Thirty-five years and many paintings later I am now, in works such as Glide (2013, pictured top), building chequered grounds with colour blocks. This is the first stage of a painting process, and its architecture is another echo of what I love in some of Matisse’s cut-outs.
The last time I saw the tall vertical Snow Flowers I remember not wanting to leave it, feeling mesmerised. It was because of the flux of subtlety and drama; the slow drift of rose into gold in the grid supporting the shapes; a heavy green and a crimson sitting in there too; and the wild white upstanding shapes, all of a family but completely individual, a smaller black one challenging the others, linked tonally with the dark olive.
This chromatic orchestration in and out of pictorial space is inseparable from a literal, collaged layering, as fronds overlap or touch edges, some crisp, some soft. The intricacies of the flat white opaque forms are seen against rectangles of broad directional washes, and this opens up yet another distance. It is a dance through time as well as space, as the eye keeps returning to these never-static relationships. The strangest feeling, as I remember it, was to locate the white shapes locked safely into the colour grid, but to see them also as free and ready to enter our space, our world. Every time I’ve seen it – once in New York, once in Paris, and twice in London at the Royal Academy – I have felt addressed directly, the immediacy of this sensation putting me, and keeping me, firmly and vividly in the present moment, even as I notice the handwriting along the lowest cut edge: ‘Fleurs de Neige Henri Matisse 1951’.
We read Matisse now with hindsight, and it takes effort to imagine him at the early stage of any of his discoveries, trying something out, working through it, beginning to understand. It will be a revelation to see 120 of the cut-outs gathered together for a major show at Tate Modern this spring. We are more used to seeing them in the company of the earlier paintings, or singly, lucky to have the great L’Escargot (1953) in London. But in this show we will be able to concentrate on them as a group, cross-refer them with each other, sift through their variety, recognise their authority.
The conundrum of these masterpieces is that they are decorative without being designs, pictorial without being paintings, heart-stopping in their directness, their economy, their inventiveness. These contradictions might make for strenuous viewing as well as for exhilaration and pleasure, as the compression of a lifetime’s work becomes apparent. It is this I am always moved by, being drawn in to what Matisse was teaching himself, as he took those risks and turnings, taking the rest of us with him.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is at Tate Modern, 17 April – 7 September 2014.
Odelay & Wishpool – Mali Morris and Stephen Lewis: Paintings, Sculpture and Works on Paper is at Kapil Jariwala, 2 May – 28 June 2014.
Matisse: The Chapel at Vence by Marie-Thérèse Pulvenis de Séligny, £60, RA Publications.
Mali Morris RA was elected a Royal Academician in 2010