Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Art Lesson / Life Lesson

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

At the age of 71, in 1941, Henri Matisse had surgery for colon cancer.   Thereafter dependent on a wheel chair and unable to work at an easel, he had to give up the painting career that had made him world-famous, yet he continued to create art into his eighties, perfecting an entirely new technique along the way: the paper cut-out.  The Fall of Icarus (1943) above, a maquette for his Jazz series of 250 prints, is slightly less than 14" x 11", and contains all the exuberance of any of his large paintings.  It's a signed and finished work, but if you look closely you'll see that the star bursts and the flaming heart are held in place with pins, and creases are visible in the arms and legs.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, now showing at the Museum of Modern Art (till February 8), shows the late work of Matisse, but also shows along the way that the spirit of creativity never wanes, and finds outlets in unexpected ways.

In Two Dancers (1938), a 31" x 25" maquette for a stage curtain design, paper cut-outs are layered to give dimensionality to the work.  No attempt has been made to remove the pins, which, in many of the works in the exhibition, show signs of having been repinned multiple times as Matisse considered the best positions for each piece of cut paper.  Unable to stand following surgery, he gave directions to his assistants, using a long stick to show them where to place the papers and pins. The papers were not purchased in these colors.  Matisse's assistants painted white paper to his exacting specifications.  He then cut them as necessary, and recycled color scraps.

Size was no obstacle.  In The Parakeet and the Mermaid, below, the viewer in the photograph gives some idea of the size of the work, which takes up an entire wall.  (Photograph from The New York Times, by Ruth Fremson)

A very personal piece in the exhibition is The Swimming Pool (1952), which once graced Matisse's dining room.  Below is a black and white photo of the original room.  The story of its origin is that Matisse had his assistants take him to a pool because he wanted to see divers.  The heat became overwhelming, so he decided to create his own swimming pool in his dining room.  At the time, the dining room walls were covered in burlap, then popular in interiors.  Matisse had a ribbon of white paper placed at eye level all around the room, and then cut a series of diving figures, as well as marine life, which he had his assistants pin and glue to the paper.  He was 82 at the time.

After Matisse's death in 1954, The Swimming Pool was taken down, and bought by the Museum of Modern Art in 1975.  It recently underwent several years of conservation work, and for the current exhibition the size and shape of the original dining room has been recreated, with the cut-outs shown at their original height.  Below, the same section of the wall shown above right.  Different shades of blue in each figure are accomplished by cutting pieces of paper from separate sheets and layering them.  (Double click to enlarge.)  Conservation is so faithful to the original that pins have been retained.  

Here is the room as it stands today.  (Photograph from The New York Times, by Ruth Fremson)

Next time you feel a creative urge coming on, think like Matisse.  What?  You say you don't have a burlap-covered dining room or assistants or a long pointer?  Okay, start small.  Get a pair of scissors, some pins, and some paper - say, maybe 14" x 11"?  You say you're not Matisse?  Just be yourself!

(Remember, Grandma Moses started her painting career at 78.  Booker Prize winner Penelope Fitzgerald wrote her first novel at 60.)

For more about the story of The Swimming Pool, click here.  For a very interesting article from The Guardian about Matisse and the cut-outs (which also showed at The Tate Gallery in London), click here.


  1. Beautiful and inspiring. And Grandma Moses is one of my very favorite role models for aging! xox

  2. I wish I could see this exhibit in person, but your virtual tour was delightful and informative - Thanks!

  3. Very inspiring post! I resolve to be creative until I wear my last hat!