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Veggie vocab

Helen Charman looks at how Matisse's blocks of intense colour holding plant motifs create a 'pictorial language' in his evocation of the luxuriant vegetation that inspired this cut-out work

Matisse's famous cut-outs were made after 1941, when ill-health confined him to bed. They were made by cutting or tearing shapes from paper which had been painted with gouache. The shapes were placed and pasted down by an assistant working under Matisse's instruction. "The cut-out is what I have now found the simplest and most direct way to express myself. One must study an object a long time to know what its sign is," said the artist.

"Vegetation", which can be seen in the "Matisse Picasso" exhibition at Tate Modern, London, was made in 1951 and is one of Henri Matisse's monumental final works in which luscious organic shapes and forms multiply across the painting's surface. He uses the colourful plant and vegetable motifs to show how an object can be stripped down to its essential form. The shapes in "Vegetation" are partly abstracted, but remain evocative of those objects they represent in the real world. The array of different types of vegetation have been carefully placed on background squares and rectangles of contrasting colour.

This work reveals Matisse's primary concerns with colour and with the overall surface of the work. Matisse described his response to colour in startling physical terms: "Colours win you over more and more. A certain blue enters your soul. A certain red has an effect on your blood pressure. A certain colour tones you up. It's the concentration of timbres."

In "Vegetation" Matisse has used two pairs of complementary colours, redgreen and purpleyellow. These colours exchange places and oppose each other to create a bold chromatic effect. In 1951 Matisse said that the paper cut-out allowed him to "draw in colour".

"It is for me a matter of simplification," he said. "Instead of drawing the contour and filling in the colour - one modifying the other - I draw directly into colour, which is all the more controlled in that it is not transposed."

The vegetation is represented as series of motifs or signs rather than realistically, and the work is compartmentalised to enclose a simple pictorial language of motifs reduced to a simplified vocabulary of orbs, ovums and palm-leaf shapes. These shapes, when read in relation to each other, are suggestive of the fecundity of nature. The work plays down its representational function and asserts its physical components. It becomes an object in its own right, with the pictorial language of the vegetable motifs referring to each other as much as to real vegetables. This is characteristic of the visual language employed by modern art, which defines an object like no other; one that relates to the real world but nevertheless remains separate from it, an autonomous object.

The forms in this work are not geometric shapes, and they are not made with a stencil. Matisse was a virtuoso with the scissors: the variations in form of the repeated shapes and the delicate unevenness and sinuosity of edge demonstrate how he was able to "draw directly into colour". He likened cutting into colour to a sculptor's direct carving, and had expanses of paper brilliantly coloured in gouache before cutting into them. There is a story that to his delight his doctor insisted that he wear dark glasses to go into the room where they hung.

Once cut out, the resulting shapes could be changed and moved before finally being fixed to a support. In some of Matisse's cut-outs (for example "The Snail" in the LandscapeMatterEnvironment display at Tate Modern) it is possible to see tiny pin-points at the edges of the shapes, attesting to the process of moving them around before settling on a final arrangement.

Links to other works at Tate Modern In the current exhibition, "Woman" by Pablo Picasso, 1961, can be seen as a response in three dimensions to Matisse's cut-outs, in particular to Matisse's figurative cut-outs such as "Zulma" of 1950, also in the exhibition.

In Tate Modern's LandscapeMatterEnvironment Collection Display, "The Snail" by Matisse, 1953, is perhaps the most famous of his cut-out works - the concentric arrangement of coloured shapes echoes the spiral pattern of a snail's shell.

Matisse Picasso is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 until August 18.Teachers need to book visits in advance through Tate Ticketing Services, tel: 020 7887 8888. Student concession: pound;4 per head.

Helen Charman is education officer at Tate Modern

HENRI MATISSE 1869 - 1954

Often regarded as the most important French painter of the 20th century, Henri Matisse founded the Fauvist (wild beast) movement around 1900 and was in love with colour throughout his life. When he was young, his bold, sensuous shapes bridged figurative and abstract painting; when old and bedridden he pioneered cut-outs.

LESSON IDEAS

Primary

Collage series - variation on a theme

Begin by making drawings from organic forms (for example plants, fruit). Spend some time examining the forms before drawing them. What do the forms tell us about their function? Can complicated forms be understood in terms of more simple shapes?

From the drawings try to extract and emphasise the essential forms of the plant or fruit. A simple way of achieving this is by trying to copy the forms by tearing or cutting coloured gummed paper. In sketchbooks, take these shapes through a series of formal changes. For example, what differences are produced when the shapes are torn rather than cut? Experiment with creating organic and geometric forms, inverting colours and working with positive and negative space. Use ideas from the sketchbooks to produce a collaborative painting with a banner format.

Simple and complex

Make a vocabulary of simple shapes (organic and geometric) using cut-outs from coloured card. Ask pupils to make temporary "drawings" of complex shapes (the figure, an elaborate still life and so on) by combining these simple cut-out forms.

Secondary

Making things difficult

Matisse was fascinated by issues of control and expression and explored a variety of ways of focusing his attention. Encourage students to explore the following: draw organic forms on a large scale by attaching charcoal to the end of a length of bamboo cane, drawing directly on to the large sheets of paper placed on the floor. Draw organic forms using your left hand if you're right-handed (or vice versa). Close your eyes or use a blindfold and make a drawing using only your sense of touch. Try not to lift your pencil or charcoal from the paper until your drawing is finished.

Digitaldrawing series

Starting from an original photograph or drawing of an organic form make a series where you progressively simplify the form, paring it down to its essentials. At which point does it become unrecognisable?

The above is an edited excerpt from the MatissePicasso Poster Pack by Helen Charman, Michaela Ross and Gillian Wilson on sale in the Tate Shop price pound;9.99. The pack can be used to plan a visit to the exhibition or as a stimulus for classroom discussion. It contains four posters:

"Vegetation" and "Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground' by Matisse and "Guitar" and "Three Dancers" by Picasso. Each poster includes:

* suggestions for approaches to looking at the work

* discussion points

* primary and secondary classroom activities

* images of related works in the exhibition and in Collection Displays at Tate Modern.

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