January 18, 2015

The Colorful Cut-Outs of Henri Matisse

If you were asked to choose the most important artists of the early twentieth century, those who took the new century by storm and turned traditional thinking on its ear, who would they be?  Picasso probably, Duchamp definitely, and there is a very good possibility that Matisse would round out the triumvirate of Modernist movers and shakers.

Indeed, it was Henri Matisse (1869-1954) who rocked the art world in 1904 with his brilliantly colored canvases that had nothing to do with nature but everything to do with emotion and as such earned him and his cohorts the nickname Fauves, or "wild beasts".  While Matisse's outrageous palette may have toned down slightly after that initial explosion, he maintained a passion for pigment throughout his career.

Henri Matisse "The Dance I", 1909

By the 1930s and 40s, Matisse shifted his focus from large scale paintings to the more intimate mediums of prints and illustrated books.  This was the initial transition from brush and oil paint to scissors and colored paper, the technique that dominated the final stage of his life's work and the subject of a major exhibition now in its last weeks at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"Henri Matisse:  The Cut-Outs" is the wildly popular continuation of a show that began at the Tate Modern in London last April.  Obviously, this is not a retrospective of Matisse's impressive career, but a comprehensive look at the last, and arguably most important, period of his artistic life.  Confined to a wheelchair, the master could no longer manage an easel and canvas and so indulged his obsession with color by developing an entirely new way of drawing - using scissors to create forms that he directed his assistants to pin to the wall.  These forms, cut from vibrantly hued paper, were layered to create texture and arranged in a composition of color and form.  Once the perfect formation had been achieved, the result was fixed by either gluing the pieces of paper to a backing, or re-creating it as a print, stained glass window or mural.

"The Swimming Pool" installed in Matisse's Dining Room, Nice, 1953

Close up of a panel from "The Swimming Pool"
Gouache painted cut-outs mounted on white paper mounted on burlap

Matisse became obsessed with his discovery, indeed Picasso referred to him as a "crafty as a monkey" and seemed almost jealous of this new-fangled means of expression.  Before long the "cut-outs" expanded from modestly sized creations to much larger scaled projects for murals ("The Parakeet and the Mermaid", 1952), entire rooms ("The Swimming Pool", 1952) or the complete Chapel of the Rosary in Vence.  It was almost as if the more physically confined Matisse became, the more he assumed control over his situation by creating entire environments in which to live.

"The Parakeet and the Mermaid"

When Matisse died of a heart attack in 1954 he was at the height of his creative powers.  His invented method of cut-outs had afforded him a unique perspective on color and form that, judging from the thousands of visitors flocking to catch the last few days of this exhibition, resonates to this day.

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