A true twentieth-century master, artist Henri Matisse never stopped looking, seeing and sharing his vision in inventive new ways. In his later years, when he was often confined to his bed or a wheelchair because of ill health, the painter worked with sheets of paper painted in bright shades of gouache that he cut into lively forms and arranged into exacting compositions. Many of the resulting cut-outs have been on display at the Museum of Modern Art in the most comprehensive exhibit of these seminal works ever mounted.
“Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” is a worthy companion catalogue to this highly successful, sell-out exhibit, which has introduced legions of visitors to the artist’s late masterworks.
Matisse himself famously said his cut-outs were the results of “drawing with scissors.” While early explorations of the technique meant cutting out images and moving them around a ground to refine compositional choices for paintings such as the 1940 “Still Life with Shell,” Matisse quickly adopted the technique for is illustrative value. The vibrant, jewel-like, circus-themed cut-outs made in 1943 that were later published in the illustrated book “Jazz” are perfectly attuned to jazz’s brightly syncopated rhythms.
In later works made up to the time of his death in 1954, Matisse often worked on a grander scale. In room-sized cut-outs, such as the MOMA’s newly restored “The Swimming Pool,” or the luminous “The Parakeet and the Mermaid,” Matisse created intensely colorful and decorative environments.
There are fewer works of art more joyful than a Matisse cut-out. The environment he created for the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France is, as Flavia Frigeri points out in her catalogue essay, “widely regarded as the crowning achievement of Matisse’s career.” Both exhibit and book give works made for the project the attention they deserve.
“Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” is beautifully produced and illustrated. Being able to look closely and leisurely at the “Jazz” pictures alone is a treat, as the exhibit is often so crowded that it is hard to engage fully with smaller, more intimate cut-outs.
But this catalogue isn’t just for visual pleasure. It examines all aspects of the works, from technique and execution to fluid way Matisse ably straddled the worlds of fine and decorative art. One of the greatest colorists in the history of art, Matisse succeeded in not just drawing with scissors, but in drawing with color in his cut-outs.
The catalogue, by Karl Buchberg, Jodi Hauptman, and Nicholas Cullinan, includes contributions by Samantha Friedman, Flavia Frigeri, Markus Gross, Stephan Lohrengel and Nicholas Serota. Thematic essays deliver new insights into the creation of the works. Of particular interest, is an essay by Buchberg, Gross and Lohrengel on Matisse’s materials and techniques that details the ways he prepared and manipulated the colored papers used in the works.
The catalogue also includes a fascinating collection of archival photographs – some never-before-published – that provide a rewarding glimpse into the way in which Matisse surrounded himself with color and life in his later years.
“Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” is available at The Museum of Modern Art and online at www.MoMAStore.org