Saturday 21 June 2014

My Mini Matisse

 Henri Matisse The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern is such an exciting exhibition and I've become rather an evangelist for its vibrant charms for children of all ages. For babies it is bright, vast, colourful and full of contrasts. For toddlers it is bold, dynamic and memorable; a catalyst for creativity. For older children it serves as a mine of inspiration. Youngsters, in particular those who still struggle to etch complex images and, like Culturebaby, get frustrated that their drawings don't yet look on paper as they intend, can perhaps see in the aged Matisse a kindred spirit who distilled shapes down to their simplest form to create something wonderful. They too can use ready-made cut-outs to create an exciting artistic composition or, for the slightly older tots, take a pair of scissors and use them to 'draw' simple shapes.

I adore some of Matisse's paintings from earlier periods in his life too, but Tate's exhibition focuses on Henri's inspired 17 twilight years, when he was recovering from cancer, was often too sick to hold a paintbrush and had to work sitting down. Matisse had his assistants paint large sheets of paper in a wide range of colours, he cut them into shapes and then had them arrange these on his studio walls. He cut and arranged and re-worked these until he had his perfect composition. Matisse believed with his cut-outs that he was anticipating the future and he himself said "it seems to me that I am in a second life". He thought that he had never achieved before such balance in his work and said he was deeply contented and, though bed ridden at times, he surrounded himself with a bright paper "garden" of his own creation. Many critics also believe that this was his most important phase and his cut-outs the highlight of his career.

I've recently been harbouring a mild addiction to free online courses. My inner boffin leapt for joy when I realised I could simultaneously study Warhol, Ancient Nubia and Earth Science in my PJs, whilst feeding Culturetot. In bed. The mischievous instigator was an incredibly helpful course put on by the Museum of Modern Art in New York designed to help educators use the enquiry method in their teaching - essentially getting children to deduce and work out answers for themselves with a peppering of prompts, rather than loading them with a lot of information up front. This has been so useful in thinking about how to engage Culturebaby with art in an interesting way for her and devising tactile and sensory means to achieve this. My study buddy and I used the opportunity of the (then) upcoming Matisse blockbuster to design - in advance - some activities to bring the experience alive for our 6, 3, 2 and 5 month year old rabble. We created a pack of activities for each of the older three and it really helped focus their attention on the exhibition.

 Before I dive into detail of these activities it is worth noting that amongst our happy little band, five month old Culturetot was as delighted as any of us. This exhibition reminded me of visiting Kusama and Hirst with Culturebaby two years ago when she bounced in her carrier, babbled happily and visibly adored the colourful and dynamic artworks. Back then I believed that it was never too early to introduce tiny tots to art and Matisse renewed my conviction. There's a danger with a second child that they come along for the ride as you continually engage with your vibrant toddler. Their experience is inevitably different from the relaxed earth-motherish days of a single baby when you could meander through galleries and talk about the art (though of course it never felt like this at the time). These days I need a permanent stock of stickers, a timeturner and running shoes. It is therefore always a joy to be reminded that the chilled-out second child is also a little sponge, with her own preferences, joining in, taking in all the action and delighting in her own first experiences. Culturetot really concentrated on the cut-outs, expressing preferences as she strained her neck to return her gaze to favourites that she had been prematurely extricated from. In particular she loved the luminous stained glass in the final room. With its bold, colourful and simple images, this would be a perfect first exhibition for any baby.

For our older art explorers, we had a number of tasks at the ready. I always find that if I can engage Culturebaby in tactile and sensory ways with artworks, get her to work on something simple herself, read her relevant stories and provide opportunities for movement and imaginative play, it is astounding what she remembers and how well she can concentrate. Of course not everything always works, not all days are as successful and not all activities suit every child, so we ensured that a range was available for our visit.

On a number of occasions Culturebaby and I have 'danced' the wonderful book Matisse Dance for Joy by Susan Goldman Rubin. This inspired little boardbook has been a favourite for a while, particularly given Culturebaby's penchant for ballet. It takes a number of Matisse's cutouts which involve dance and movement, and provides a simple text which directs the reader to recreate the movements and join in. It brings the images alive and gives a sense of the dynamism and energy of Henri's works, which were very much inspired by his love for music (he was a keen violinist) and dance. We re-read it on the train and over lunch with the children. We also gave each child a few colouring sheets in the cafe that my creative friend had produced featuring a simple line tracing of the Blue Nude II. They were each shown the original and were invited to copy it, or create their own version in one or more colours - with a range of results from each of them.

We then went into the exhibition, armed with the little book Dance for Joy. This was a doubly wonderful find as most of the works used within it featured in the exhibition. The children were tasked with using the simple book to hunt for the corresponding picture throughout the gallery. This was a really sucessful activity and Culturebaby and pals collaborated with excitement and summoned us with pride to a number of works they had located in their picture book. On our second, swifter, visit to the exhibition a couple of weeks later, Culturebaby and I repeated this activity and I was amazed at how well she had remembered it. She led me to certain works and flicked through her book until she located the appropriate page.

We moved through the exhibition locating works from the book, talking about the ones the children liked the best and why, and trying to recreate some of the contorted positions Matisse's cut-out figures were striking on the gallery walls. It was particularly good to show the children the films of Matisse working with his scissors. These images of the artist in action were both gripping and served as inspiration for future cutting work for them. Towards the end of the exhibition we reached La Gerbe (The Sheaf), Matisse's vibrant foliage creation where we offered each child a felt pack I had created with a white background and the right numbers of coloured leaves. They were asked whether they wanted to copy the original or create their own. The children set to work, and even Culturebaby immediately grasped the task in hand. The two younger children made rough versions of their own, which each resembled Matisse's original, but it was really interesting to see the scientifically minded six year old painstakingly recreate the original. Despite risking the cutting-out equivalent of tennis elbow after producing the third pack of these (I can see why Matisse saw this activity as a good workout for his hands) this busy-bag was so simple to produce and successful in practice. We could use it in the gallery as it didn't involve pens and can be used again and again.

We'd really recommend the creation of a pack of these before your visit and in fact here's two other foam versions created by friends inspired by our original. Aren't they wonderful?

Following the exhibition we set up a final activity in the auditorium foyer on the ground floor. This quiet area was a perfect place for the children to concentrate and create. My friend had produced a brilliant little activity for them that was again simple to make and worked so well. They were each presented with a glue stick, several sheets of coloured paper to tear and a set of instructions - complete with laminated images of Matisse's snail and a photograph of a real snail. Following a little demonstration our mini Matisses were invited to make their own version and were also encouraged to create any other animal or images they wished. The children were quite tired by this point but this actually served to focus their energies and they each worked for a surprisingly long time on their (multiple) creations. This proved the best activity for Culturebaby who REALLY enjoyed working on several versions of the snail. We then settled down to read Dick Bruna's Miffy at the Gallery and Miffy the Artist (reviewed below) before we left for the day.

 Finally we invited the children to select postcards of their favourite works and in the following days we each created our own shoebox galleries for their toys to visit. I had seen this idea on the internet and it was a fantastic way to discuss and recreate our visit and look at the art again. Peppa Pig and a host of other characters travelled by train to the Tate, viewed the exhibition and even stopped for a spot of lunch in the cafe. Culturebaby played with her shoebox for several days, and since then we have created and visited every possible sort of museum in the same manner (I shall blog about some of these another day).


There are some brilliant books out there for children about or inspired by Matisse, and these are not only wonderful for preparation for a visit, but also for use during and for follow-up activities. Here's a selection of ten for a whole range of ages:

1. Matisse Dance for Joy by Susan Goldman Rubin is the book we used for our gallery I-spy. Suitable and wonderful for dancing along to from a few months old this is simply one of the best first art books for babies and toddlers I have found. It worked brilliantly with the Tate exhibition and is worth buying in advance. and 3. Miffy the Artist and Miffy at the Gallery by Dick Bruna - I have written about these books more extensively in this post here. These brilliant little classic story books by the iconic illustrator Dick Bruna, who took inspiration from Matisse's bold use of colour in art, feature a visit by the endearing little bunny with her parents to a modern art gallery and serve as a brilliant introduction for any toddler doing the same. They cleverly introduce easier concepts of both figurative art and sculpture, but also surrealism, collage and use of mobiles. They even contain a bunny ears version of Matisse's La Gerbe. Miffy becomes an amateur art appreciator and critic, and in turn is inspired to go home and try painting for herself in Miffy the Artist, a clever follow-up book produced by Tate and Dick Bruna that majors on the inspiration art galleries can give to a toddler for their own creativity. These are two of our top books we'd recommend as first stories about art for young children.
4. Again for the very young, Julie Merberg's A Magical Day with Matisse is part of the clever Mini Masters Board Book Series. We have covered another from this series here. With small sturdy pages and a selection of Matisse's paintings (NB from his earlier periods) this book is a lovely intro to the artist for the very young. There are mixed reviews of the text of these books (some think the language could be better), but I think the book (and series) are a great idea and the rhymes help the book flow. I would really recommend them as sturdy first art books for toddlers.

5.  In the Tate shop we picked up a stunningly illustrated and beautifully written story about Matisse's life Henri's Scissors by Jeanette Winter that is perfect from age two upwards. Culturebaby really enjoys it and it has been read and re-read since our visit. The sumptuous and colourful images, peppered with the odd quotation from the master himself, detail the inspiration for Matisse's art as a younger man, but focus in particular on his cut-out phase, explaining why his disability caused a change in his technique, but demonstrating how happy his new art made him. The book includes illustrated versions of a number of Matisse's iconic works and the text is simple but highly imaginative. It also contains one of the most beautiful descriptions of death possible for a child in how it imagines Matisse's peaceful passing. For this alone, aside from all its other merits, this is a valuable addition to a child's story shelves.

Meet Matisse6. I'm rather in love with Tate Publishing's Meet Matisse by the clever french illustrator Jean Vincent Senac and I cannot wait for Culturebaby to be old enough to appreciate this brilliant little book. The author begins by conjuring up a dream set in Matisse's studio where the room is filled with bright and beautiful things and Henri's cut-outs come alive. And then there is Matisse himself, inviting the reader to join him in creating some cut-outs too. Using well chosen quotes from the artist himself, Senac turns Matisse into a tutor who walks us through his tips on how to create a composition, the importance of harmony in arrangement and repetition to fully understand the subject, and the beauty of simplicity - where the viewer is left with the space to dream. He then initiates us into the methods he used to chose colours and the crucial importance of these selections in the atmosphere they create. "A single tone is just a colour; two tones are a chord, that's life". He then encourages us to cut, to follow feelings and to cut in a different way depending on each colour. The subject matters less than the composition, the background selection is crucial. He encourages us not to be afraid of being original. This book is an ingenious blend of exhortation and practical instruction. You emerge feeling as if you know the artist better and utterly inspired to create. It is rare such a little book leaves me feeling elated. This did. I'd recommend this from a bright mid-primary up to the oldest age!

7. I now have a trio of activity books to recommend. The first is Prestel's newly published and beautifully produced Cut-Out Fun with Matisse by Hollein, complete with a good selection of reproduced works and photographs of the artist. Coming with the high praise from the six year old, who read it cover to cover on the train home, the book begins with an imagined scene with Matisse cutting, arranging, creating. Snip snip, snippety snip. Every possible shape you can imagine. Then before Henri's very eyes his shapes come alive. The blue nude begins to dance, others join in. This scene is then followed by others. Henri realises the answers to his dreams lie in his hands. He can create his own tropical retreat, grow his own paper garden, fill his own oceans with life. He discovers what it is to see the world through the eyes of a child and realises what a wonderful tool scissors are. Then in the second part of the book, the reader is presented with several sheets of beautiful glossy paper, a number of ideas and invited to start snipping... As readers will know, I love Prestel's colouring book series and Henri Matisse Colouring Book by Annette Roeder is no exception. As always these books contain activities simple enough for a two year old, through to complicated tasks suitable for much older children. Peppered with interesting facts about the artist, the child is encouraged to re-tell the myth of Icarus, complete partial works in their own way, draw themes from their imagination, colour in line drawings, and of course create their own cut-outs using coloured paper provided. These books are a brilliant resource that can last through childhood.

My Cut-Out Pictures9. Tate Publishing has also re-produced a cool retro book for children from 1931 in time for this exhibition. Designed by Nathalie Parain for young children My Cut-Out Pictures, created with Pere Castor, is addressed to the child, inviting them to use the coloured paper provided in the middle of the book to cut, stick and replicate the simple bright illustrations throughout the book. Creativity is encouraged and the child is told that soon they will not need patterns and will be able to make their own creations. The original designer of the book was trained in Russian Constructivist practices and was part of an artistic and educational circle which advocated 'do it yourself' and her book is intended to encourage children to also develop this important skill in order to boost their creativity. The book is extremely cool, retro and generally scrumptious - while its ideals are as important as ever.

10. Finally, Henri Matisse Drawing with Scissors by Keesia Johnson and Jane O'Connor, and illustrated by Jessie Hartland, is an excellent introduction to the artist for slightly older children (6 or 7 upwards). Written in the style of a school project, the author explores facts that a child would find interesting about Matisse's life. Cute illustrations accompany photographs and original works 'stuck in'. The accompanying text is very informative, simply written and easy to follow. This would be a great read prior to the exhibition for primary and early secondary school children.

Olivier  Berggruen - Henri Matisse: Drawing with ScissorsIn addition to this selection it is always useful to have some good, large source books available to share with children and to research works in advance of discussing them. Two particularly good ones on the cut outs are the stunning exhibition guide from Tate Henri Matisse The Cut-Outs. This exhaustive volume is brimming with full colour reproductions, photographs and expert essays. Prestel's wonderful art publishing department has also produced a gorgeous guide to this period of Matisse's career Henri Matisse Drawing With Scissors; Masterpieces from the Late Years. In addition to a wide range of images, I really like how this book looks at other artists who have taken inspiration from Matisse from Ellsworth Kelly to Andy Warhol.

"Colour is a liberation."
"Do not be afraid of being banal. If you have originality it will come out."
 Henri Matisse

 Disclaimer: We received copies of the three Prestel books and the three Tate Publishing children's books for review purposes. Miffy at the Gallery was received and reviewed a while ago as part of Miffy Uk's recent re-launch. We own all the others. All views are as always entirely my own.


  1. I love the art appreciation. I think we have a lot in common ;).

  2. Crystal do you have a blog? I'd love to take a look.


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