Picture it now: the year is 1953 and the place is Cimiez, a hilltop suburb of Nice in the south of France, studded with palm trees. You’re in a suite of one of the town’s grandest hotels (once reserved for royal families), which has been transformed into a huge bedroom-meets-studio and sunlight pours in through its floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking the city bay. Welcome to the Hôtel Régina, the place where Henri Matisse lived and worked in his final years, and where his towering cut-out The Snail (at nearly nine metre square) was made.
For the first time in over 50 years, The Snail is being reunited with its partner piece, Memories of Oceania, as photographed by Matisse’s studio assistant Lydia Delectorskaya in 1953. On display at Tate Modern, the pair will also be shown with his 10-metre long Large Composition with Masks, and Lydia’s photo reveals how Matisse initially conceived these three works as one composition.
In a letter to Ronald Alley, the keeper of the Tate’s modern collection, Lydia wrote on the making of The Snail in 1976.
H. Matisse had at his disposal sheets of paper painted in gouache by assistants, in all the colours he used for the ‘papiers decoupes’. A background of white paper – of the dimensions indicated by H.M.– was put on the wall and the assistant pinned onto it the pieces of gouached paper which H.M. passed to him indicating exactly where they should be placed. When H.M. decided that his composition was finished, it was lightly stuck to the background.
We now of course see the cut-outs as finished works, but the exhibition’s Assistant Curator, Flavia Frigeri, explains that she wanted to create a sense of how Matisse moved his pieces around on the walls of his studio before fixing them. ‘Because you see them as finished works, you don’t see them in their completely movable states. There is that dimension to them and that’s the dimension Matisse experienced,’ she says.
Flavia will be sharing more stories from Matisse’s studio as captured in archive photographs here on the blog over the coming months – and with the show finally opening this week, let’s all take some time to step back into Matisse’s studio like it’s 1953.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs opens at Tate Modern on 17 April, on display until 7 September 2014