the first time that Matisse treated his surroundings like a blank canvas which could be used to test out his compositions. Corals, fishes, birds, jellyfishes and seaweeds, were pinned and re-pinned all over the beige walls. All available space was occupied.

Also displayed in this room are examples from an edition of 275 designs on printed silk scarves produced by London-based textile printer Zika Ascher.

Matisse. Écharpe A, Anscher, 1947

Matisse, ‘Écharpe’, produced for Anscher, 1947

The exhibition catalogue begins with a photo essay, offering a glimpse into the three studios where the cut-outs were made – the apartment in Paris, Villa Le Reve in Vence where Matisse lived and worked between 1943 and 1948, and, from 1949 until his death in 1954, the Hotel Regina in Nice.  Fortunately Lydia Delectorskaya and many renowned photographers recorded the way in which Matisse used the studio walls as an experimental surface upon which the cut-out shapes could be moved and compositions gradually change and evolve.  The next room at the Tate is devoted to the Vence studio.

Matisse in his studio, Vence, May 1948

Matisse in his studio, Vence, May 1948

Matisse studio Vence 1948

Matisse studio, Vence, 1948

Before we get to the cut-outs, however, we encounter two paintings – among the last that Matisse ever made – which are displayed here because they show the interior of Matisse’s home and studio at Villa le Rêve.  Both paintings are of interest in relation to the cut-outs as they have been built up from elements of design, and rough representation – as if composed from scissored pieces of painted paper. ‘Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947 ‘ is a painting I love for its vivid colours and striking composition with zig-zag black lines. There’s a third painting of this sort from the same period – ‘Interior with an Egyptian Curtain’, 1948 – which is not in the exhibition, but I include here, simply because it’s a favourite, too.

Matisse, Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947

Matisse, Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947 

Matisse, Interior with Black Fern, 1948

Matisse, ‘Interior with Black Fern’, 1948

Matisse,Interior with an Egyptian Curtain 1948

Matisse, ‘Interior with an Egyptian Curtain’, 1948

While these paintings make the studio their subject, the studio at Villa Le Reve had now become the physical foundation for the cut-outs, as Matisse composed directly on the wall.  One wall of this room is a stunning arrangement of framed cut-outs – a partial reunion of works originally pinned to the studio wall in Vence.

Matisse, Framed cut-outs from the Vence studio wall

Matisse, framed cut-outs from the Vence studio wall

At one stage, Matisse conceived of this group as one whole composition. The paper shapes were pinned to the wall, allowing him to move pieces around, rotate or invert shapes and try new combinations. Today the shapes have been carefully traced and glued into their final positions, but while Matisse was working the tendrils of his plant forms would gently wave as air passed through the studio. Hilary Spurling, in her biography, writes of Matisse at Vence:

Sitting up in bed cutting shapes out of coloured paper, or playing with the heaps of fallen leaves he collected every autumn and brought home to draw.  The toothy, softly-incidsed leaves of oak, the serrated fronds of cineria, the spiky foliage of castor-oil plants and acanthus growing wild along the road outside his gate: all of them had captivated Matisse ever since he moved to Vence.

Here’s an example of how the process worked: this is one of several photos taken of the studio at Vence over a period of time by Michael Sima.  It shows, in the bottom left corner, how the composition ‘Amphitrite’ had assumed its final form, composed of shapes which Sima had recorded being been moved from place to place in earlier photos. ‘Amphitrite’ is one of the works displayed in room 5 – a framed cut-out named for the Greek goddess of the sea.

Matisse studio, Vence, May 1948

Matisse studio wall, Vence, May 1948

Matisse, Amphitrite, 1947

Matisse, Amphitrite, 1948

Room 6 is dedicated to Matisse’s book and periodical designs, including examples of his covers for Verve, an arts magazine published by Tériade, who also commissioned Jazz. In the earliest cover shown here, for Verve’s first issue in 1937, the delicate cut paper strips appear to be a substitute for the painted line. Later designs proclaim their cut paper medium more boldly.

Matisse, cover, VERVE, Volume 2, Number 8 (Sept-Nov 1940)

Matisse, cover for Verve, Volume 2, Number 8 (Sept-Nov 1940)

From 1937 to 1975, Tériade (whose real name Stratis Eleftheriades) commissioned artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Derain to produce works for his prestigious journal. This particular issue of Verve (Volume 2, No. 8, Sept-Nov 1940), was printed just days before the German invasion of Paris.  Another interesting book cover here is the one Matisse designed for the first edition of The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1952 (which included the photo, below, of Matisse in his studio at Vence).

Also shown in this room are fragments of film of Matisse and Lydia at work together: Matisse cutting, Lydia pinning, with Matisse pointing and marking where forms should go with a long stick.

Matisse, cover for Decisive Moment, 1952Matisse studio Vence by Cartier-Bresson

Matisse’s design for The Decisive Moment, and Cartier-Bresson’s photo of Matisse

Room 7 of the exhibition is devoted to the work which Matisse himself regarded as the pinnacle of his career – the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence. In 1947 Matisse was approached by Sister Jacques, a nun who had nursed him through his illness four years earlier, to advise on the design of one stained glass window in a new chapel. Soon, however, Matisse was inspired by the whole scheme and embarked upon a commitment that took four years of intensive work, designing not only the stained glass windows and the three large ceramic murals of the chapel’s interior, but also the exterior spire, the wavy blue and white pattern on the roof, the bronze crucifix and candlesticks on the altar, the tabernacle, the wooden confessional door, and the priest’s chasubles, as well as the pond in the garden outside.

In order to understand the relationships between the different elements he was designing, he turned his entire studio – and later his bedroom – into a kind of replica chapel so that he could be immersed in the project at all times.  On display here the maquettes for the priests’ robes (an accompanying video shows Matisse working on them), as well as models of the chapel at various stages of its design.

Matisse, maquette for Red Chausable, 1950-2

Matisse developed his designs for the stained-glass windows from cut-outs. The window designs changed several times, and several examples are displayed to illustrate this exploratory process.  A highlight of this room is the original maquette design for one of the chapel windows, ‘The Bees’ –  a design which he soon discarded but which was later realised for the Henri Matisse nursery school in Le Cateau-Cambresis (where I had seen it, at least from outside on the street, a few days earlier).

Les abeilles

 Matisse, ‘The Bees’, preliminary maquette for the side windows of the chapel, summer 1948

Another example of discarded design is ‘Celestial Jerusalem’, the first maquette for the apse window of the chapel.  It’s a rhythmic grid of irregular cut-out rectangles and polygons, dominated by reds, yellow and orange.

Matisse, Celestial Jerusalem,1948

Matisse, ‘Celestial Jerusalem’,1948

By 1949, Matisse had rejected this in favour of a second design, ‘Pale Blue Window’, in which swaying seaweed or leaf-like forms are reminiscent of the ‘Oceania’ wall hangings.  This design had to be discarded, too, as Matisse had overlooked the lead braces needed to hold the window together. Matisse’s third design – ‘Tree of Life’ was the one which eventually took its place in the chapel’s apse window.  It is stunning, and certainly the best of the three, probably because, as Hilary Spurling states, it ‘contains no red, a change of key that brought an extraordinary clarity, serenity and stillness to the music of the chapel’.  See it in situ here. At the Tate, a maquette of the design was on show.

Picasso was scornful of Matisse spending so much effort on a chapel, suggesting he would have made better use of time decorating a fruit market. But what is really interesting about Matisse’s designs for the chapel is their almost total avoidance of traditional religious iconography.  The result is a space that can be appreciated by anyone – of any faith, or none.  Alastair Sooke writes:

When the chapel was completed, Matisse was old and infirm.  Long after the doctors who had operated on him in 1941 expected him to pass away, he was still persevering in the face of physical adversity, at times driven by nothing more than a cussed, bloody-minded instinct to keep on making art.  ‘Do I believe in God?’ he wrote in Jazz. ‘Yes, when I am working’.

For Sooke the chapel is ‘a sanctuary of tranquillity’: ‘constructing it required ‘immense effort’, as the artist said, but the finished effect was effortless.  This I believe, is the essence of Matisse’.  Noting the subtle allusions to Islamic art in the chapel’s design, Sooke continues:

It is almost as if Matisse, inspired by memories of Moorish Spain and North Africa, wanted his chapel to transcend religious faith.  It didn’t matter what you believed in, or even if you were an out-and-out atheist: the chapel would still exert its soothing, calming influence upon your mind. […]

As Matisse said during an interview in 1950: ‘I believe my role is to provide calm.  Because I myself have need of peace.’ I find that very moving and noble indeed.

Henri Matisse Cut-outs Tate Modern London

Matisse,  ‘Pale Blue Window’, 1949

Matisse, The Tree of Life (maquette), 1949

Matisse, The Tree of Life (maquette), 1949

By room 8 the size of the works on display begins to reveal how, as Matisse’s skill and experience with the cut-out technique increased, so did the scale of his work.  You’re immediately faced with a stunning wall on which two of the most celebrated cut-outs – ‘Zulma’ and ‘Creole Dancer’ – are positioned side by side.  ‘Zulma’ is a significant work because, for the first time, Matisse creates a sense of depth in a cut-out composition, receding space suggested by the angled table on which the figure leans. Made and exhibited when Matisse was eighty, ‘Zulma’ was widely praised for its radical approach, hailed as the most youthful work in an exhibition of work by other, far younger artists.

‘Creole Dancer’ is based on sketches he made of the French prima ballerina Yvette Chauvire when she visited him in his studio at Villa Le Reve and danced for him. Matisse’s assistant Jacqueline Duheme later recalled watching the dance;

When we look at dancers, it always seems so aerial and light, but when they stand just three metres away, you realise all the work it requires.  You hear the noise of the feet and pointed toes.  Matisse was very interested in this.  He would say, ‘You see, Jacqueline, everything is an effort.  Even when one looks so light, it is still hard.  Everything is hard!

Yet ‘Creole Dancer’ was made in a single day using left over pieces of painted paper. In his excellent short Penguin book, Henri Matisse: A Second Life, Alastair Sooke makes the observation:

It is telling that Matisse found within her performance an analogy for his own thoughts about making art. … Matisse could have been talking about his chapel at Vence, which required so much effort, but ended up looking so light.

Matisse was very fond of ‘Creole Dancer’, and would not part with it, explaining to his son Pierre: ‘I think that it has exceptional quality, and it is both agreeable and useful for me to keep it by me. […] I am not certain that I can do any more work of that quality, in no matter what medium, and for that reason I want to hold on to it’.

Matisse Creole Dancer Tate

Matisse, ‘Zulma’, 1950 and ‘Creole Dancer’, 1950

Also displayed in this room is ‘Tree’ from December 1951, done in ink, gouache and charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas.  It’s on loan from MoMa.

Matisse, Tree, 1951

Matisse, ‘Tree’, 1951

Then there’s ‘Chinese Fish’, a maquette for a stained glass window installed at Villa Natasha in St Jean Cap Ferrat, the home of Teriade, publisher of Jazz and Verve. The Matisse museum at Le Cateau- Cambresis has recreated the villa’s dining room where the stained glass window was installed.

Matisse, Chinese Fish, recreation of Teriade room

Matisse’s ‘Chinese Fish’ window: a recreation of the Teriade room at Musee Matisse, Le Cateau-Cambresis (photo:

Matisse, Chinese Fish maquette

Matisse, ‘Chinese Fish’, maquette, 1951

Matisse, Mimosa, 1949

Matisse, ‘Mimosa’, 1949: design for carpet (realised in 1951)

Matisse, Snow Flowers, 1951

Matisse, ‘Snow Flowers’, 1951 (watercolour and gouache on cut and pasted papers)

Matisse, Vegetables, c1951

Matisse, ‘Vegetables’, c.1951

‘The Thousand and One Nights’, a long panel composed of various leaf and other shapes bordered top and bottom by green and red hearts, was entirely new to me. It’s 12 foot by five foot, and was created in June 1950 when the artist was 81 and confined to his bed.

Unable to sleep, but still driven to create, Matisse had quite a bit in common with Scheherazade, the narrator of the Persian classic Arabian Nights. Scheherazade saves her own life from a vengeful king by enthralling him with a story that she always interrupts at a moment of suspense just after dawn, ensuring her survival through 1,001 nights. Like the original that inspired it, ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ is a work ‘rich in fantastical imagery and symbolism’ created during many sleepless, difficult hours. The composition – with its magic lamps, dancing plant forms and hearts – evokes the passage of time through the night, with the first panel, a lantern with smoke seeping out of its spout, denoting dusk. The text pasted across the upper right-hand corner reads, ‘…as dawn approached she discreetly fell silent.’

Matisse, The Thousand and One Nights

 Matisse, ‘The Thousand and One Nights’, 1950

I keep thinking that there can be nothing to surpass what I’ve already seen, but then, in room 9, I find all the ‘Blue Nudes’ together in one room! From Basel, the Pompidou, Centre Musee d’Orsay and Nice: they are all here!

The ‘Blue Nudes’ are perhaps the most striking example of what Matisse himself called ‘cutting directly into colour’. Here scissors both create the outline of the figure and carve contours into it. The paper’s flatness coexists with a sense of the figures’ intertwined limbs. These works reveal Matisse’s cutting to be a means of drawing and sculpting at the same time. Matisse’s assistant Lydia Delectorskya aptly described his work on a cut-out figure in these terms: ‘modelling it like a clay sculpture: sometimes adding, sometimes removing’.  Looking at them I was reminded of the four monumental sculptures of a woman’s back which Matisse worked on from 1909 to 1930 that I had seen a few days previously in the Musee Matisse at Le Cateau-Cambresis.

Matisse, 'Blue Nude IV', 1952

Matisse, ‘Blue Nude IV’, 1952

See together, numbers 2 and 3 are the most expressive. ‘Blue Nude IV’ was, in fact, the first of the series (but also the last to be completed). Matisse struggled over ‘Blue Nude IV’ for two weeks, and on the composition you can see traces of his struggle: faint lines of charcoal drawing and layered separate small pieces of blue paper. By contrast, the other Blue Nudes were cut ‘in a single movement’ from one blue-painted sheet.  Lydia recalled: ‘Each on a different day, they had been cut with … one stroke of the scissors in ten minutes or fifteen maximum’.

Matisse, Blue Nudes

Matisse, Blue Nudes I-IV, spring 1952

Room 10 is dominated by ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’, one of the largest cut-outs Matisse ever made. The two creatures of the title are nestled among fruit and his characteristic algae-like leaf forms. The composition is the product of a good deal of experimentation. Matisse tried out different shapes – including a Blue Nude – where the mermaid is today. As it blossomed across his studio walls, Matisse described the work as his garden. Too frail to leave his house, here was a way of bringing the outdoors inside.

On the left-hand side of  ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’ is the bird of the title. Matisse explained:

You see, as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk.  There are leaves, fruits, a bird.  Restrained movement, calming.

On the right is the mermaid, ‘wriggly, slick and lubricious’ in Alastair Sooke’s words.  It’s a figure that recalls the dancer in ‘Flowing Hair’ that he had pinned to the studio wall at the same time.  Matisse recalled in evocative terms the memories of Tahiti that were the inspiration for ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’:

The leaves of the high coconut palms, blown back by the trade winds, made a silky sound.  This sound of the leaves could be heard along with the orchestral roar of the sea waves, waves that broke over the reefs surrounding the island.  I used to bathe in the lagoon.  I swam around the brilliant corals emphasised by the sharp black accents of sea cucumbers.  I would plunge my head into the water, transparent above the absinthe bottom of the lagoon, my eyes wide open … and then suddenly I would lift my head above the water and gaze t the luminous whole.

Matisse, The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952 (photo Sue Lowry)

Matisse, ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’, 1952 (photo Sue Lowry)

All the works in this room share a white background, regarded by Matisse not as a neutral setting for the design, but as an active part of the work; he felt that the contrast between white and the coloured cut paper gave his compositions a ‘rare and intangible quality’.  Hilary Spurling tells how visitors to Matisse’s studio in the Hotel Regina in the early 1950s were hard put to find words to describe it: ‘ a gigantic white bedroom like no other on earth’, said one.  ‘A fantastic laboratory’, said another.

Matisse explained to newcomers that the whole apartment had once been so filled with greenery and birds that it made him feel like he was inside a forest.  Now he had got rid of his plants. […] Instead he filled his white walls with cut-paper leaves, flowers, fronds and fruit from imaginary forests.  Blue and white figures – acrobats, dancers, swimmers – looped and plunged into synthetic seas.  Diffused and disembodied colour seemed to emanate not so much from any particular motif or composition as from the space itself.

Matisse, Blue Nude with Green Stockings, 1952

Matisse, ‘Blue Nude with Green Stockings’, 1952

Matisse, Woman with Monkeys, 1952

Matisse, ‘Woman with Monkeys’, 1952

Matisse studio, Hotel Regina, Nice, September 1952

Matisse studio, Hotel Regina, Nice, September 1952

During the last three years of his life Matisse made several ambitious large-scale works. By now cut-outs in progress covered most available walls of his home in the Hotel Regina in Cimiez.  Often, he would work on several of them simultaneously, with cut shapes sometimes migrating across compositions. What had attracted him to cut-outs originally – the ability to try out and rearrange compositions – grew in potential as he pushed the technique further.

Matisse studio 3

Hotel Regina, September 1952: ‘Large Decoration with Masks’ (left), ‘The Flowing Hair’ above door

‘Large Decoration with Masks’ was made as a design for a ceramic panel. Its pattern of natural forms suggests that Matisse was drawing on his memories of Moorish mosaics seen forty years previously in Morocco. ‘It is such a consolation for me to have achieved this at the end of my life,’ he wrote to his son.

Around the same time as he was considering this symmetrical and regularly patterned composition, Matisse was also using cut paper in quite different ways, in the bold physicality of ‘Acrobats’, for example. Here, when his own movement was so severely limited, Matisse chose to depict a body stretching with flexibility and motion, emphasising the curve of backs and the stretch of arms.

Matisse, Large decoration with Masks, 1953

Matisse, ‘Large Decoration with Masks’, 1953

Matisse, Acrobats,1952

Matisse, Woman with Amphora and Pomegranates, 1953

Matisse, ‘Acrobats’,1952′ and Woman with Amphora and Pomegranates’, 1953

Room 12 is dominated by ‘The Snail’ which lives permanently in Tate Modern.  It is displayed alongside ‘Memory of Oceania’: Matisse initially imagined the pair as part of one huge composition, with ‘Large Decoration with Masks’ at its centre. With ‘The Snail’, he pushed the cut-out technique further away from representation than ever before, though he described it as ‘abstraction rooted in reality’. The rotating paper shapes radiate out in a spiral, echoing a snail’s shell. Working on an earlier snail, he talked about becoming ‘aware of an unfolding’. Unusually, the individual shapes are not carefully scissored, but roughly cut and sometimes even torn.

Matisse, The Snail (photo Sue Lowry)

Matisse, ‘The Snail’ (photo Sue Lowry)

With ‘Memory of Oceania’ Matisse once again drew on happy recollections of his 1930 trip to Tahiti, bringing the lagoon into his studio. While working on it, he remembered the light of the Pacific as ‘a deep golden goblet into which you look’.

Matisse, Henri (1869-1954): Memory of Oceania (Sou

Matisse, ‘Memory of Oceania’, 1953

‘Ivy in Flower’ is another full-scale maquette of coloured paper, watercolour, pencil, and brown paper tape on paper mounted on canvas that he created in 1953 for a stained glass window commissioned by the wife of an American businessman, Albert Lasker, for his mausoleum.  Mrs Lasker rejected it, after seeing only a photograph, on the grounds that was ‘all yellow’. Having devoted much time to the project, Matisse was furious, feeling that he living on borrowed time and had wasted some of his precious ‘second life’.

Matisse, Ivy in Flower, 1953 Dallas Museum of Art

Matisse, ‘Ivy in Flower’, 1953 being manoeuvred in its home at Dallas Museum of Art

The penultimate room of the exhibition is another stunner, displaying two tremendous works, ‘Acanthuses’ and ‘The Sheaf’. ‘Acanthuses’ is spare, minimal, its shapes limited to the three primary colours yellow, red and blue and their composite hues green (from yellow and blue) and orange (from yellow and red), and once again surrounded by a vast white space. Matisse had sketched the composition on paper using a long stick with a piece of charcoal attached to the end.

For all his growing confidence in the cut-out medium, Matisse’s process was still one of trial and revision. Conservation analysis has found more than a thousand tiny pin holes in the coloured shapes of Acanthuses, suggesting many alterations before the composition attained its final form.

Matisse, Acanthuses, 1953

Matisse, ‘Acanthuses’ at the Foundation Beyeler, Basel during conservation (photo: Mark Niedermann)

‘The Sheaf ‘, with its leaf patterns in blue, green, orange, red and black was a design for a ceramic panel that was finally accepted by the couple who commissioned it for their Los Angeles home. Matisse had already proposed several designs, including ‘Large Decoration with Masks’, which they had rejected. Matisse was undaunted by their response and embarked on alternative compositions with enthusiasm, reflecting the extraordinary creative energy of his final years.

Matisse, The Sheaf, 1953 (photo Sue Lowry)

Matisse, The Sheaf, 1953 (photo Sue Lowry)

The final room of the Tate’s exhibition contains just one work – ‘Christmas Eve’, a stained glass window on loan from MoMA. Here we can compare his cut-out model with the resulting stained glass, commissioned for the Time-Life Building in New York. Like his windows for the Vence Chapel, Christmas Eve conveys the spirit of religious expression without explicitly addressing religious subject matter or using religious iconography.

Matisse once said of his designs for Jazz, ‘I cut out these gouache sheets the way you cut glass: only here they’re organised to reflect light, whereas in a stained-glass window they have to be arranged differently because light shines through them.’

Matisse, Christmas Eve (stained glass), 1952

Matisse, ‘Christmas Eve’, photo: Panoptic Art (

The exhibition was a magnificent experience: though I had seen many of the works in different settings over the years, there will never again in my lifetime be the opportunity to see so many of these glorious, life-affirming works in one place. Reviewing the exhibition for the Independent, Zoe Pilger wrote:

The cut-outs are ecstatic though controlled. Matisse described the process of making these staggeringly bright, large-scale works as ‘painting with scissors.’ Rather than painting onto canvas, he was cutting ‘in’ – making incisions. There is no sense of surgery, however. There is little sense of conquering, violating, penetrating – all those metaphors of creativity associated with the ‘modern masters’ of the 20 century. Instead, these works are exultant; they make you feel happy, high, vital, which is what the artist intended.

Matisse, stained glass window, Pocantico church, New York State

Matisse, stained glass window, Pocantico church, New York State

Matisse’s last work – his final cut-out – is not here.  It was the design for a stained-glass window commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, New York State, in memory of his mother. On 1 November Matisse wrote to say that his design of ivy in flower was finished and ready for production.  The same day he suffered a mini-stroke. His doctor later wrote: ‘His worn-out heart slowly ceased to beat. It took three days.’

His daughter Marguerite and his assistant Lydia stayed at his bedside.  On the second day Lydia came to his bedside with her hair newly washed and wound in a towel turban.  Matisse asked for his drawing things and made four quick sketches of her with a ballpoint pen.  Holding the final sketch out at arm’s length he pronounced, ‘It will do’.

Matisse died the next day, 3 November 1954, at four o’clock in the afternoon in the studio at Cimiez, with his daughter and Lydia at his side.  In the final words of her biography, Hilary Spurling writes:

He is buried in the cemetery at Cimiez, in a plot of ground on the hillside overlooking Nice, with no monument except a plain stone slab carved by his son Jean, beneath a fig tree and an olive  to which time and chance have added a wild bay tree fifty years after his death.

You can watch Alastair Sooke’s Culture Show appreciation of Matisse and the cut-outs on YouTube:

See also

Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town

Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town

Musee Matisse

The Musee Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambresis

Late in the afternoon of the first day of my trip to WW1 sites in Flanders and the Somme, I was in the little village of Ors where Wilfred Owen is buried and where his platoon spent their final hours before being mown down by German machine gun fire.  The nearest town is Le Cateau-Cambresis and, since it is the place where Matisse was born, and since it has a museum devoted to Matisse, I had to go.

I hadn’t expected much of a museum in a small provincial town.  But I was wrong. Housed in a former archbishop’s palace that in Matisse’s day had been transformed into a cotton mill, the museum is excellent.  In ten beautifully-presented rooms, key episodes from the the life and work of the town’s most famous son are illustrated through an astonishing collection of Matisse’s work.  I quickly learn the reason for this: the museum was established by Matisse himself in November 1952, and he also defined the way his works should be arranged.  The museum owns more than 170 works by Matisse, and now has the third largest collection of his work in France.

The collection has grown from initial donations by the Matisse family, enhanced and by later purchases. It now includes 28 paintings and paper cut-outs, 21 sculptures and a superb collection of sketches and prints.  In each room the museum has displayed work by other modern artists that reflect the influence that Matisse had on 20th century art. So, for example, to illustrate the summer of 1905 that opened Matisse’s eyes to the light and colour of the south- a summer spent with Andre Derain in Collioure on the Mediterranean coast – Derain’s painting ‘Port de Collioure: Le Cheval Blanc’ hangs alongside some of those made by Matisse on the same trip.  Most astonishingly, in the room that presents examples of Matisse’s preparatory work for the chapel at Vence, there hangs a Rothko – ‘Light Red Over Black’ from 1957, its shimmering tones there to complement the vibrant colours of Matisse’s most spiritual work.

Matisse was born in the house on the left (demolished in 1918)

Matisse was born in the house on the left (demolished in 1918)

Le Cateau-Cambresis is a small town situated at the edge of the high plains that stretch from the valley of the Somme some twenty miles to the west.  It lies at the foot of wooded hills that rise to meet the Belgian border.  Matisse was born here in his grandfather’s cottage on  31 December 1869. Hilary Spurling brings it to life in the opening volume of her Life of Henri Matisse:

Matisse was rooted in northeastern France, on the edge of the great Flanders plain where his ancestors had lived for centuries before the convulsive social and industrial upheavals of the nineteenth century slowly prised them loose. His father’s family were weavers. Henri Emile Benoît Matisse was born in a tiny, tumbledown weaver’s cottage on the rue du Chêne Arnaud in the textile town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis at eight o’clock in the evening on the last night of the year, 31 December 1869. The house had two rooms, a beaten earth floor and a leaky roof. Matisse said long afterwards that rain fell through a hole above the bed in which he was born.

Matisse’s ancestors had lived in the area for centuries. His father, a grain merchant who sold grain for cattle feed, came from a family of weavers – one of the traditional occupations of the region – while his mother was the daughter of a long line of well-to-do tanners. Matisse grew up in nearby Bohain-en-Vermandois which, like Le Cateau, had in the 19th century become a centre for the industrial manufacturing of textiles.  Hilary Spurling describes the sort of place Bohain was when Matisse was young:

Henri Matisse was born just as the accelerating juggernaut of industrialisation and deforestation reached top speed in his native region. When his family settled on the rue du Château, Bohain was already halfway through its transformation from a sleepy weavers’ village deep in the ancient forest of the Arrouaise to a modern manufacturing centre with ten thousand clanking looms installed in the town itself and the villages round about. The population, which had taken forty years to grow from two to four thousand before the large-scale installation of steam machinery in the 1860s, would very nearly double again in the twenty years before Matisse finally left home for Paris.

The town’s principal product was textiles but sugar-beet output also doubled in the first ten years of his life. Energetic clearance meant that the last pockets of surrounding woodland were cut down to make way for beet plants in 1869, the year of Matisse’s birth. The windmills and belfries that traditionally dotted the rolling flatlands of the Vermandois were far outnumbered in his childhood by the smoking chimneys of sugar refineries and textile mills. The streams on these chalky downs–Bohain stood high in the centre of a triangle marking the sources of the Somme, the Selle and the Escaut–ran with dye and chemical refuse on leaving the towns. The streets of Bohain were slippery with beet pulp in autumn, and the air was rank all winter with the stench of rotting and fermenting beets. Visitors from the outside world in the 1870s and 1880s were shocked by the drabness of the town itself, and by the stark, treeless outlines of the newly denuded land round about. “Where I come from, if there is a tree in the way, they root it out because it puts four beets in the shade,” Matisse said sombrely.

The family home of Henri Matissein BohainLa Maison familiale d'Henri Matisse, au 26 rue du Château à Bohain

Then and now: the family home of Henri Matisse, at 26 rue du Château, Bohain

There’s a reminder in Hilary Spurling’s book that Matisse experienced the invasion of his country three times in his lifetime, the first occasion when he was two years old:

In his own childhood, the invaders were Prussian. German soldiers (who occupied Bohain three times in Matisse’s lifetime) marched past the seed-shop on the rue du Château for the first time on New Year’s Day, 1871, the day after his first birthday. The whole region had been waiting for them in a state of increasing tension since the Emperor’s catastrophic defeat at Sedan four months earlier. Prussian troops had already bombarded and captured the local market town of St-Quentin sixteen miles away. After a brief flurry of sniper fire, Bohain responded, as the town always had done to foreign occupation, with grim resignation. The population retreated behind sealed doors and windows for nearly three uneasy weeks while French and German forces massed for the battle, which took place on 19 January in the snow just outside St-Quentin. The citizens stood on their town walls all day, watching the heavily outnumbered French army suffer yet another decisive defeat, and barricaded themselves in their cellars as the survivors withdrew in silence through the streets that night. A few hours later, when the fleeing French soldiers stumbled into Bohain–filthy, famished and exhausted–they found the inhabitants waiting for them in the snow with food and lanterns to light their way.

Bohain pattern book

Bohain textile designs:  catalogue published in 1883

The first room in the Musee Matisse evokes his early years in the north. There’s a hat and a violin that once belonged to the young Matisse, and there are samples of the textile patterns woven in Bohain, which Matisse would have seen as a child growing up in a textile town.  These were luxury cloths, sent to Paris for followers of high fashion.  The patterns made a deep impression on the young boy, and turn up in many of Matisse’s later paintings, their memory even perhaps influencing the cut-outs of his final years.

Matisse, The Breton Weaver, 1895

Henri Matisse, ‘The Breton Weaver’, 1895

Again, Hilary Spurling provides a vivid account of life in Bohain in these early years, and the impression made on the young Matisse:

Long after the neighbouring towns had switched to mechanisation, a high proportion of the men of Bohain kept their handlooms, working either at home or in back-street workshops crammed with anything from three or four to twenty times as many looms. There were half a dozen of these weavers’ and embroiderers’ workshops in and around the rue Peu d’Aise. “My cradle was rocked to the clicking rhythms of running shuttles. . . . Clickety-clack! . . . Clickety-clack!” wrote Emile Flamant, another painter born in Bohain in 1896. Matisse himself was just old enough to remember the vogue for Kashmir shawls which had brought Bohain its first taste of prosperity in the 1850s. “In the old days they used to make woven Indian shawls. It was a time when people still wore shawls on their backs, as in old Flemish paintings, decorated with palmettes and fringed edges,” Matisse said, describing a simple weaver’s dwelling like the one where he was born. “A peasant’s house consisted of a single big room with a bed, a table in the middle and a loom in the corner, a Jacquard loom.”

It was Parisian high fashion that lay behind Bohain’s astonishing economic turnaround after the defeat of 1871. By the time Henri was ten, all but a handful of the town’s forty-two textile workshops had switched to furnishing or dress materials, working directly for the big Paris fashion houses that supplied modern department stores like the Cour Batave. This was the basis of the town’s booming economy during Henri’s childhood and adolescence, when the luxury textile trade exploded “like fireworks” in an unprecedented display of creativity and invention. Throughout the time he lived there, the weavers of Bohain were famous for the richness of their colours, for their imaginative daring and willingness to experiment. They worked to order for the top end of the market, supplying handwoven velvets, watered and figured silks, merinos, grenadines, featherlight cashmeres and fancy French tweeds (cheviottes fantaisies) for winter and, for summer, sheer silk gauzes, diaphanous tulles, voiles and foulades in a fantastic profusion of decorative patterns, weaves and finishes.

Descended from and surrounded by these weavers, Matisse grew up familiar from infancy with the sound of clacking shuttles and the sight of his neighbours loading and plying coloured bobbins, hunched over the loom like a painter at his easel day in, day out, from dawn to dusk. Textiles remained ever afterwards essential to him as an artist. He loved their physical presence, surrounding himself with scraps and snippets of the most beautiful stuffs he could afford from his days as a poor art student in Paris. He painted them all his life as wall hangings, on screens, in cushions, carpets, curtains and the covers of the divans on which he posed his models of the 1930s in their flimsy harem pants, their silk sashes and jackets, their ruffled or embroidered blouses, sometimes in haute couture dresses made by Parisian designers from the sort of luxury materials still produced in those days for Chanel in Bohain.

Throughout the single most critical phase of his career, in the decade before the First World War when he and others struggled to rescue painting from the dead hand of a debased classical tradition, textiles served him as a strategic ally. Flowered, spotted, striped or plain, billowing across the canvas or pinned flat to the picture plane, they became in Matisse’s hands between 1905 and 1917 an increasingly disruptive force mobilised to subvert and destabilise the old oppressive laws of three-dimensional illusion. On a purely practical level, he resorted as a painter to old weavers’ tricks like pinning a paper pattern to a half-finished canvas, or trying out a whole composition in different colourways. He stoutly defended the decorative, non-naturalistic element in painting, and he made luxury–in the old democratic weavers’ definition, “something more precious than wealth, within everybody’s reach”–a key concept in his personal system of aesthetics. In this, as in his unbudgeable determination, Matisse remained a true son of the weavers of Bohain, whose fabrics astonished contemporaries by their glowing colours, their sensuous refinement, their phenomenal lightness and lustre.

Matisse The Reader (1895)

Henri Matisse, ‘The Reader’, 1895

In 1887 Matisse went to Paris to study law, returning to Le Cateau-Cambrésis to work as a court administrator after gaining his qualification.  His discovery of his true vocation came about in 1889 as he was convalescing after an attack of appendicitis and his mother had bought him a paintbox to while away the hours. He said later, ‘From the moment I held the box of colours in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves’.  Two years later, he returned to Paris to study art at the Academy, but left after a year, frustrated by the academic and perfectionist approach of the tutors.

Influenced by Cezanne, from 1892 to 1897 Matisse trained with Gustave Moreau, an artist who nurtured more progressive leanings.  The second room focuses on this period and includes his ‘First Still Life: Orange’, painted in 1898 during his honeymoon on Corsica: the first sign of a developing passion for colour and of the impact of the Mediterranean light.

Matisse First orange still life (1898-1899)

Henri Matisse, ‘First Still Life: Orange’, 1898

But there are paintings here from 1902-1903, one of the darkest periods in Matisse’s life when he was forced to return to Bohain and nearby Lesquielles St. Germain.  His wife, Amélie, had a gift for designing, making, and modelling hats for fashionable clients, and ran her own shop in Paris, its income supporting Matisse as he embarked on his career as a painter. In 1902, however, disaster struck when Amélie’s parents were disgraced and financially ruined in a spectacular scandal, as the unsuspecting employees of a woman whose financial empire was based on fraud.

Thanks to his early years in a lawyer’s office, Matisse was able to assist in organizing his father-in-law’s defence. But the ordeal took its toll, and his doctors ordered Matisse to go to Bohain and take two months’ complete rest. Amélie had lost both her hat shop and their Paris apartment. Henri, Amélie and their three children returned to Bohain, having nowhere else to go. Hilary Spurling believes that memories of their public disgrace nurtured a ‘suspicion of the outside world’ that would always mark the Matisse family. From that point on,the Matisse family formed a kind of hermetic unit which revolved around the artist’s work and profession.

Matisse L'Allee a la Riviere

Henri Matisse, ‘L’Allee a la Riviere’, 1903

Matisse, Lesquielles St Germain, 1903

Henri Matisse, ‘Lesquielles St Germain’, 1903

Matisse, Countryside, Lesquielles St Germain, 1903

Henri Matisse, ‘Countryside, Lesquielles St Germain’, 1903

Matisse, Banks of the canal, Lesquielles St Germain, 1903

 Henri Matisse, ‘Banks of the canal, Lesquielles St Germain’, 1903

The next room brings together paintings made between 1905 and 1914, the Fauve period of ‘the revelation of light in nature’.
In the summer of 1905, together with Andre Derain, he goes to Collioure and paints freely – paintings of pure colour. ‘Rue du Soleil in Collioure’, painted that summer, breaks free from the constraints of drawing and realism.  Next to it is Derain’s ‘Port de Collioure, le Cheval Blanc’, painted in the same summer.

Henri Matisse Collioure rue du soleil 1905

 Henri Matisse, ‘Collioure: Rue du Soleil’, 1905

Andre Derain, Port de Collioure, le cheval blanc, 1905

Andre Derain, ‘Port de Collioure, le Cheval Blanc’, 1905

There are two portraits of his daughter Marguerite, one painted in 1906 is expressionist, while in a large painting of 1914,Marguerite is portrayed in a fur hat painted in washes of transparent and light blue.

Henri Matisse, Marguerite, 1906

Henri Matisse, Marguerite, 1906

In December 1917, Matisse left Paris for Nice and this significant moment marks the opening of the period covered by the next room, ‘1918-1939, Nice and Tahiti: the light of the tropics’.  In Nice his principal subject remained the female figure or an odalisque dressed in oriental costume or in various stages of undress, depicted as standing, seated, or reclining in a luxurious, exotic interior of Matisse’s own creation. These paintings are infused with southern light, bright colours, and a profusion of decorative patterns, evocative of the Bohain pattern-books of his childhood. There is a self-portrait painted in 1918, soon after his arrival in Nice.  

Matisse, self-portrait,1918

Henri Matisse, ‘Self-portrait’, 1918

On his trip to Tahiti in 1930 he discovered the golden light of the tropics. On his return, he painted ‘Window in Tahiti’, a large gouache, striking in its pure colours.  ‘The light of the Pacific, of the Islands’, he wrote, ‘is a deep golden goblet into which one peers’. This special light led him to experiment with the sensation of confusion between the spaces of sky and sea, as illustrated in the later compositions from 1946-1947, ‘Océanie, le Ciel’ and ‘Océanie, la Mer’ (which appears in a later room)  in which fish, coral and birds mingle.

Window at Tahiti, 1936

Window at Tahiti, 1936

Another room is dedicated to the 1940s when Matisse took refuge in Vence, the start of a particularly productive period of drawings and paintings. Three striking paintings here are ‘Interior with Bars of Sunlight’, completed in 1942, a geometrical arrangement of coloured bars and rectangles, ‘Pink Nude, Red Interior’ from 1947, with a sumptuous red background and array of richly patterned fabrics, and ‘Two Young Women, Yellow Dress and Tartan Dress’.

Henri Matisse, Interior with Bars of Sunlight, 1942

Henri Matisse, ‘Interior with Bars of Sunlight’, 1942

Matisse, Pink Nude, Red Interior, c.1947

 Henri Matisse, ‘Pink Nude, Red Interior’, c.1947

Matisse, Deux jeunes filles, 1941

Henri Matisse, ‘Two Young Women, Yellow Dress and Tartan Dress’, 1941

In the next room, ‘The sculptor of light’, the display overlaps with the exhibition at Tate Modern that I have booked to see on as I pass through London on my way back home.  Here are examples of work completed by Matisse during the last ten years of his life: maquettes and models for the Vence Chapel, examples of  his monumental paper cut-outs.

Musee Matisse Vigne

Musee Matisse: ‘Vine’, 1953, with examples of gouched paper cut-outs from the same period

‘Vine’ (1953) is a cut-out design for a stained-glass window in blue, pink, yellow and green gouache. Oceania, the sky, Oceania, the sea given by the descendants of the painter. These white forms on a beige background are the first monumental achievements made ​​with the technique of paper cutouts and were born in 1946 memories of the trip Matisse in Tahiti.

Musee Matisse Oceania - Le Ciel

Musee Matisse: ‘Oceania – Le Ciel’, 1946

And here is the paper cut-out original of ‘Oceania: The Sky’ from 1946, donated to the museum by Matisse in 1952. In it, Matisse recalls the lagoons and colours of ‘the other hemisphere’ he discovered in 1930 on his voyage to Tahiti, from which he returned with photographs, drawings, and memories that would nourish his work to the end.  Matisse finished composing the two panels ‘Oceania, the Sky’ and ‘Oceania, the Sea’ on two walls of his bedroom in his Paris apartment in autumn 1946. Forms from the marine world that he had seen swimming in the lagoons of the Pacific islands are cut out in white paper and dance against a beige abstract background. Matisse once said of these works:

These successive flights of doves, their orbits, their curves glide in me as if in a great interior space. You cannot imagine to what degree, in this period of paper cut-outs, the sensation of flight that comes over me helps me to better adjust my hand as it guides the path of my scissors.

Musee Matisse Back I-IV

As I moved on from one room to the next in this small museum, I was continually amazed by the importance of the works on display. My next encounter was with the original plaster casts of the four monumental sculptures of a woman’s back which Matisse worked on from 1909 to 1930, and which are now considered to be one of the great achievements in 20th century sculpture.

Probably influenced by Cezanne, Back I, 1909; Back II, 1913; The Back III, 1916; and Back IV, 1930 reflect Mattise’s quest to capture the essence of the human form. With each subsequent stage in the Back series, Matisse became bolder in reducing the form of a woman’s back to essential shapes, until he arrived at the radical simplicity of Back III and IV, in which he has reduced the figure to just a long tail of hair connected to the vertical spine, the curve of the hip, and an arm gesture.  In an article for the Guardian, Matisse’s biographer Hilary Spurling wrote:

These four monolithic female figures, made at intervals between 1909 and 1930, remained virtually invisible almost to the end of the artist’s long life. He showed Back I at the two notorious exhibitions that first made modern art a sensation before the first world war: the second Post Impressionist show in London, and the Armory show in New York. Otherwise, none of the Backs was seen again in public until after the second world war (by which time Back II had gone missing, resurfacing only after its creator’s death in 1954). Their secret history is as hard to explain as their strange, powerful, mesmeric presence.

I remember seeing the bronzes at Tate Modern, one of the few museums that possesses a complete set.

Henri Matisse Engraving, 1900–03

Henri Matisse, Self portrait, 1900

As if this wasn’t enough, on another floor is the Drawings Cabinet, a darkened room in which the museum displays the only set of drawings and prints personally chosen by Matisse to reflect each period in his career. It is must be one of the most impressive rooms of Matisse’s work that you could find anywhere.  There’s a self portrait from 1900, and many other drawings and etchings from other periods.

Matisse, Nadia au Regard Serieux. Aquatint, 1948

Henri Matisse, Nadia with Serious Expression, 1948

Henri Matisse, Katia Large Head, c. 1950

Henri Matisse, Katia Large Head, c. 1950

Amongst the latest works are several aquatints, executed in thick black brush strokes, from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Facial features are conveyed with just a few strokes of a broad brush against the white of the paper. Each face is carefully composed within a space determined by the sheet of paper. A model – Katia or Nadia – is portrayed, sometimes with a frown or a smile, sometimes serious or distant, viewed in profile or head on.

Matisse drawing cabinet

Musee Matisse: part of the drawing cabinet display

And there’s still more.  In 1950, Matisse was visited by his three grandchildren, Gerard, Jacqueline and Claude. As they watched, he drew their portraits on the ceiling of his studio, using charcoal tied to a fishing rod 2 metres long. The ceiling was offered to the museum by the Matisse family.  Alongside is a photograph by Helene Adant of the work in situ.

These are my grandchildren. I try to represent them and if I succeed, I feel better. Also, I designed the ceiling to have on the eyes, especially at night.So, I feel less alone.

Musee Matisse ceiling portrait of three grandchildren

Musee Matisse: the ceiling portrait of the three grandchildren

Another striking recreation is a reconstruction of a corner of the dining room from the Tériade villa in St Jean Cap-Ferrat, which was decorated in 1952 by Matisse with ‘Tree’, a work of painted ceramic tiles.  It was donated by Alice Tériade, the wife of Efstrathios Elefheriades (aka Tériade), the art editor, publisher of Jazz, and founder of Verve, the magazine for which Matisse contributed many designs.  In the years when ‘Tree’ adorned the wall of the villa in St Jean Cap-Ferrat, the Tériades allowed only a few close friends and artists see it.

Reconstruction of the dining Tériade villa S-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, decorated by Henri Matisse, Tree 1952

Musee Matisse: Reconstruction of the dining room in the Tériade villa (‘Tree’, 1952)

So, finally, to a room that contains Matisse’s preparatory work for what was probably the crowning achievement of his career – his designs for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence.  From 1948 to 1951, Matisse worked on the chapel for the Dominican Sisters. ‘This chapel is for me the culmination of a lifetime of work and flowering of a huge, sincere and hard effort,’ he said in 1951. ‘I would like all who enter feel relieved of their burdens. I created a spiritual space’. The museum display includes studies for this major work, including the designs in white and gold for the priest’s robes, a study for the head of Saint Dominique, and two models of the chapel, including the first version which utilised the ‘The Bees’ (Les Abeilles) for the design of the stained-glass window to the side.

Musee Matisse Vence chapel maquette Les Abeilles

Musee Matisse: Vence chapel maquette, first version, ‘Les Abeilles’

Musee Matisse Vence chapel maquette

Musee Matisse: Vence chapel maquette, final version

Alongside the maquettes are displayed photographs  by Helene Adant of the work in Matisse’s studio, and of the interior of the completed chapel at Vence.

Henri Matisse’s chasuble designs for the Vence chapel by Helene Adant

Henri Matisse’s chasuble designs for the Vence chapel by Helene Adant

Chapel of the Rosary Vence by Helene Adant

Chapel of the Rosary Vence by Helene Adant

There was one last thing I hoped to see in Le Cateau-Cambresis, though I wasn’t sure whether it was possible.  The ‘Bees’ design for the first version of the Vence didn’t go to waste, but was eventually realised in 1952 as a stained-glass window in the nursery school in the town which bears Matisse’s name.  On enquiring at the museum, I was told that the window (only rarely opened to public view inside the school) was visible from the street, so I went to take a look.

Matisse nursery school Les Abeilles 2

The Henri Matisse nursery school in Le Cateau-Cambresis: stained-glass window, ‘Les Abeilles’ (‘The Bees’)

And there it was.  This was a great moment for me, even if the full impact of the stained-glass could not be experienced from the street.  It really should be seen from inside,with sunlight pouring through from outside.  But you must be a toddler of Le Cateau to have that privilege.  To the right of the window is a bust of Matisse mounted on a concrete plinth bearing simply his dates: 1869-1954.

Matisse nursery school Les Abeilles Matisse nursery school head

The Henri Matisse nursery school in Le Cateau-Cambresis

There would be a neat symmetry to the WW1 trip I had embarked on.  I had ended the first day, here at the Musee Matisse in the artist’s birthplace. I would end my trip back in London at Tate Modern, seeing The Cut-Outs exhibition.  More of that to come.