Matisse had long used cut-out shapes to plan his paintings, altering the position of objects to create the most pleasing composition before starting to paint. Towards the end of his life, with failing health, the cut-outs themselves became the art and this exhibition nicely charts the development of both the technique and scale of this. Colour and simplicity are the watch-words throughout, using human shapes harking back to the style of cave paintings. Matisse’s skilled creation of fluid shapes that look effortless is impressive, layering the paper to create a sense of movement and depth. The two works showing Icarus are very special as is ‘The Horse, the Rider and the Clown’ which contrasts stark purple and blue.
Throughout there are opportunities to see printed reproductions of these works, such as book cover designs, shown next to the original piece. In almost all cases the duplicate looks flat and the colours muted, losing the jagged lines and colour banding which give texture to the cut-out. But it’s the sheer size and detail of later works that is most impressive, created on the walls of Matisse’s studio. ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’ has six large panels filled with giant leaf and plant shapes individually cut in one piece from coloured paper, which is also interesting for its use of white space. Likewise the two large Oceania cut-outs which look above and below the sea use almost no colour at all, layering white shapes on a beige background, to create significant impact, emphasising the deceptive simplicity of Matisse’s work.
This exhibition charts the progression of form, style and skill very well, allowing you to see the technique refining in front of you. It builds nicely to the conclusion showing how cut-outs have been adapted for use in stained glass windows and priest’s robes, whilst retaining examples of Matisse’s painting which continued alongside the cut-outs for some time. I would have liked a little more information in the rooms about the styles and why particular shapes (such as the leaf) recurred so often, but I assume this is all in the expensive guide.
Although the exhibition itself is great and deserves to seen, the cost will leave a bitter taste long afterwards and genuinely ruined my enjoyment – £18… are they joking? Even the non-donation price of £16.30 is pretty unreasonable, whilst the concession of £16.00 (or £14.50 without donation) is pitiful; people on lower incomes or those who wouldn’t normally engage with art are not going to be able to spend this and it will stop them going. Charging a concession price of more than £10 is ludicrous. And it gets worse, you may grudgingly pay your £18, but then it’s another £4 if you want an audio guide (why is this not included?) and £40 if you want an exhibition catalogue to explain it all fully (£30 in paperback). You could easily spend the best part of £60 for just for one person. I appreciate there are enormous costs in running a gallery and the logistical expense of pulling together a show of this scale, but aren’t corporate sponsorships supposed to reduce the burden on the paying public?
You have to question whether the people setting ticket prices in galleries, and increasingly in theatres, have any conception of relative value? Even journalists who praised it in their newspaper columns probably went for free. Is it right to charge £18 to see this exhibition when you can go downstairs at the Tate Modern or along the river to the National Gallery and see some of the finest artworks ever produced for free? £18 is £8 more than I paid to see A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic which left a more powerful impression (on me at least), and £11 more than the wonderful Victoriana exhibition at the Guildhall last year. Maybe Londoners are spoiled by the vast array of cultural activities that are openly available, but surely that shouldn’t mean we pay over the odds for special events – there has to be some limits. Especially when the end result means galleries are failing in a duty to engage the widest section of society in their activities. It’s just a huge shame that so many people will be prevented from seeing the cut-outs and that institutions in receipt of public funds are not doing everything they can to engage with new audiences.
If you can afford it, Matisse: The Cut Outs is at the Tate Modern until 7 September. Ticket prices are £18 (£16.30 without donation) or £16 (£14.50) for concessions.