It was the final flowering of Henri Matisse. He was ever simplifying, ever synthesizing, acting younger at eighty than he was at thirty. He sat in his wheel chair and put aside paintbrush for scissors, filling his sunset years with patterns of pure color.
“South Pole, North Pole”: thus Picasso is said to have defined the century’s two most illustrious painters, those who played the greatest role in 20th century painting. Matisse and Picasso were indeed great rivals, their relations over half a century founded on discreet friendship if not indeed complicity. The poet of colour found his counterpart in the breaker of forms. “I feel through colour,” said Matisse, “so my pictures will always be organised by it. Yet this requires that the sensations be condensed and that the means employed be brought to their utmost expressivity.”…The gouache cut-outs from the end of his life have also been misunderstood. They have been taken for the last hobby of a crippled old man, whereas they are, like Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence, “the end-product of an entire life of work and the flowering of an enormous, sincere, and difficult effort”, of a life devoted to exalting colour and evoking the happiness of living and painting, which were, for him, inseparable. For the gouache cut-outs are continuous with a purpose from which the artist never departed after he had found himself as a fauve: the work is born of the untrammeled confrontation of colours.”
When the latest works of Henri Matisse were exhibited in Paris in the spring of 1951 and again in 1952- two years before the artist’s death- the public was baffled, but the young painters with whom Matisse continued to show were attentive, excited, and frequently awed.
What drew them in large numbers was not the promise of Matisse’s reputation, great as that was, but the disclosure of a new visual reality, born of a fusion of painting and sculpture. Matisse was nearly eighty when he turned from oil painting to colored paper cutouts, and he soon produced in this new and more simple language some of the richest, most daring, and most youthful works of his long career.
“Carving in color,” is what Matisse called his cutout technique, and he added that he wanted to do “the same thing in color that Michelangelo did in stone.” And indeed, there was much of the sculptor’s art in his new method. His practice was to have large sheets of paper covered over with gouache by his assistants, and then, taking scissors, to cut directly from these colored sheets- from the very flesh of color, as an admirer remarked- his supple and dynamic forms.
Matisse was largely bedridden during the last seven years of his life, the period to which the paper cutouts belong, and visitors to his apartment in the old Hotel Regina in Nice recalled him sitting up in bed, fully and meticulously clothed, with his scissors, his colored papers, and the brushes and ink with which he made his late, magnificent black and white drawings arranged on a table that fitted over his knees.
The forms he carved from his sheets of gouache wwere ranged in a blaze of color across the walls of his bedroom and of three adjacent studios, and when wall space gave out, they were pinned or pasted to large sheets of paper, from which they were finally transferred to board panels or canvas. But before that final transfer, which marked the completion of the composition, Matisse, from his bed or wheel chair, directed his assistants in an infinitude of arrangements and rearrangements of the forms, until they at last stood in that ideal harmony that must, he remarked, move an observer to say: “Matisse, it is precisely so!”
The early cutouts, those of 1947-48 were regarded as stiff and mostly decorative; geometric designs on a small scale. About 1950 Matisse began to expand the dimensions of his cutout compositions, displaying again that taste for the mural that was characteristic of him throughout his career.
The linkage of forms became looser, the forms themselves more sinuous, the rhythms stronger, the colors more audacious. With his jewel-like colors Matisse celebrated flowers of the field, fruits, birds, creatures of the sea, the arabesque of the female body, the iridescence of those Polynesian lagoons that he had looked upon in wonder during a trip to the South Pacific many years earlier and that he remembered even after as a “Paradise of painters.”
The best of the cutout compositions convey a feeling of grace, of lightness, and at the same time, of monumentality. There is the tall “Negress” of 1952, with its dancing figure surrounded by wheeling black birds so that the entire vibrating space seems to rotate about the loose, flexible body. There is the magnificent “Sorrows of the King”, suggested by the Biblical story of King David and brilliantly combining floral motifs, allegorical figures, and broad color registers of royal blue, raspberry, and green.
There are, from the same year, the astonishing series of horizontal panels, “The Swimming Pool” , in which figures frolic like dolphins in a narrow white band set in a large rectangle of unbleached canvas. There are, again from 1952, the “Blue Nudes” , whose coiled and contracted forms seem saturated in the blue of the sky; nowhere else did Matisse so brilliantly analyze the figure, first breaking it down into its constituent parts and then combining these according to his own injunction to “fit your parts into one another and build up your figure as a carpenter does a house.”
There were also more abstract studies, depending for their movement on the action and interaction of color- the “Souvenir of Oceana”, for example, and “The Snail” with its chromatic spiral of unequal rectangles expanding outward from emerald to violet and orange-red. One of the most impressive pieces of this period is the immense 33ft x 1ft wall of multicolored leaves, petals, and pistils called “Large Decoration with Masks” ( 1953) , a composition so simple and symmetrical in design and yet so inventive in its profusion of botanical forms.
The connection of these varied images to the idea of Jazz is rooted in the very nature of abstraction. In jazz music, a musician can take a simple, familiar, even conventional melody and with a few changes twist it into a barely recognizable tune. The performer can control with just a few notes the extent of the abstraction of the original tune and his audience’s ability to recognize it as familiar. From the elegance of Count Basie and Duke Ellington to the dizzying compositions of Eubie Blake or Scott Joplin, the breadth of jazz allows a diversity of expression which is matched in the visual arts by artists such as Matisse, Miro, Picasso and more recently Motherwell, Diebenkorn and Elizabeth Murray, each of whom were greatly influenced by Matisse. For an artist like Matisse, the ability to suggest the natural world in all its diversity through the simple act of cutting shapes from colored paper became the ultimate act of creation by his knowing where to start and when to stop.( Greg Kucera)