Two years ago when this Opinion feature started, Rob Alderson wrote a piece about the rampant rise of the “must-see” culture; shows which the media’s frenzy makes you feel like you have to go and see. Hands up who found themselves queuing for the Bowie show at the V&A without knowing much more about him than just the chorus to Life on Mars? Me. Who queued bottom-to-crotch in the rain with about 1,000 grumpy pensioners to catch a glimpse of Hockney’s A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy? Also me.
Sometimes though, shows come along that are worth the hassle and Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is one of those. Sure it’s the cost of a pay-day dinner in Soho and the chances of you getting a ticket are pretty slim, but it’s Matisse! Everyone’s talking about it, and this time it’s for good reason.
The show is intimate and friendly, making mac-wearing Henri out to be a cheeky rule-breaker rather than an untouchable, anonymous master which is perhaps the vibe you felt at the Hockney show. Matisse was born in 1869 and it was only in the late 60s that he began making his infamous cut-outs, confined to his bed or wheelchair due to ill-health.
His assistants would hold out the enormous slices of coloured paper which he would quickly carve into bright, wiggly shapes. He would then make the assistants climb on stepladders and stick on to the walls around him to make enormous collages. Sometimes he would sit in his wheelchair and draw all over the walls using a piece of charcoal attached to the end of a long stick.
The exhibition illustrates this side of Matisse’s character brilliantly, and not just through the work itself; the most delicious parts of the show are the films projected on to the walls and the very well-written blurbs on the walls. They describe how Matisse’s collages in the high-ceilinged rooms of his Vence mansion The Villa Le Rêve would flap against the wallpaper when the breeze came in through the high windows. They reveal secrets like Matisse was visually distressed when he had to throw away a cut-out of a bird.
That’s why this show so magical. Every day we are confronted with reports stating that we’re all dying from pollution, bad food, smoking and booze, or that everyone is overweight, or depressed, or both, or more. Going to this show is not just traipsing along to another sensationalist exhibition that Time Out are frothing at the mouth to get you to go and see; it’s testament to the joy of being alive, and of looking at the world appreciatively.
From Matisse in his chair waving his drawing stick around, to his splendid assistants, to Nicholas Serota returning to the Tate to accomplish his lifelong dream, and to those people I saw queueing up outside the Turbine Hall at 9:30am – it’s a joyous celebration of the triumph of creativity and spirit and positive vibes to counteract the negative ones we find ourselves thrown against daily. Surely that’s worth £20 and a queue?