The pressure on the directors of our national galleries to put on headline grabbing exhibitions has never been more acute, not least because publicity brings in the punters and they bring with them a commodity in almost as limited supply as great art: cash.
Yet planning must-see exhibitions comes up against the law of diminishing returns. Box office artists have been done to death by the world’s leading galleries and no amount of curatorial brilliance can turn a non-box office artist into a sensation.

The usual trick is to look at a specific aspect of a great artist career, or more often to look at the impact that a great artist has had on lesser artists. It rarely works, as the art-loving public can generally sense when a barrel is being scraped.

Full marks, therefore, to Tate Modern’s Nicholas Serota and Nicholas Cullinan for co-producing an exhibition that in retrospect leaves one scratching one’s head as to why no one did it before.

Matisse: The Cut Outs achieves the rarest feat of not only rearranging the works a great artist in a new way, but in actually revealing that works regarded by many art experts as thrown off in his dotage are in fact the stuff that constitutes his best work.

The last time Tate Modern hosted Matisse – a joint exhibition with Picasso in 2002 – it drew a record 500,000 visitors. This show, on word of mouth alone, will comfortably exceed that.

It is wonderful exhibition, beautifully balanced and arranged, which explores the final chapter in the career of Henri Matisse when he began ‘carving into colour’ and this series of spectacular paper cut-outs was born.

The cutting of paper into shapes to create art has a long history, but has always been regarded as an oddity in the art world,being neither painting nor sculpture. What this simply brilliant exhibition reveals is that cutting paper can transcend its own medium in the same way that paint can.

It also reveals that while Matisse might be one of the world’s great painters, he is, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest cutter of paper who ever drew breath

The exhibition represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of the artist’s works in one place and to simply revel in the artist’s final artistic triumph.

In his late sixties, when ill health first prevented him from painting, he began to cut into painted paper with scissors to make drafts for a number of commissions. In time, Matisse chose cut-outs over painting: he had essentially re-invented a new medium.

As he became more frail he made more cut outs, using shears and having his assistants place the pieces to his directions. The largeness of some exhibits is, one suspects, a consequence of failing eyesight.

matisseIt is the scale and sheer physicality of the work which suspends the viewer’s belief. The soaring ambition of images which appear not so much to have been cut out of paper but wrenched violently. The result is three-dimensional, complete with tears and errors. Oh and did I mention the size – 50 square feet for even medium-sized works.

From swooping birds to seagulls, from snowflowers to dancers, circus scenes and a famous snail, the exhibition showcases a dazzling array of 125 works made between 1936 and 1954.

It has taken some putting together. The star exhibits – a meaningless phrase as everything is stunning – are four blue nudes made in 1952. The works – two from the Pompidou, one from the Matisse Museum in Nice and one from the Beyeler Foundation in Basel – have been displayed together only a handful of times, and never in the UK.

Tate’s The Snail 1953 is also shown alongside its sister work Memory of Oceania 1953 and Large Composition with Masks 1953 (ten metres long); the first time they have been shown together.

The impact on entering is immediate and long-lasting, a tribute to the artist’s innate understanding of colour and composition. Even the way the cutouts are placed on the backing paper show a balance and harmony that only genius or a child can achieve.

Bold and exuberant and yet child-like, the cut-outs carry within them the promise of life and joyful hope and at the time a strange sadness that the man who could create such magical illusion was at the end of his life. It is art that appeals to the old and young and all those in between: universal art.

The reviews, rightly, have been hugely positive, but Cullinan perhaps got closest to the real point when he said: “I think Matisse thought of the cut-outs in a way as a synthesis of everything he’d been trying to work through in his life, resolving issues of colour, line, contour, painting, drawing, sculpting.”.

Matisse is undoubtedly a great artist and at the Tate Modern for the next few months you can see his greatest work.

Matisse: The Cut Outs runs until September 7th