Bright and cheerful, Matisse’s Cut-Outs are always a welcome sight. As with so many art works that are reproduced endlessly on note cards, calendars, tote bags, and mouse pads, we assume we know them. But a closer look rewards: the sunny view and simple fun that these vibrant, organic shapes convey belies the thoughtful process behind their creation.
The Cut-Outs, which are now on view at MoMA, drew over half a million visitors earlier this year at the Tate Modern, becoming the most popular show in that museum’s history. Attendance at the New York show will likely meet or exceed that number, including as it does the added attraction of Matisse’s “Swimming Pool” frieze, on public view for the first time since 1993 after an extensive conservation effort.
The show is the largest exhibition of the Cut-Outs to date and includes works that were both familiar and totally new to me. First, some fast facts about Matisse’s Cut-Outs:
1. The Cut-Outs are Matisse’s late oeuvre, dating to the last decade of his life. When ill health prevented him from continuing to paint, he found another outlet for his creative drive and in the process created this new art form, which he called, “painting with color.”
2. The Cut-Outs are bespoke. All of the paper used to create the Cut-Outs was hand painted by studio assistants under Matisse’s direction. Colors were meticulously mixed and applied to white paper for his review, and revised until he was satisfied. He was exacting: of 79 gouache painted paper samples, there are at least 17 different oranges.
3. The Cut-Outs are constructions that capture movement. I hadn’t realized how integral motion was to the complete Cut-Out experience. Matisse, who certainly had the ability to cut a star or a leaf from a single piece of paper, chose instead to construct shapes with multiple pieces of paper. Placed by assistants and often secured by pin rather than glue, the individual pieces would have fluttered with even the slightest breeze. The wall-sized The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952, was created by Matisse to bring his beloved garden indoors to his bedroom; imagine each piece moving, bringing the “garden” alive as he drew near.
Reproductions lose this nuance, flattening the image and destroying any animation inherent in the work. Two Dancers, 1937, shows the piece-work construction that makes the Cut-Outs so dimensional in person.
4. The Cut-Outs always explore the relationship between line and color. The four Blue Nudes above show a progression of form development and the evolution of Matisse’s drawing and cutting skills. In the final Nude, on the right, Matisse has achieved line by simply cutting forms to create “troughs” of negative space that give the outline of a female figure.
5. The Cut-Outs are conceived as a whole. The artistic considerations for an individual Cut-Out – color balance, positive and negative space, relationships between shapes – hold true for a wall of Cut-Outs as well. Matisse was always examining and rearranging individual shapes and works as part of a larger wall composition. For example, he might look at how a green leaf shape functioned within its own work, and then also at how that particular green and that particular shape related to the all the other shapes and greens hung on the same wall. This process could go on for months.
6. Matisse embraced the decorative. Not all fine arts painters celebrate the decorative but Matisse valued them equally. He always wanted to achieve a mural scale wall-sized work, and did so in Large Decoration with Masks, 1953, pictured above on the right.
While many of the Cut-Outs are familiar, three new-to-me projects stood out:
Stained Glass Window commissioned by Life Magazine
Both the maquette (model) and the finished design for Nuit de Noël, 1953 are on view in this exhibition. While the design is of course lovely, what struck me about the work is that it was, first, commissioned by a magazine and, second, commissioned for a Christmas display in the Time-Life building at Rockefeller Center in 1953. Both works were then donated to MoMA’s permanent collection. Could this even happen in today’s world? Of course commissions remain as critical to artists as ever, but the financials of the art (and publishing) worlds have changed so radically that such an exchange seems very unlikely. Read more about this work here.
Comprehensive design for the Chapelle de Rosaire de Vence
Matisse survived treatment for cancer in the early 1940’s but required nursing care during his convalescence. He built the Chapelle de Rosaire de Vence, 1948-1951 in honor of his nurse, Monique Bourgeois, who had entered the Dominican order in 1946. The chapel represents a complete artistic vision, and includes three sets of stained glass windows, a wall sized depiction of the fourteen stations of the cross in black outline on white tile, and a set of vestments that are still in use today. The movement of the vestments “activates the design of the space”; doesn’t that sound similar to the Cut-Outs coming alive with a breeze? Read more about the Chapelle de Rosaire de Vence here and watch this BBC Modern Masters video to view the interior.
Frieze for Dining Room
The site-specific Swimming Pool, 1952 frieze was made for Matisse’s own dining room in the Hôtel Régina in Nice. The story goes that on a very hot summer day, he visited a local swimming pool in Cannes. Done in by the heat, he declared that he would make his own pool. The result is a 54-foot long frieze that depicts moving creatures, swimmers of every kind. The colors, of course evoke water and summer all at once.
Swimming Pool has not been on view publicly since 1993 due to degraded condition. Twenty years is a long time to be off view and the result is that many visitors, myself included, are now encountering this famous work for the first time. Installed in a dedicated gallery that replicates the architecture of Matisse’s dining room, the effect of this immersive experience is a delight. The color and motion of the frieze makes for a carefree mood and, hung just above eye-level on three walls, Swimming Pool really does create the impression of being in the water, sometime just above and sometimes just below the surface. Restoration of this delicate work was painstaking: removing the original burlap backing took 2,000 hours and often involved removing fibers, by hand, one at a time. This short video explains all that went into making Swimming Pool ready for public display once again:
The Visitor Experience
MoMA is always too crowded, and the lobby is maddening to navigate. Bypass all of that by buying tickets online in advance (they are required for non-members). Pick up the audio guide on your way upstairs. It is excellent and eliminates the need to cram in with the crowd to read labels. When I visited most visitors used the audio guide, which helped keep a steady pace through the show. Finally, this is a show where the works read just as well from a distance as they do up close – take a minute to stand in the center of each gallery and take in the beautiful panoramas of color that Matisse created.
If you are not able to make it in person, or would like to learn more about the show before you visit, I recommend visiting the dedicated site MoMA has created for the show. It’s filled with information on the art, the studio process, and Matisse himself, and is easy to navigate with some fun interactive elements along the way.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on view at MoMA now through February 8, 2015. Don’t miss it.
Photo credits: all photos, with exception of “Wall of Cut-Outs”, with permission of MoMA. “Wall of Cut-Outs” courtesy of Tate Modern.