Assistant Curator, Flavia Frigeri, explores the artist’s studio at the time of his cut-outs
Seeing the cut-outs today in their final state, neatly mounted and framed, is very different from how Matisse experienced these works when he made them in the last years of his life. This first post marks the beginning of a journey I’m hoping to take you on inside Matisse’s studio - so let me start by saying, welcome to our new blog series! Over the course of the exhibition, I’ll be sharing with you the trials and errors, the stories, and more generally, will attempt to give you a glimpse of what life was like in Matisse’s studio at the time he made the cut-outs.
For Matisse there was no distinction between home and studio - the two spaces co-existed and due to his limited mobility at this point in his life he often slept, ate and worked in the same space. One of his studio assistants once told us ‘we lived inside the work!’. The studio experience was an all-enveloping one and the cut-outs, which were cut and pinned directly on his studio walls, were a product of this atmosphere.
Matisse created his cut-outs in three different studios. In 1946 he developed the works Oceania, The Sky and Oceania, The Sea on the walls of an apartment at 132 Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris. Between 1943 and 1948 he lived and worked at Villa le Rêve in Vence where he filled his walls with clusters of vibrantly coloured cut-out forms. Finally from 1949 until his death in 1954 he was based at the Hôtel Régina in Nice, where the ambition and scale of his cut-outs rose to a new level, giving birth to monumental works such as Large Decoration with Masks and The Parakeet and the Mermaid.
Matisse once compared his studio at the Hôtel Régina, to a factory. A comparison which usefully draws attention to the fervid activities that characterised life in the studio at the time. Matisse in fact was not working alone, but relied on the help of studio assistants, who under his rigorous supervision would paint with coloured gouache large sheets of paper laid on the floor. Matisse would then cut his shapes directly into the coloured sheets and once he was happy with a form he would get one of the assistants to pin it on the wall. Those shapes which did not make it on the wall - and which are known as the off-cuts - were carefully stored, as only rarely he would allow for discarded elements to be thrown away.
During the course of our research for the exhibition we were lucky enough to interview two of Matisse’s studio assistants Paule Caen-Martin and Jacqueline Duhême. They shared both the difficulties of the job but also the joys, as well as their memories of how Matisse would orchestrate his compositions sitting in bed with a fishing rod or a bamboo stick. Paule and Jacqueline’s memories brought the studio back to life for us and it is through their stories, even the trivial ones, such as Matisse’s habit to feed his cats with pieces of brioche in the morning, that we were able to step into his studio.
Paule and Jacqueline weren’t the only members of the Matisse ‘crew’. The Russian-born Lydia Delectorskaya - the ‘head governess’, assistant, and at times model - who oversaw every aspect of Matisse’s life and work, was the undisputed leader of this factory of sorts. Contributing to the life of the Matisse household there was also a cook, a nurse who came in the evenings to take care of Matisse and a gardener. Many others also frequented the studio or contributed to the making of the works and we’ll ‘meet’ them all over the course of the coming weeks, so stay tuned!
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on display at Tate Modern until 7 September