“Only what I created after my illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.”
—Henri Matisse (1869–1954) his assessment of his career after undergoing cancer surgery
Matisse was diagnosed with cancer in 1941. Following his surgery, he used a wheelchair; but during this period Matisse’s extraordinary creativity resurfaced, stronger than ever. He called this “une seconde vie”, a second life; it spanned his last 14 years. With the help of his Russian-born assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya and others, Matisse began making his cut-outs. He used brightly painted paper, cut into shapes as his primary medium; and scissors were his chief tool. These lush and colorful works would go on to become the most admired of Matisse’s career.
Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs.” Accessible from October 12, 2014 to February 10, 2015, this is yet another blockbuster exhibition. I strongly urge fans of Matisse’s work and fans of art in general to brave the crowds, and there are great crowds, to see this sublime and extensive collection of 130 works of art. There are timed entry tickets for the exhibit. Despite the size of the collection and the crowd it took us about an hour to tour the show.
In 1947 Matisse published Jazz. It was a limited-edition book, which contained prints of colorful paper cut collages, accompanied by his thoughts, written in longhand. There were 250 copies made of Jazz. The fighting of the Second World War raged around Matisse as he worked on Jazz through the bitterly cold winter of 1943, when food shortages were common in Vence, in the South of France. He may have seen RAF bombers pass over Vence, flying towards Nice. The sky blazed brightly one night after the RAF bombed the gasworks in Cannes. His son Jean had barely evaded a round-up by the Gestapo of French Resistance fighters on the Cote d’Azur; and his daughter Marguerite had escaped from the train that was taking her to a German concentration camp; his former wife Amelie was also imprisoned by the Gestapo after Marguerite’s detention.
“Matisse had cut out a swallow from a sheet of writing paper and, as it distressed him to tear up this beautiful shape and throw it away…he put it up on his wall, also using it to cover up a stain the sight of which disturbed him. Over the following weeks other shapes were cut out and put up on the same wall.”
— Lydia Delectorskaya (1910–1990) recalls how Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea began
Taking inspiration from his 1930 visit to Tahiti and the South Pacific, where he passed several months, Matisse transformed the walls of his bedroom in his Parisian apartment on Boulevard Montparnasse into Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea. In 1946 this became the first of his large-scale compositions using the cut-outs. Matisse arranged and rearranged the elements of the work many times on his walls before the London-based textile manufacturer Zika Ascher silkscreened the design onto beige-colored fabric like that on the bedroom walls, ultimately producing 30 examples.
“I am cutting out all these elements and putting them up on the walls temporarily. I don’t know yet what I’ll come up with. Perhaps panels, wall hangings.”
—Henri Matisse, without clear intentions for what became Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea
“From the first, the enchantments of the sky there, the sea, the fish and the coral in the lagoons, plunged me into the inaction of total ecstasy. The local tones of things hadn’t changed, but their effect in the light of the Pacific gave me the same feeling as I had when I looked into a large golden chalice. With my eyes open I absorbed everything as a sponge absorbs liquid. It is only now that these wonders have returned to me, with tenderness and clarity, and have permitted me, with protracted pleasure, to execute these two panels.”
—Henri Matisse, remembering his first impressions of Tahiti and the South Pacific
Creole Dancer gave me a good laugh! Forming the woman’s head from what looks like a pineapple is hysterical, appropriate for the subject and inspired! This work is filled with life and movement and great humor. Matisse based the cut-out figure on Katherine Dunham, an American dancer and choreographer, whose modern dance routines were influenced by dances from Africa and Haiti. Ms. Dunham titled one of her dances “Tropical Revue.” Placing the figure on the diagonal helps to emphasize the movement. Ms. Dunham had been invited to perform in Matisse’s studio. He created Creole Dancer from the sketches he made she was dancing. The work was completed in a single day, using left over bits of paper. It was a 1953 gift from Henri Matisse to Musée Matisse in Nice.
One of great surprises of this exhibit was to learn that MoMA owns as many Matisse cut-outs as it does. Nuit de Noël, or Christmas Eve is one such example. Originally commissioned by Life magazine in January 1952 for celebrations at the Time-Life Building at Rockefeller Center at the end of that year, Matisse made a maquette (also in MoMA’s collection) from cut-and-pasted paper. In March of the same year, the finished maquette was sent to the stained-glass craftsman, Paul Bony; and four months later the nearly 11-foot tall window was finished. In June 1953, Time donated both the stained glass window and the maquette to the Museum of Modern Art.
“I will make myself my own pool.” —Henri Matisse
The Swimming Pool was the result of Matisse’s visit to a popular pool at Cannes in the summer of 1952. Following his instructions, Lydia Delectorskaya pinned a band of white paper along the walls of his dining room at the Hôtel Régina in Nice. Tan burlap, a popular wall covering of the time, lined the room. Matisse proceeded to cut out shapes of divers, swimmers, and sea creatures from paper that had been painted in an ultramarine blue color.
This site-specific cut-out was Matisse’s first and only. The Museum of Modern Art acquired this room-sized cut-out in 1975.
Matisse’s Acanthus dates from 1953. This was a maquette for a ceramic wall decoration; it was executed in gouache on paper that was cut and pasted, and charcoal on white painted paper; all were mounted on canvas. The ceramic was created the same year that the marquette was made. It is part of the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen/Basel, Switzerland. The lads in the photos had been sketching, turning, as I snapped the photo, to show the adults with them what they had done. These fanciful and colorful works of art are the perfect way to engage a young child with art.