Matisse's 'Backs' at the Tate

(Photo by Ruth Calvo.)

A dramatic work I encountered in the Tate Gallery, London, England, ‘Backs’ stands starkly confronting the viewer with the beauty of  a human body.  The work took place over many years, and is often presented in traveling exhibits.

These four monolithic female figures, made at intervals between 1909 and 1930, remained virtually invisible almost to the end of the artist’s long life. He showed Back I at the two notorious exhibitions that first made modern art a sensation before the first world war: the second PostImpressionist show in London, and the Armory show in New York. Otherwise, none of the Backs was seen again in public until after the second world war (by which time Back II had gone missing, resurfacing only after its creator’s death in 1954). Their secret history is as hard to explain as their strange, powerful, mesmeric presence.

Why Matisse made the Backs – what inner desire or compulsion drew him to them again and again over two decades at the height of his powers as an artist – remains one of the central mysteries of his life and work. “If you let yourself respond fully to them,” Gérard Matisse said to me soon after I began writing his grandfather’s biography, “you will find in them the whole life of Henri Matisse: an extraordinary equilibrium, returning always to the plumbline.”


There are many different methods Matisse chose to express his sense of beauty, but this one is a favorite of mine.  His last years were spent disabled from full use of his hands, so he reverted to cut-outs that he had known in youth.   They are wonderful, and I love them too.

Fortunately, for a time Matisse was fully enabled to create major works that we can treasure now more fully than the more simplistic expressions.