Henri Matisse was an artist who was born in 1869 and painted in France until his death in 1954. Matisse was a sculptor, a printmaker and a draftsman, but he was known for his paintings. These oil paintings exhibited Matisse’s striking sense of color and his ability to create interesting and fluid shapes. In addition to a wide body of paintings, Matisse also created a specialized form of collage which he coined “cut outs”. Matisse said he was “sculpting with a scissors” when he produced each cut out, showing the artist’s approach to this particular art form.
The cut out began with small pencil drawings that Matisse would do when deciding on various composition possibilities. Then, using large sheets of pre-painted paper that his students would prepare, Matisse would attack these colored papers with his scissors. The cut shapes would be pinned to the walls of Matisse’s studio or dining room, and the artist would move the pieces around until he was satisfied with their position. Finally, the finished product would reveal itself and Matisse allowed the cut pieces to be glued down. All of the cut away paper was saved. In some cut outs, such as in Composition, Violet and Blue, the artist used the saved pieces as negative images of some of the shapes. Others cut off pieces emerged in later works as small squares of color. Nothing was wasted.
Some of his cut outs are small, while others are very large, almost mural like in proportion. Matisse used simple images in repeating patterns and colors in a decorative manner. In The Parakeet and the Mermaid, a larger mural, the shapes are boiled down to their simplest forms, yet these are intriguing and beguiling without being juvenile. The huge size of the piece with its multiple-fingered seaweed makes us feel as though we, too, are below the waters.
When Matisse painted Dance in 1909, it didn’t seem possible to break the human form down to anything more basic. In this painting five naked people are holding hands and dancing with wild abandon to music we can’t hear. The background is plain so that the human forms stand out against it. Yet, in his two Blue Nudes, Matisse showed us that the figure may be even further simplified. Without seeing the details of each of these persons, we know what she is doing and feeling. The most incredible figure cut outs are in The Swimming Pool, a large mural designed to put us, the viewers, right into the pool with everyone else. The cut outs are all blue geometric shapes, forming parts of figures in action with water splashes.
Some cut outs are diving, some are sculling underwater while others are lolling in the pool. This piece has action and emotion…..and it is all done with simple pieces of blue paper on a white background.
Matisse was a diverse artist but in his later years when he could no longer paint the way he wanted, he turned to these cut outs to express himself. I learned from this show, however, that Matisse actually made cut outs throughout his life, using this technique whenever he had a composition problem to solve. It may help us to employ this same technique when we need to resolve composition conflicts in our own works.
In person, these cut outs have a vibrancy and illumination that cannot be translated into reproductions or fully appreciated in books. I urge you to visit the show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Henri Matisse---The Cut Outs will be available for viewing through February 8, 2015.