The masterpiece that changed history

His shift from canvas painting to using pre-painted paper cutouts in The Dance II profoundly influenced generations of contemporary artists from Romare Bearden to Robert Motherwell and Pfaff. Ultimately, the exhibition proves Matisse lived up to his own famous words: “An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation or prisoner of success.”

When Ai Weiwei was detained by Chinese authorities for nearly three months in 2011, he had no way to create art, he says. Instead, he challenged his mind to understand the people who imprisoned him and the system they worked under, he tells BBC Culture. “Imprisonment for me is a special training for a language, a new way to speak instead of what is commonly understood as a deprivation of freedom.”

Ai worked through the challenge to come out with a new strength and perception of how to be creative, going on to make some of his most engaging, culturally challenging work from 2012 onwards. “The kind of freedom I obtained there was something I could not have [developed] if I hadn’t been imprisoned in the first place,” he says.

Like Ai Weiwei, by working through creating The Dance II, Matisse broke through the quarantine of his own mind to come out the other end with a revolutionary new style of creative expression. His new focus, strictly on simple lines and bold colours, represents a complete departure from realism, speaking to his and his viewers’ emotions rather than just intellect. The invention of cut outs resulted from a profound creative process that went on to influence artists and enchant audiences into the next century.

Matisse in the 1930s is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until 29 January, at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris from 27 February to 29 May and at the Musée Matisse, Nice from 23 June until 24 September.

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