IN THE parish church where I currently serve, we have recently
un-covered a commemorative plaque set up for one of my first
predecessors: "To the glory of God a friendly record that from the
year 1865 until the year 1880 Charles Abbot Stevens was Vicar of
this church." The stained-glass windows beneath which this was
sited have long since gone, removed by the Luftwaffe without
A "friendly record" sounds an odd turn of phrase, but since Fr
Stevens, a noted collector of herbaria, lived to be 90, dying in
Eastbourne in 1908, it may have been apt to avoid it sounding too
much like a memorial inscription. But we overlook at our peril that
friendship rather than religious zeal or personal piety has its
place in the Church.
Henri Matisse's sudden involvement with sacred art came in the
1940s as more of a testimony to friendship and to charity than to
any espousal of faith. Throughout his long career (Matisse was born
in 1869), he had never shown much interest in his native
Catholicism, although writing in 1947 he confessed he sometimes
felt "aided by someone who makes me do things that are beyond
In 1941, Matisse had been looked after by a young nurse after an
operation; years later, she had entered the novitiate of a
Dominican house at Vence, in the south of France, opposite the
villa in which Matisse lived. Sister Jacques, as she had become,
one day showed the artist watercolour drawings that she had made
for proposed windows in a new chapel for the community.
What started out as a request for critical advice and for
inspiration on the part of an amateur ingénue saw a
remarkable role-reversal, and encouraged Matisse to think about
taking up stained glass. Later, he offered to decorate the whole
chapel, and underwrote much of its cost, working with the energetic
Fr Marie-Alain Couturier OP to design murals, stained glass,
chasubles, and even the confessional boxes (Books, 3 January; Back
Page Interview, 21 February).
The Chapelle du Rosaire for the Dominicans remains one of the
most profoundly spiritual places in France to this day, thanks to
Matisse, and is testimony to the sweeping power of L'Art
sacré of the post-war years.
Later, in 1948, Canon Devémy approached Matisse with the
suggestion that he decorate an altar for the eclectic church that
he had built 1000 metres high up on the plateau at Assy in
Haute-Savoie. Matisse was not the first choice, as both Derain and
Dufy had been asked to undertake two side altars; but circumstances
changed. Matisse sent a design for a figure of St Dominic (modelled
on Fr Couturier, and a variant of a design already used at Vence)
to be painted on ceramic tiles.
The linear purity of that figure, seen frontally, with his left
hand escaping the folds of his habit to clutch a book, and
surrounded by the sinuous tendrils of a grapevine, is achieved by
not insisting on the details of the face, a point about which the
artist felt strongly. In conversation with another Domin-ican, Fr
Pie-Raymond Régamey, in 1950, Matisse observed: "When I paint
something profane, God directs me, and it goes beyond me. If I
tried to make a Virgin, I would be forcing. God would leave me to
In fact, Matisse did, as the catalogue for this exhibition
shows, on occasion depict the BVM. Two drawings in private
collections (both dated 1949) show a seated Madonna, one encircled
by stars as in the completed chapel at Vence. Abstracted forms that
trace the outline of traditional scenes of the annunciation appear
for a tabernacle design.
Equally devoid of all details are the figures that crowd
together to form the Stations of the Cross. Controversially, all 14
scenes have been crowded together in a single wall (photographs
only suggest the effect), while the individual sketches (we only
get to see the Fifth, Sixth, and Twelfth Stations) suggest the
process towards redefinition.
Unlike these outline designs, the maquette for the apse windows,
loaned from the Centre Pompidou, rehearse the sheer scale of
Matisse's undertaking, as they are more than five metres tall.
Known as the "Pale Blue Window", and designed in the winter of
1948-49, the windows embrace a rich panoply of greens, pinks, reds,
and yellows, alongside the bleu myosotis and bleu lumière Matisse
chose from the gouache paints available to him from Lefranc
The full-size designs for a black chasuble, inscribed
"Esperlucat" as the Risen Christ calls the dead to waken,
and for a red set, appear almost as cut-outs within cut-outs, the
shapes unfurling nearly two metres on the cross. Shapes and cross
forms explode in both.
Fr Couturier had sought to bring contemporary art to revitalise
the vision of the post-war Church, much as did his English
contem-porary, Walter Hussey, first at St Matthew's, Northampton,
and then in Chichester Cathedral. Both clerics had differing
agendas for a more progressive Church, but Matisse responded to
Couturier because he could use cut-outs much as a stained-glass
artist would work.
Matisse explained this to the young novice Brother Rayssiguier -
who had helped him to understand the devotion of the Stations of
the Cross - and showed him images from Jazz in December
1947: "These are stained-glass-window colours. I cut out these
gouache sheets the way you cut glass."
Picasso was immediately sceptical of his friend's intentions,
and worried, as any Côtes de Provence Communist might, that his
friend was being ensnared into religion. In an argument in August
1948 (recorded in Couturier's diary), he challenged Matisse to "do"
a covered market instead, painting fruit and veg.
Matisse was furious. "I don't give a damn about fruit and
vegetables: my greens are greener than any pears and my oranges
more orange than pumpkins. What would be the point?" To see
Matisse's palette of garance, vert olive and of jaune
indien is to be convinced that he know a pear and a pumpkin
when he saw one, even though the medium has suffered over time.
Paper degradation and unstable pigments have caused significant
changes to what we can actually see. Matisse himself noticed the
deterioration of some colours in the study - both pink and violet
gouache - and research conducted between 2000 and 2007 found that,
of a sample of 79 coloured papers, 14 (all pink, orange, and
violet) were ex-tremely light sensitive, and only 34 were stable.
Additionally, ultramarine blue, a colour that for many visitors
will be seared into the mind's eye, is prey to the acid present in
glue and in turpentine. So we are certainly not seeing what Matisse
saw, whatever our ways of seeing.
The bold immediacy of the cut-outs is primarily about colour
and, frankly, only about colour. The sheer feeling of exaltation,
so evident on the faces of gallery-goers and staff alike at Tate
Modern, is a reflection of the radiant colours explored by the
ageing artist, who died 60 years ago (November 1954).
Others have long surveyed Matisse's senescence and his
in-creasing use of collaborative assistants and fabricators in his
studio. Successive exhibitions in the United States (1977-78),
Germany (2002-03), and last year in his home town of Le
Cateau-Cambrésis have paved the way for this comprehensive showing
of his chromatic compositions.
Latterly, his own cut-out paper shapes and figures on painted
gouache trapped him in his bedroom-cum-studio in the Hôtel Régina
in Nice. In 1961, his son Pierre admitted his father's practice
that "once the artist had cut the paper and decided on the place in
his composition he had nothing more to do with the rest of the
execution." To that extent, the exhibition is a timely reminder of
the use (and sometimes abuse) that many older and aged artists have
made of assistants to enchant a credulous public.
The first works on show (in London at least) date back to the
1920s, but it is really with the mural designs (1931-33) for Albert
Barnes of Dance that works making use of paper cut-outs
became more central to his oeuvre. Debilitating eyesight, around
1948, meant that the artist could continue using such bold designs
once painting had become all but impossible.
The 1936 cover for the journal Cahiers d'Art (nos 3-5)
and maquette for The Dancer (1938) give way to the
jauntily recognisable Fall of Icarus (1943), The
Sword-swallower of the same year, and the illustrated 1947
volume Jazz that had so impressed Brother Rayssiguier, and
the joyful compositions undertaken in response to the Second World
War, the world of Vichy France and the Italian occupation.
By the time that Matisse immersed himself in the life of the
Dominicans across the street, he had a rich vocabulary of simple
shapes and forms that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are
anodyne. The more complex structures (for instance Zulma,
of early 1950) are less satisfying than the acutely observed but
open-ended Blue Nude series of spring 1952.
Matisse came to regard Vence as his masterpiece, and nothing in
this deliciously colourful exhibition convinced me otherwise.
"Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs" is at Tate Modern, Bankside,
London SE1, until 7 September. Phone 020 7887 8888. The exhibition
is then at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in the United
States, from 25 October to 9 February 2015. Phone 00 1 212 708