Matisse exhibition reunites “Blue Nude” paper cut-outs

LONDON - Even when he was in his 80s and in frail health, the French painter, sculptor and, latterly, master of painted cut-out paper Henri Matisse, still had it.

That, in part, is what an exhibition of Matisse's late-life works, some huge and covering most of the gallery walls, demonstrates in the show opening this week at London's Tate Modern, and then heading to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

For one of the rare occasions since Matisse made them in the south of France in the early 1950s, his four "Blue Nudes" are together again in one room - much to the delight of Tate director Nicholas Serota.

"These works were together in the studio and they've only rarely been together since," he said at a preview on Monday, noting that they have never been together in Britain before.

Nor does he consider working with paper cut-outs - an activity usually confined to nursery art classes - child's play.

"I think that kids in school increasingly cut out paper in emulation of Matisse," Serota said, noting that a film at the beginning of the exhibition shows the elderly painter using scissors with amazing dexterity.

"You see the simplicity of the format and the sophistication of the compositions and I would defy any child to make a 'Blue Nude' that captures the female form to the degree that he does in these four compositions."

Other highlights include the reunion of two vast cut-outs,"The Snail" (1953) from the Tate's collection, and "Memory of Oceania" (1953), which Matisse created at the same time but which then went their separate ways, along with the gigantic"Large Composition with Masks" (1953), on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

"They're all closely related, you see a photo of them in the studio together, and then he separates them," Serota said.

The first room of the exhibition contains a handful of Matisse's oil paintings, demonstrating that the forms he created from paper are closely related to what he painted.

But after he had an operation in 1941, his health deteriorated to the point where painting was too strenuous, and the cut-outs became his principle mode of expression.

The 130 works in the exhibition are mostly bathed in subdued picture lighting, and some are covered in glass, but Serota said they are not as fragile as they might seem to be.

"Obviously we have to show them with relatively low levels of light, but they have proved extremely durable," he said.