Thursday 12 March 2015

My Curves are not Mad

Next week Britten Sinfonia premiere a new work by young composer, Tom Coult entitled My Curves are not Mad. Upon notification of the title of the new work and then receiving the programme note for this piece we discovered that Tom had been influenced by Matisse's approach during his 'cut-out' period. Will, Development Director explores this phase in Matisse's output in this article.

Mes courbes ne sont pas folles. My curves are not mad. So wrote Matisse, in his 1947 limited-edition book ‘Jazz’, published at a time of his life when his health was failing. In 1941 he had been diagnosed with cancer, and although it somewhat dampened his spirits, a successful operation unexpectedly gave him a renewed energy although left him requiring a wheelchair.

With his limited mobility Matisse acquired a new assistant, the beautiful Russian Lydia Delectorskaya, and with her help set about creating a new style. Gouaches découpés – cut paper collages with gouache – have come to be seen as some of the defining works of his entire output. Indeed, Matisse would probably agree with this thought; he wrote at the time “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated”.

So, what are these gouaches découpés, Matisse’s cut-out style? Well, Matisse himself referred to it as ‘painting with scissors’. He would cut the shapes out freehand, on prepared paper that had been painted with gouache, and with the help of his assistants would arrange and rearrange their composition until he was satisfied. These cut-outs would then be attached to the wall of his studio, whereupon Matisse would then continue developing their form: adding new cut-outs, moving them around, modifying them. When he was entirely satisfied, they would be transferred to a board or canvas. The walls of his studio would be covered by these cut-outs, and at a time when his mobility was deeply limited, they gave Matisse a way to change and improve his environment. I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk…” he said. “There are leaves, fruits, a bird...”

The finished works were vividly colourful and striking. In ‘Jazz’ Matisse displayed twenty figurative prints, which took inspiration from the improvisatory nature of jazz music. As he began work Matisse used a brush to write little thoughts to himself – ‘My curves are not mad’, for instance – and he was so taken by their simple visual appearance he suggested to his publisher that they be used in the finished book, juxtaposed against each print.

The resulting publication represents a defining part of Matisse’s ‘cut-out’ style, and some of the individual prints, such as ‘The Fall of Icarus’ are recognised the world over. However, the book is but a small part of the overall output of this period. Many other works were created in this style, including the famous ‘Snail’ which now hangs proudly in the Tate Modern, London, and of course the Blue Nudes of the early 1950s. What the book ‘Jazz’ also doesn’t convey is the sheer scale of some of the cut-out works. The ‘Snail’ is a not-inconsiderable nine square metres of riotous form and colour. ‘La Perruche et la Sirène’ (the parakeet and the mermaid) is a spectacular and triumphant 25 square metres. However, for sheer impact, nothing beats the stained-glass windows of the Chapelle de le Rosaire, which Matisse took on as a tribute to one of his nurses during his 1941 illness, who later became a Dominican nun.

As he thought his life was coming to an end in 1941, Matisse found a new sense of purpose, determination and creativity that over the following fourteen years was to ensure his place as one of the 20th century’s most revered artists. His works hang on walls the world over: bold and inescapably colourful. “I have the mastery of it”, Matisse wrote in a letter to his friend André Rouveyre. “I am sure of it”.

Will Harriss
Development Director

You can hear the world premiere of Tom Coult’s new work My Curves are not Mad, inspired by the structure of Matisse’s works, in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden, from 20-22 March 2015. For more information click here.

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