The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, chronicles a decade of the artist’s work in the 1940’s up to his death in 1954. Carefully arranged, yet almost free-form cut pieces of richly-pigmented paper embellish canvases throughout the exhibition, creating worlds of myth and memory. Matisse, confined to his home by old age and poor health, turned to the modest and almost childish act of cutting and pinning pieces of paper together onto a backdrop—often his own walls. But the simplicity of the act in no way colors the final products, which read as immersive and complex.
Matisse uses his untraditional medium to explore traditional narratives and images. The Fall of Icarus and Venus consist of archetypal images which take on an almost comic tone when translated to simplified cut-outs. In Femme à l’amphore, a woman balances a Greek amphora vase on her head. And in Vierge à l’enfant, Matisse roughly traces the outlines of Madonna with Child. These scenes remain recognizable, even when abstracted by Matisse.
The images are also deeply personal, rooted in fond memories of beautiful places, and express a desire to create entire immersive worlds. Unable to leave his homes in France, Matisse successfully hearkened back to time spent in the South Pacific in the 1930’s in works such as Oceania, The Sky and Oceania, The Sea. Swimming and flying on beige backdrops are white seagulls, doves, jellyfish, sharks, algae, and seaweed. Entire paper gardens fill parts of the exhibition space, creating green and blue displays of a repeated abstract foliage pattern that Matisse utilizes throughout his cut-out works.
It is clear that the images become a collective, coming together on his walls to create imagined worlds. His movement restricted, Matisse, through his art, was able to travel through gardens and to distant places. What motivated the Swimming Pool was the desire to see the divers themselves, and to recreate that past experience.
The cut-outs themselves reveal innovation: just as Matisse transformed the negativity of his physical state into positive imagery, his use of the positive and negative space created by cutting out shapes creates an interesting juxtaposition. The process behind his iconic image Blue Nude IV displays a working and reworking, constant transformation, superimposition of scraps, and an attention to the background as a shaping force in the form. Examining each cut-out, one can see layers and layers of gouache-painted paper, which come together to form one flat, but expressive, image.
As visitors, we can imagine picking up a delicate scrap in the shape of a dove, or the large fan of a leaf, and moving them around, giving them new homes and new contexts. And that’s part of the fun of Matisse’s cut-outs: they remind us of the importance of playfulness and of imagination, no matter your age.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is currently on view at MoMA. The exhibition is up from October 12, 2014 to February 8, 2015.
Click here to go to the exhibition website.
Written by Rowanne Dean