LONDON (Reuters) - Ageing painters sometimes repeat the same image over and over, relying on their fame and signature to turn a buck. Henri Matisse, who died in 1954 aged 84, instead created boldly coloured paper cutouts that made even Picasso jealous.
"Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs", which opens at Tate Modern in London in April, and afterwards goes to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, assembles some 120 of Matisse's fragile but striking cutouts, more than have ever been presented in one place. They ranging in size from miniatures to works that cover an entire wall.
"It is quite simply the most important exhibition of this phase of Matisse's work that has ever been staged and, I think, will ever be staged," Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, told a news conference on Friday.
Previous retrospectives in the 1970s in Detroit and about a decade ago in Frankfurt brought together about 60 of the cutouts, which became the "Fauvist" painter's favourite medium in his old age.
The new show include nudes, mock-ups of stained glass windows for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France, circus scenes and a set of studies for a book that was eventually called "Jazz". Many are made entirely of pieces of paper, sometimes mounted on another sheet of paper and then on canvas.
The show will include the largest number of Matisse's "Blue Nudes" ever assembled, including the most significant of the series, the "Blue Nude I" of 1952, on loan from the Beyeler Foundation in Basel.
"I think it will be one of most beautiful shows we've ever been able to present at Tate Modern. It will be a compelling show, a very evocative show," Serota said, noting the presence of a significant number of works from private collections and from other museums that rarely lend their Matisse cut-outs.
He said the show's five-month London run was likely to attract a quarter of a million visitors to the museum, housed in a disused riverside power station.
Matisse, who rose to fame as a leader of the "Fauvist" painters, known for their bold use of colours and form, was confined to a wheelchair for the latter part of his life.
He gradually gave up painting, but began using cutouts long before that, said Nicholas Cullinan, a former Tate curator who worked on the exhibition for four years before moving last year to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
As early as the mid-1930s, Matisse used cutout paper to design the cover of an art journal because the lithography process employed the same dyes as the paper, ensuring a perfect match. He began using the technique for other works and, when Pablo Picasso visited him at his studio in Nice, he was jealous, Cullinan said.
"This is a rather incredible thing for an artist at the end of their career - to invent not just a new style but essentially a whole new medium that's their own," he said.
"I think most people would now rank these works among the great late works of any artist."
The exhibition will run at Tate Modern from April 17 until September 7.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)