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Henri Matisse: the cut-outs

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Brad Yendle joined architect Will Alsop and artist Bruce McLean – long-standing associates – on a visit to the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition at Tate Modern

On a recent trip to Leeds Art Gallery I saw Bruce McLean’s playfully colourful ‘Shape of Sculpture’ show. McLean has long been a collaborator and friend of Will Alsop, and I thought they would be the ideal people to review Tate Modern’s Matisse show. On a Friday afternoon we met there with photographer Anthony Coleman, and here is the conversation that took place.

Bruce McLean: He’s sitting in his bed; he’s lying in his bed with a pair of scissors and he’s conceived something that is nearly 12 feet tall. (referring to The Sheaf, 1953)

Will Alsop (left) and Bruce McLean (centre) and Brad Yendle (right) ponder over The Sheaf (1953) Image: Anthony Coleman.

Will Alsop (left) and Bruce McLean (centre) and Brad Yendle (right) ponder over The Sheaf (1953) Image: Anthony Coleman.

Will Alsop: But he had helpers, didn’t he?

BM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure. But it’s quite an interesting thing, as it gives me hope. Perhaps even a new hope that we’ll get better as we get older. I think I’m getting better. And I think you are getting better.

WA: No, no I totally agree with that. The cult of youth is a myth. Because you get more relaxed, because you don’t care. Or you care about other things.

Brad Yendle: So he didn’t care about that (pointing to bottom left of Memory of Oceania, 1952-53).

Memory of Oceania (1952-53). Image: Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014.

Memory of Oceania (1952-53). Image: Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014.

WA: Well of course he cared about it.

BY: Yes, but he didn’t care about that blue piece [being constructed from several pieces of paper].

BM: It’s missing a bit, and he just stuck a bit on. People don’t do that now; it’s all on a computer, to get it absolutely right.

BM: Seriously Will, what gives me hope is that he uses the same motif. He cuts the same sort of shape out each time and just bangs them up. Completely free of any theoretical or ideological nonsense.

WA: We do have our favourite things, various forms that just come out almost involuntarily. You do.

BM: Yeah, I know, and I feel embarrassed about using the same thing continually, using the same shape over again. People say (about his recent paintings): why are you using that shape again, that potato. Why can’t you move onto a carrot?

WA: That’s a good question. Why don’t you? 

BY: But it’s a Golden Wonder potato; it’s not just any old potato.

BM: Oh no no.

WA: After a few years, You find some forms, and it was no accident that you found those forms, therefore it becomes a habit, and you don’t have to worry about that, you worry about something else, presumably.

BM: He’s using the neg bits and the positive bits on these things (Venus, 1952).

Venus (1952). Image: Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014.

Venus (1952). Image: Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014.

WA: Well, it’s a sort of Scottish attitude.

BM: Economy.

WA: Use all the paper.

BM: Absolutely. I think what’s interesting for me is the different shades of blue in that (The Sheaf, 1953). The different shades of orange, the different shades of red. I don’t know whether he got his assistants to paint the paper red, or he painted it red himself. Or blue, or whatever.

BY: They painted it.

BM: But obviously they didn’t mix it the same each time. And that also gives it an added richness. It’s not this kind of homogenised, computerised even-ing out, getting rid of all the potential accidents and potential incidents.

WA: You’d be pretty pleased if you’d done that.

BM: I’m just staggered at the size of that (The Sheaf, 1953). That’s a big, big piece of work. How big is that? About 12 feet square? No, it’s not quite square, is it?

WA: Eight foot by five?

BM: It’s more than that. Stand beside it. You’re six foot. It’s at least 12 feet. It’s about 10 feet.

BM: This is my least favourite of these (Acanthus, 1953). You can make a few bad ones as well can’t you?

Anthacus (1953).

Anthacus (1953). Image: Anthony Coleman

WA: Of course you can.

BM: Even if you are Matisse. I’m not saying it’s bad; I don’t think it’s bad. I think it’s wonderful, it’s just not my favourite. Come round here, I’ll show you my favourite (The Snail, 1953) that I used to look at in Tate Britain. For years, it was unbelievable. That’s a killer. I remember when they got that. When was it? The ’60s? It cost £75,000 and it was scandalous.

BY: Same price as a pile of bricks by Carl Andre.

BM: Yeah, well, I like Carl Andre’s pile of bricks.

WA: Matisse was in a wheelchair and had an assistant. If he was on his own doing that, it’d be more difficult.

BM: Yes. The thing about having assistants is that they don’t put it where you would put it. They put it nearly where you would put it. I work with some people who get it right on the button and some who don’t. But sometimes the person that doesn’t get it right on the button gives you that clue, an incident that has occurred. That one bit looks like it goes under the blue and over the green. I think The Snail is one of best works that the Tate have in their collection without any doubt whatsoever and one of the best Matisses ever.

BY: Nicholas Serota says it’s the one thing he would save in a fire.

BM: Oh absolutely, me too. I didn’t know he said that. I totally agree. I remember when I was quite young going to Tate Britain on a Saturday morning and getting a cup of tea and then just looking at this thing for hours. Just looking at it. It does everything doesn’t it, and there’s nothing there. It’s a killer. It’s all the same but it’s all bloody different.

WA: Which was the last bit he put on?

BM: The last bit? I think it would be that orange bit, going into the green. The second orange bit. He put the blue bit on, and the orange bit matching it.

WA: My candidate was the big blue. Bottom left.

BM: I think he put the orange on, then he put the green on and that purple bit. The orange was all done first, round the edge. He made a shape to work within, I think. I don’t know. It’s wonderful. Even his signature is okay. I like that, too (Ivy in Flower, 1953). I’ve never seen that. I don’t recognise having ever seen it in a book. I think it’s terrific. I like the device of these lines he’s put round it. It’s like an art school device and it doesn’t really matter, because he’s done it, so who cares? I don’t care, I think it’s fucking beautiful.

Ivy in Flower (1953). Image: Dallas Museum of Art.

Ivy in Flower (1953). Image: Dallas Museum of Art.

BM: They just look like they were made yesterday; they look like somebody has just done them.

BY: But they are 50 or 60 years old.

BM: The interesting thing to me is that he spent years and years kind of limbering up. There’s some sculpture that we’ll come to in a minute that isn’t limbering up, and I think he’s a better sculptor than a painter. But I think that’s a sculpture, in a way.

WA: Yes.

BM: In a way. Because he made it like a sculpture. He talked about sculpting with scissors. That is a humdinger.

BY: It’s like those reliefs of the back that Matisse did that they used to have at the old Tate.

BM: The Nu de Dos. I did a … what do you call it … a dissertation on them, and I was trying to think the other day why I did it. I think I was fascinated by the fact that it was these backs of four women. It’s just an odd thing to do. Why not the front? My favourite of these is this one over here (Reclining Nude II, 1927).

Room 9 with Blue Nude II (1952), Venus in a Shell I (1930) and Reclining Nude II, (1927). Image: Olivia Hemingway/Tate.

Room 9 with Blue Nude II (1952), Venus in a Shell I (1930) and Reclining Nude II, (1927). Image: Olivia Hemingway/Tate.

BY: He tinkered with sculpture all his life.

BM: I actually think he’s a sculptor. I trained as a sculptor. I’m not comparing myself with Matisse, but I think he is a sculptor. I think sculpture gave him the means to make these drawings, because he’s not thinking as a painter. I think that big snail thing is a sculpture. A flat sculpture.

WA: Yes. Spatially it’s all there. 

BY: You might have to do a new series of paintings, Bruce.

BM: I’m thinking about it, yeah.

BY: And you’ll have to call one ‘A Henry, a Tony, and an Henri ’. (referring to McLean’s paintings that reference Henry Moore and Anthony Caro)

BM: Ah, you’ve been doing your homework.

BM: What do you think of this one, Will? (Large Decoration with Masks, 1953)

‘It falls on the verge of wallpaper’. Alsop in front of Large Decoration with Masks (1953). Image: Anthony Coleman

‘It falls on the verge of wallpaper’. Alsop in front of Large Decoration with Masks (1953). Image: Anthony Coleman

WA: It’s a lot more precise. It’s a lot more symmetrical. It falls on the verge of wallpaper, that’s the problem with that one. Why did he do that?

BM: What, the symmetry? I think he said: ‘I’ll have a bash at something symmetrical.’ This is not the best one. These blue ones are stunning (Woman with Amphora and Pomegranates, 1953). These simple, blue ones.

WA: The woman with the urn is great. You have to be brave to do as little as that.

BM: Couple of apples, a naked lady and big stick.

WA: It’s interesting that it works very well at a small scale. (Cover maquette, 1954)

BM: Oh, I know. And he knew that.

WA: Because that could be 10 feet.

BM: So what date is that? (Matisse’s book Jazz, 1947). 1947? I was three. Just out of my nappies and he was cutting away with his scissors. Imagine having a copy of that book. It would blow your head off. I think it’s the greatest thing of the 20th century. This thing – the book – is the one. He knew it would all end up in a book anyway, so he put it in a book to begin with!

The Lagoon (1946) Maquette for plate XVII of the illustrated book Jazz (1947). Image: Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014.

The Lagoon (1946) Maquette for plate XVII of the illustrated book Jazz (1947). Image: Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014.

WA: There’s a book in the library in Liverpool, on ancient flowers, and it’s very rare. Huge thing, full of botanical drawings, and they turn one page a day. I think it’s a really beautiful idea.

BM: Not a mechanical arm?

WA: No, someone stands under it and pushes it over with a stick.

BY: Keeps you busy. Every page of his Jazz book is here, Will, it’s just all the way around the room.

BM: So he’s just said: I’m just gonna do it and stick it down. But because he’s spent his life looking at this stuff, it’s not just anyone sticking it down, he’s put it all down with such assurance and knowledge of where things might and might not go. It’s high zen. It’s like jazz, or dancing. The timing is absolutely perfect. It’s hard to fart against thunder, as some people might say. It’s inspirational. It’s pretty daring stuff. People forget that, because you can do everything now. Be nice to see a Barnett Newman (the American abstract expressionist) next to one of these.

WA: Better suggest it. Would be good.

BM: The thing that I like about the work, and I like about him is that there’s a lack of preciousness about it. He’s decided to do a book. Or a rug. Or a carpet, or a wall, or a thing for a priest. The whole art thing, there’s a joy about it. ‘Oh, I can make that.’ Why not? It’s no problem. You can make wallpaper, or a bedspread or a dinner jacket. I like that. A lot of the time it’s all very ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’. Will Alsop shouldn’t be making Alessi cups or something, or he shouldn’t be designing a rug for a Primark boss.

Mimosa (1949-51). Image: Anthony Coleman.

Mimosa (1949-51). Image: Anthony Coleman.

BM: What an amazing carpet (Mimosa, 1949-51). Imagine having that in your pad in Monte Carlo.

BY: You wouldn’t want to walk on it.

BM: Of course you would! People get all snotty about doing a carpet.

WA: Have you ever done a carpet?

BM: No, but I’m thinking about doing one. I’ve got the design for one ready. Why, you wanna buy one? You couldn’t afford it. (laughs)

WA: (Laughs) You bitch.


Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Tate Modern, London SE1
Until 7 September


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