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Colour to lift up the heart

18 July 2014

Nicholas Cranfield on Matisse cut-outs that shed light on his great work of church décor

© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014. Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet

"These are stained-glass-window colours":Icarus, 1946, is a maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated bookJazz, 1947, the book that Matisse showed Brother Rayssiguier

"These are stained-glass-window colours":Icarus, 1946, is a maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated bookJazz, 1947, the book that Matisse showed ...

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 permission.

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 me".

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 myself."

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 Linel.

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 9400.



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