LONDON – The subject of major new exhibition at Tate Modern, Henri Matisse’s late découpages are something of a miracle. In 1941, Matisse had an emergency operation on an abdominal tumour, which many people, himself included, thought he would not survive. He prevailed, but was weakened, pained and disabled by the operation, which forced a change in his working methods. Largely unable to stand and paint, he would work from a wheelchair or his bed, and cut from large pieces of paper painted at his direction in gouache. In recovery, he had written to his son Pierre that it was “like being given a second life” and the vigour and energy with which he embraced what he understood all along in his final years is reflected this remarkable exhibition.

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I), 1952. Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas, 106.3 x 78 cm. Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel. Photography by Robert Bayer, Basel © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013.

Matisse’s early experiments with cut paper were relatively modest as shown in the exhibition: the first room pairs Still Life With Shell (1940) with a cut-paper equivalent, which Matisse has used to adjust the composition. Irrespective of his health, Matisse was ready to work with the kind of flatness that the coloured paper provided, as the shell, jugs, apples and cup and saucer in the painting are almost entirely devoid of modelling, sitting on bands of yellow and black which barely describe the table they sit on.

Though he had also begun to experiment with paper collage in his designs for covers for journals, it was in Jazz, his 1943 artist’s book, that the cut-outs gained real force. His original designs, or maquettes, are displayed at Tate Modern alongside the printed versions and the shock of the maquettes’ physicality is notable, reflecting a depth of texture as well as a vibrancy of colour.

Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, 1943-1944. Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013.

Jazz was necessarily on a small scale, but Matisse’s growing confidence and ambition with the découpages prompted a steady expansion, largely because many of the works formed steadily on the walls of his studios, first in Paris and then in Vence in the South of France. A partial reconstruction of one of his Vence arrangements is a thrilling burst of colour and heat, evoking the irresistible light in which they were made.

At the heart of the show are maquettes for his designs for the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, which began with a commission for a stained glass window and ended up becoming Matisse’s magnum opus – “the result of my active life” as he put it. The designs for the windows and the priest’s chasubles reflect a boldness and fluency with his methods and a sense of purity and harmony in the results. And this builds in the procession of rooms that follow to an almost overwhelming crescendo: the two great figurative works of the period, Zulma and Creole Dancer (both 1950) are a scintillating pairing; the famous series of Blue Nudes are placed in inspired dialogue with sculptures from the twenties and thirties; The Snail and Memory of Oceania (1953), originally intended to be part of a single composition, are stirringly reunited.

Henri Matisse, Icarus, 1946. Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947. Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet. Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014.

“I don’t think I have ever found such balance as I have in creating these paper cut-outs,” Matisse wrote. Many have doubted that statement since, but this truly great show confirms that they were the equal of any body of work in his career.

Ben Luke is a regular contributor to several arts publications and is contemporary art critic for the London Evening Standard.

Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Tate Modern
17 April7 September