Walk into the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, and you find yourself surrounded by more than a hundred images that dance and sing, swim and squirm—not to mention the lithe contortions of the acrobats and the antics of the circus performers. Composed of paper shapes set out in ravishing color combinations, Matisse’s cut-outs, on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through Feb. 8, 2015, are stunningly lyrical and uplifting. If you add to your experience an understanding of the circumstances that prompted Matisse to make the cut-outs, you will find this entire body of work not merely decorative, but inspirational.
“Cut-outs” is the term used to describe both the method and the new art form Henri Matisse (1869-1954) developed and perfected toward the end of his long life. To make cut-outs his assistants painted sheets of paper in vivid colors of gouache, an opaque water-based paint, which Matisse cut into myriad shapes. Then they pinned the shapes into place at his direction on a paper or burlap background, where he could re-arrange them at will until he deemed the entire composition finished.
The adaptability of the pinning process encouraged experimentation and fueled Matisse’s creativity. Gradually, the artist realized that the cut-out could be a new art form, not merely a preparatory step. After that, he made large-scale works, some as large as the wall of a house, others wide enough to wrap like a frieze around an entire room.
“The Cut-Outs” is a once-in-a-lifetime show. The curators borrowed from around the world fragile, paper cut-outs over 60 years old, and an exhibition of this scale has not been seen in New York since 1961. The exhibition includes favorites like “The Parrot and the Mermaid,” original compositions (called maquettes) for Jazz, the book printed in 1947 from cut-outs Matisse had made three years earlier. You will find all four of the “Blue Nudes,” rarely shown together. “The Swimming Pool,” which belongs to the MOMA, is on view for the first time in decades, as its previous, discolored backing has just been painstakingly replaced.
Most important, though, is the cumulative effect of rooms filled top to bottom with cut-outs. You can experience for yourself the new world Matisse made of paper. It is as though he illustrated Genesis (or a version of it), complete with oceans and animals, gardens and people, lights, colors and seasons. While Matisse’s creation relies on memories of the circus and a trip to Tahiti, his world invites us in.
Matisse surrounded himself with these very cut-outs for more than a decade, pinning them to the walls of his three homes in Paris, Nice and Vence. Why? That is the backstory. The reasons are rooted in sheer gratitude. In 1941 Matisse underwent colon surgery and nearly died. His recovery was so unexpected that the nursing sisters at the hospital described him as a man “resurrected.” He had hoped for three more years, but he received more than a decade. Matisse called it his “second life” and expressed his joy in the exuberant cut-outs.
As irony would have it, however, Matisse’s ecstasy began amid family breakdown and Nazi terror. His wife Amèlie sued for divorce, enraged at having lost her place as the indispensable organizer of her husband’s work to a young Russian, Lydia Delectorskaya. It tore the family apart. The timing could not have been worse: Amèlie and Henri were in Paris, dickering over how to divide their cache of art, when Hitler’s troops invaded the city. As the Nazis occupied France, the Matisse family went their separate ways. Henri returned to Nice, but as the bombs neared, he retreated to Vence.
Matisse never regained his health. Confined to a wheelchair, he suffered from a weak heart, bouts of pneumonia, abscessed teeth, poor eyesight and stomach pains. He could neither paint nor sculpt, nor could he stop working. Having habitually pinned works in progress to his walls, Matisse began to construct life-giving, alternative environments for himself.
Born of gratitude, the cut-outs also served as a coping device. Matisse literally papered over the darkness of world war with a regenerative world full of beauty and color. With cut-outs Matisse crafted a visual rebuttal to the Nazi war on civilization. He expressed publicly the vitality, joy and music of life, lest anyone give up hope.
The Chapel of the Holy Rosary
Two rooms of the exhibition focus on Matisse’s designs for the Benedictine Chapel of the Holy Rosary in Vence, France. After devoting three years to the project, Matisse proclaimed the chapel “his masterpiece.” In a sample stained-glass window, a full-size paper chasuble design and tile sketches, you can see how cut-outs have been translated into glass, fabric and ceramic. Unfortunately the works fail to convince viewers of the luminous beauty of Matisse’s chapel, especially the play of colored glass reflected on the white tile walls. Excerpts from Barbara F. Freed’s documentary film, “A Model for Matisse” could have filled in the gap.
You will not find much about Matisse’s spiritual side in this exhibition. Yet in the room of pages from Jazz, there is an English translation in which Matisse compares an artist’s approach to art with a communicant’s approach to the Eucharist. Writes Matisse: “...you must present yourself with the greatest humility, completely blank, pure, candid, your brain seeming empty in the spiritual state of a communicant approaching the Lord’s Table.”
He also asks and addresses the question, Do I believe in God?
Yes, when I work. When I am submissive and modest, I sense myself helped immensely by someone who makes me do things that surprise myself. Still, I feel no gratitude toward Him because it is as if I were watching a conjurer...whose tricks I cannot see through. I then find myself thwarted of the profit of the experience that should be the reward for my effort. I am ungrateful without remorse.
Apparently, Matisse refuses to credit God with his own artistic powers. He claims fully the creative part of his humanity made in the image of God. Still, he seems to recognize “Him” at work and never disputes God’s role as creator of the cosmos.
Matisse’s cut-outs, born of suffering and pain, still pulsate with life. They may look like child’s play, but are instead hard-earned artistic developments, the achievement of a lifetime of distillation and paring down to essentials—profundity in cut-out forms.