Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is one of the most iconic artists of the 20th Century who brought a whole new cacophony of colour to the art world. For the last 17 years of his life, he developed an entirely new approach to colour by cutting shapes into painted paper. Due to health problems in the 1940s, Matisse immersed himself in the practice, producing his most exciting work which is a true celebration of colour.

The Tate Modern have collated an extensive repertoire of his cut-outs – 120 to be precise, and produced an astounding exhibition that is not to be missed. It was curated by Tate Director, Nicholas Serota, and was originally on show at MOMA.

As you move through each room, you are greeted with abstract shapes and bright colours which creates a sense of movement and dynamism unparalleled by any other modern artist. This is apparent in Room 2 which is dedicated to Dancers. In 1937, Matisse worked with ballet choreographer Leonide Massine to Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony #1. Matisse translated Shostakovich’s music into 5 colours and gave them symbolic meaning. There is an energy within his cutouts through the fluidity of line in his cutting technique. 


The Oceania room is the most meditative room within the exhibition. The expansive canvases that dominate the three walls have harmonious ocean themed cut-outs in pale golden tones. The cut-out birds, fish, coral, and leaves were influenced by a trip to Tahiti. Matisse said of this experience – ‘
It’s as though my memory had suddenly taken the place of the outside world’. There, swimming every day in the lagoon, I took such intense pleasure in contemplating the submarine world.’

For the first time, all of Matisse’s iconic Blue Nudes are hung together in Room 9. The simplicity of form highlights Matisse’s idea of ‘cutting directly into colour’. There is a sense of sculpting the figures to create a fluid, sensuous form. His outlook concentrates on the geometric aspects of the human body as he almost dissects the body into simple shapes. It is a celebration of the human form in its most simple essence.

One of my personal highlights had to be The Parakeet and the Mermaid, which is Matisse’s largest cut-out. The composition is bold, striking and innovative. It took Matisse and his assistants a long time to experiment with different animals to create the perfect image. The white background acts as the perfect backdrop as its contrasts with the bright pinks, blues, and lurid greens which creates a balanced composition. Once again he returns to his Blue Nude motif giving the work a ‘rare and intangible quality.’

The exhibition culminates with some of his most iconic works including The Snail and another favourite Christmas Eve. As you travel through the exhibition chronologically, you notice that his work gets bigger and bolder as he becomes more confident with this innovative take on collage.  Christmas Eve is a truly unique work as he applied his cut-out technique and produced a beautiful stained-glass window, as he saw direct parallels between them. It conveys the spirit of Christmas but does not explicitly rely on a Christian narrative. 

The Snail 1953 by Henri Matisse 1869-1954Matisse, Cut-Outs is one of the most exciting shows I have seen in a long time and celebrates Matisse as a visionary of colour. I left the exhibition inspired to start practical art again and experiment with colour.  Head to the Tate this summer and immerse yourself in Matisse’s most innovative years of his career.

By Maisie Waters

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