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Matisse: The Urge to Strangle

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T.J. Clark reflects on the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern, on view through September 7, 2014.

Clark writes: "Painting versus decoration… Painting, in Matisse’s case, had always equalled Nature. Certainly confronting Nature – passing it under his fingers – had proved to be delight as much as interrogation: a rustling and smoothing of things into the skein of colour that was painting, so he believed, and that painting had to fight continually to keep in being, up front. But doing so was inseparable from the murderous urge, the mud and flies, the grimace, the exacerbation – ‘the accomplishment of an extremist in an exercise’. ‘He took in front of nature,’ as an early critic had it of Cézanne, ‘the attitude of a question mark.’ Decoration might be a way out. Decoration, surely, would be ambience not ethos. It would provide a surrounding, not a model of the world’s design. It was a mode that expected, and in a sense welcomed, inattentiveness. (The rooms at Tate are friendly to it.) It would be, with its fabulous battery of primitive techniques – saturated high-key colour, repetition, redundancy, vegetable sign-language, evenness enlivened by syncopated quirks of brightness – a ‘sensation delivery system’."

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