Hilary Spurling, Somerville alumna, Honorary Fellow of the College and award-winning biographer of Henri Matisse, has been featured in a documentary about the French artist’s later works.

Henri Matisse: A Cut Above The Rest was broadcast on BBC2 on Monday 3 March, and will be available to watch on iPlayer for the next few days. The documentary precedes the opening of the largest ever exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs, executed in the later years of his career, which will be held at Tate Modern in London.

Matisse’s cut-outs (gouaches découpés) phase began during World War Two, and shortly after a dangerous operation. As a result, he began to use a wheelchair.

“Many people would have packed it in and called it a day,” Spurling told the documentary’s presenter, Alastair Sooke. “He was mortally ill. He could no longer do what he’d done all his life. Blow me, Matisse just invents a new art form!”

Hilary Spurling won the Whitbread Award for the second volume of her biography of Henri Matisse in 2006. Spurling has also written books on Ivy Compton-Burnett, Mervyn Peake, Anthony Powell, Sonia Orwell and Ann Stokes. Her most recent book, Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China, was published in 2010; it won her the 2011 James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Spurling commented in the documentary on the competition and understanding that existed between Matisse and Picasso.

“Picasso had understood Matisse long before anybody else – when he first arrived in Paris,” said Spurling. “He knew what he was up against the moment he saw Matisse’s paintings. It was the same in the 1940s, when Picasso would arrive regularly. ‘I know what he wants,’ Matisse would say, ‘he wants to see my cut-outs’. Because nobody had ever done anything like that.”

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