white elephant matisse jazz
“The Nightmare of the White Elephant,” from the “Jazz” series (1947)

Is there any artist who used color more brilliantly than Henri Matisse? I’m hard-pressed to think of one, and the current show at London’s Tate Modern, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, the most comprehensive exhibit in a generation of his works created on paper, is a glorious reminder of why.

sword swallower matisse jazz
“The Sword Swallower” from “Jazz”

Mostly produced after the great master became debilitated by illness in the 1940s, the energy of the pieces belie his deteriorating physical health, and forged a new medium of expression resplendent in the vigor of the painter’s late-phase creativity. “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated,” he once said. As the exhibition’s curator recently told London’s Independent, “The cut-outs are a dazzling final chapter and the crowning achievement of an already extraordinary career.”

One of the rooms is dedicated to perhaps the most famous of the Matisse paper projects, the luminous Jazz portfolio from 1947, whose remarkable colors remain imprinted on the soul, beautifully rendered in the book (which no art lover should be without) of the same name, along with the artist’s longhand notes in French, and from which two pieces are shown here. Their freshness and vibrancy are not only ageless, but life-affirming.

“Cutting into color reminds me of the sculptor’s direct carving,” Matisse (shown at work on one of his paper creations in his studio, right) said of the technique thatmatisse at work consumed him in later years. With his simple instruments of paper, scissors, and glue, he also managed to carve yet another indelible mark on 20th-Century art.

[Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs runs through September 7 at the Tate Modern in London; the exhibition will debut at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on October 12.]