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Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

By Anna Leung

It seems counter intuitive, especially when welcomed by an almost overwhelming flood of colour, that what Matisse was to call his “exultation of colour” was the result of a prolonged struggle. It was not till he realised the cut-out could be used as more than a preparatory technique that he felt able to achieve the long held objective of reconciling drawing and colour and state: ‘to paint and to draw are one.’  This ambition had provided continuity in a painting practice that appears to periodically retreat from modernism, especially during the quasi impressionistic Nice period between 1917 to 1930 that placed greater emphasis on ‘the human element.’ Matisse was a cautious painter and tended to retrace his steps even when his objective was to go forward. It is therefore revealing that in 1952 he categorically stated, ‘From Le Bonheur de Vivre  - I was thirty one then – to this cut-out  – I am now eighty two – I have not changed…because all the time I have been looking for the same things, which I have perhaps realised by different means.’ Typical of Matisse, whose artistic profile lends itself to the dichotomies of rational/romantic and avant-garde / traditional, his cut-outs represent an end time, a solution to the perennial problem of drawing and colour but also a merging of drawing and painting that speaks of a renewal and a beginning.  As if to reiterate this message, Matisse, back on the avant gardist bandwagon and in the footsteps of the Russian Constructivists, but not really, went so far as to suggest that easel painting had had its day and would be replaced by mural painting that, with its emphasis on pure colour, portended a new society. In other words, despite two world wars, the symbolist ‘rêve de bonheur’ was still alive within him.


It may well be useful at this point to remind ourselves that Matisse lived the first thirty years of his  life in the nineteenth century and that his career as a painter was, up to that date, not that remarkable. But by 1905, by dint of his heading the short lived Fauvist movement, he was being accused of being a mad man and an irresponsible bohemian, which totally contradicts his self-made image of the avuncular bespectacled professor.  By 1910 his position was far more secure. He had signed a three-year contract with the Bernheim Jeune Gallery and accepted a commission from his Russian patron Shchukin, who had agreed to purchase La Danse and La Musique. By the 1930’s, when  attempting to escape from the facility of the Nice Odalisques, he was in his sixties, and by the 1940’s he was in his seventies and suffering from a botched operation for cancer of the colon that had almost taken his life and precipitated a near death experience. The years of his cut-outs, which he called his second life, were not only his last attempt to resolve his artistic problems but also represented his bid to create a more public art form closer to mural painting.

Matisse had started his adult life by studying law, graduating in 1888 and working as a clerk in a law firm. But complications arising out of an operation on his appendix in 1890 meant that he was confined to bed, and it was during this time of convalescence that a fellow patient, a director of a textile factory, suggested he take up painting.  Deciding to give up law he attended the École Quentin-Latour which specialised in textile design, then went to Paris, failed the entrance exam for the Beaux Arts but was admitted to the studio of the artist Gustave Moreau who, while artistically fascinated by Symbolism’s more occult-erotic aspects, was relatively open minded when it came to engaging with new movements such as Impressionism. Symbolism, with its emphasis on interiority of feelings, was at its height during Matisse’s art student days. Art Nouveau, a rear guard reaction to modernity that attempted to create a universal style based on the organic serpentine line, inspired many of the foremost artists and designers to overturn the hierarchies between high and low art and between fine art and the decorative arts. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that mural painting, painting that bridges the gap between high and low art forms, and the arabesque figure prominently in Matisse’s decorative schemes. Symbolism also fostered the beginnings of the idea of art as an autonomous, self-sufficient system. This is of direct relevance to our understanding of Matisse and his relationship to the cut-out, for the formalist approach insists that while the content of the art work can be common place, banal even, it is the artist’s treatment of a theme or idea that transforms it into ‘art’. The cut-outs represent the culmination of his formalist tendencies, an emphasis on form that both emphasises the uniqueness of each cut-out and at the same time confirms and articulates nature’s essential structures.


Moreover it was during this fin de siècle period that the belief in art as a privileged space, an alternative to the bland life style of the bourgeoisie or as a restorative means that to some extent responded to the longing for transcendence previously provided by religion came to be mainstream. Indeed, inasmuch as faith came to reside in art making, the artist’s response to the world could be construed as religious. All these ideas, some of which figure in Matisse’s art folio Jazz, were to furnish Matisse with an important measure of his artistic output.  Often, it was through commissions for textile, book and theatre designs which depended on his gift for linear expression, rather than in painting with its emphasis on colour, that he found solutions to problems that had been besetting him and from which he needed to escape, as is the case of the Nice impressionist period.


Throughout most of his career Matisse tended to regard his drawings as more successful than his paintings, and realised from early on that in order to achieve his aim he would have to step beyond the parameters of the Western tradition which, from the Renaissance, had viewed colour as a mere supplement to drawing. Moving from drawing to colour presented problems for Matisse, specifically that of colour interaction. Matisse understood that colour only exists in relationship and one of his primary concerns was to maintain relations between colour that elevate rather than demote the totality of their combined forces, and to do this whilst still maintaining an overall sense of harmony. This use of colour rather than form to provide a picture with structure and define its space was one of the lessons he learnt from Cezanne, the artist whose tenaciousness and spirit of independence from both the academy and the avant-garde Matisse most closely emulated. From Cezanne, too, came an emphasis on balance and harmony that was so crucial to Matisse’s vision of art’s ethical as well as its aesthetic function and its greater integration into society. These were aspects of art that he also recognised in the art of the Orient, in the geometric ornamentation of Islamic art where form is content, and in the decorative richness of Byzantine artefacts and the way all the elements within the space of a Byzantine church are subordinated to the general atmosphere of religious worship. Memories from trips to Russia would guide him when creating ‘a space for the spirit’ in his chapel in Vence. In matters of faith, Matisse described himself as ‘religious so to speak’, and when asked whether he believed in God he answered ‘Yes, when I work’ going so far as to say, with reference to the chapel at Vence, that: “I have the feeling that I am not the one who painted it; God is.”  He explained on another occasion that his experience of awe was transposed from God to Nature, to the inherent vitality that characterises life, and to the mystery of the universe within and without.

The cut-outs started out as a preparatory technique, an aid to computing the various compositional possibilities within a given work, e.g. Still Life with Mussels. By cutting out the shape of, say, apples and the milk jug in this case, and moving them around he was able to decide from which compositional arrangement he would be able to derive the highest degree of visual expression. This technique had even earlier manifestations that date from 1919 when Matisse was commissioned by Diaghilev to design décor and costumes for his ballet Le Chant du Rossignol in London, and 1937 when he designed costumes for Massine’s ballet version of Shostakovich’s Symphony #1, Le Rouge et noir. Yet another commission in which cut-outs proved to be indispensable was the Danse panels for the Barnes Foundation in 1932. Whether cut-outs would have eventually replaced painting as Matisse suggested in 1952 had he not found it necessary to use them is questionable. He continued to paint till the end of 1948, finishing his last two paintings in 1951. It is possible that Matisse chose to view his cut-outs as a radical alternative to painting rather than seeing them as a necessary and providential expediency allowing him to prolong his creative life when no longer able to stand at his easel. Confined to bed, he may have reasoned, and convinced himself. that they represented the resolution to the traditional conflict between drawing and colour. But as we see in Jazz and in the chapel at Vence, this conflict is never quite resolved, and drawing tends to embody meaning and colour designate ornamentation.


It was with the publication of Jazz in 1947, first entitled ‘Circus ‘but changed to ‘Jazz’ to highlight its improvisatory character, an art folio made up of twenty colour prints complemented by pages of Matisse’s hand written texts, loosely about art and life--the function of which, Matisse assured his readers was ‘purely visual…serving only as an accompaniment to my colours’--that he realised that the cut-outs lost much of their aesthetic appeal when reproduced as a print. The stencil technique removed what he referred to as their sensitivity which for Matisse was the quality that ensured they were not mere maquettes or models but works of art in their own right. This is the first time Matisse compared his cutting into paper with a sculptor cutting into stone. In other words the technique, besides being like drawing, i.e. creating or following a contour, also has a spatial dimension. This is brought out in many of the cut-outs which are formed not by one solid shape but by several shapes cut from the same sheet of paper covered in gouache. This layering, as well as the unevenness of torn rather than cut edges, were lost in the process of stencil printing.

Jazz, like most of Matisse’s decorative work, must have seemed a flagrant contravention of the times since, at first sight, it appears not to acknowledge the darker side of life that dominated the post ‘45 French cultural scene when France was still recovering from its ignominious capitulation to Hitler during World War II and the imposition of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. It must have seemed inappropriate and out of sync with the existential zeitgeist, which is perhaps why Matisse’s reputation was eclipsed Picasso’s for a considerable time. But The Fall of Icarus, the Knife Thrower, the Sword Swallower, the Wolf and Pierrot’s Funeral (X) all contain the threat of a violent death, in some cases one directed against the self. Moreover, the use of black as a colour has always played a compelling and crucial role in his work. And if Matisse’s images are on the whole serene, peaceful and balanced they represent the outcome of profound psychological oppositions that he struggled to reconcile. The psychosomatic illnesses he was prone to fall victim to each winter attest to this.


Oceania, the Sky and its sister mural Oceania, the Sea are the first large-scale use of the cut-outs which came to life as a result of a practical solution to an non-aesthetic problem. Faced with an annoying stain on the wall of his studio on the Boulevard Montparnasse when he returned to Paris in 1946, Matisse cut out a swallow from a pad of white paper to cover it. This brought to mind his trip to Tahiti in 1930 and he continued cutting into the pad, summoning up the many fishes in the sea, the swooping of the birds over the ocean, the fronds of seaweed and the froth of the waves and ending up by covering two walls with his first all-over decorative mural. The ensemble, now each confined within a frame, gives off a pearly light that is all the more astonishing in view of the absence of chromatic brightness. It was from this point that Matisse began to emphasise the ornamental function in his practice, placing it half way between decoration and fine art--a dangerous position.  Predictably, this was met with a sceptical reception and when a big retrospective was organised in 1949 and twenty one of his cut-outs were exhibited for the first time, critics accused him of being in his dotage, “nearing the end of his life….having fun cutting up paper.”  Matisse was himself aware of the risk of producing the cut-outs with too great a facility and tried to emphasise their aesthetic as well as their artistic quality. 

The Blue Nudes attest to this need to be taken seriously as a fine artist whose work would be safeguarded in museums. By exhibiting examples of his earlier sculpture in the same room at the Tate Modern, the curators emphasised the sculptural aspect of what Matisse called the process of carving or ‘cutting directly into colour’ that eliminates the difference between drawing and painting. The cut-outs dispense with the need for subjective brushwork while at the same time ensuring clarity of contour. The whole process can be interpreted as the culmination of a tendency towards simplification exemplified by early paintings such as Windows at Collioure and The Yellow Curtain from around 1915. Blue Nude VI was actually the first in the series and reveals the degree to which Matisse constantly altered the image, affixing and taking away separate pieces of blue paper and searching for the right image in the faint contour of charcoal lines that encircle the finished figure. The other three nude cut-outs have not been given this explorative treatment but appear to be cut from a single sheet, though changes can be seen in some cases. The fact that, as in all his cut-outs, each of the Nudes is unique ensures that the making of the work is on a par with modernist principles by which an art work cannot be duplicated and so while the finished work is decorative, it cannot be dismissed as mere decoration.


A similar division into meaning and ornament noted in Jazz characterises the chapel at Vence, resolved though it is within the greater totality of its religious ambience, with the Stations of the Cross drawn free hand on shiny white tiles contrasting with the luminous celebratory colour of the stained glass windows and other religious accoutrements. Matisse regarded the chapel as the crown of his life’s work, though its coming into being was providential rather than planned. The catalyst was a young girl who had worked for Matisse as a model before taking orders as a Dominican nun. It was in this capacity that she approached Matisse asking his advice about the design of a stained glass window for a derelict garage that made do as a chapel. Matisse took over the design and, going much further, extended his remit to the whole of a new chapel, including the chasuble robes worn by the priest and the décor of the entire building.  The first stone was laid in December 1949, and the chapel consecrated in June 1951. During this period, his entire studio was transformed into a replica of the chapel, and the project which he had been waiting for took over his life, even though his medical condition was regarded as terminal.

Matisse continued working on his cut-outs, commissions coming mainly from America via his son, the New York gallerist Pierre Matisse, such as the stained glass window Christmas Eve for the Time-Life Building in New York that closes the exhibition. The Parakeet and the Mermaid (the mermaid started out as a Blue Nude), is one of his largest projects, as is Large Decoration with Masks, where the line drawing of an oval face is integrated into the decorative elements. All the bodily movement denied him due to his condition is expressed in the dynamic energy of his cut-out figures. In 1953 one year before his death there was an exhibition of his cut-outs at the Galerie Berggruen in Paris, the only exhibition of all his cut-outs during his lifetime.


Matisse died in 1954. The cut-outs represent the culmination of his focus on ornament and on the formal aspects of his work that convey his belief in a universal expressive language that underlies nature’s profusion of dynamic form. Matisse’s fascination with ornamentation did not imply a rejection of figurative representation. Nature was always the starting point for his vision. His paintings and his cut-outs are poised around an object or motif. But they are not based on an objective investigation of the motif, nor are they transcriptions of the artist’s subjectivity, but rather an emptying of himself, colour and shape becoming detached from their role of depicting objects and becoming sign posts for the viewer.



© Anna Leung, June  2014

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.


Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs will be on view at Tate Modern, London from 17 April - 7 September.


The exhibition will travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it will be on view from October 12, 2014 – February 8, 2015.

Photos from top:


Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (II), 1952

Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Droits réservés

© Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013


Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, 1943-4. Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947

© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013


Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953

© Succession H. Matisse / DACS 2014


Henri Matisse, Zulma, 1950.

Photograph: Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014


Henri Matisse, The Swimming Pool, 1952 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Matisse in his studio at the Hotel Régina, Nice, c1952. Photograph: Lydia Delectorskaya © Succession Henri Matisse






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