Tate Etc

Beatriz Milhazes on Matisse

For issue 31 of Tate Etc., we asked three contemporary artists to talk about their personal fascination with Henri Matisse. Here, Beatriz Milhazes reflects on seeing the restoration of Acanthus 1953 at Fondation Beyeler, Basel

Henri Matisse, Acanthus 1953

Henri Matisse
Acanthus 1953
Maquette for ceramic (realised 1953), gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on white painted paper, mounted on canvas
3117 x 3518 mm 
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014, courtesy Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection 

During the installation of my show at Fondation Beyeler, Basel, in 2011, I had the unique experience of working near a room where Matisse’s Acanthus 1953, now on show at Tate Modern, was being restored. I was able to observe quietly the ambitious, mysterious and meticulous research into his cut-out process, and talk with the museum’s conservation team.

When I think about Matisse’s cut-outs, I think about a painter working with collage. In general, collage practice demands a more developed studio than a painting one - good assistants and a variety of tables, rulers, scissors, glues, papers and materials. Matisse worked with papers, each surface painted with gouache to create solid colour. These became his palette - his colours to be cut into simple or complex shapes, scissors replacing the brush, which would then form the elements to be glued and made into a composition: a construction of colours and beauty. This process of making collages takes you from an urgent simplicity to a genuine dialogue with the paper and colour - a meeting with your childhood memories and pleasure; a special journey for the viewer.

Celestial Jerusalem 1948, Two Masks (The Tomato) 1947, Negro Boxer 1947, all the illustrations in his book Jazz… they are beautiful examples of how Matisse was able to develop a language in collage with a strong painterly meaning, practice and knowledge at its root. However, his Blue Nude (I), (II), (III) and (IV) from 1952 offer a different experience. The ultramarine cut-out forms are simple gestures expressing the play between the artist and his scissors, but when glued, they build up female figures that are full of movement, trying to remain on the surface of the paper. This group of works is a brilliant result of a full understanding of the collage and papier découpé processes - a visual poem written by a genius painter.