An ecstatic feeling overwhelmed me while I was making my way through the exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs. It was like walking through room after room of incredible cheer and joy for life. Brightly colored gouaches découpés covered the walls, often from top to bottom, making one feel like a fish in a fish tank swimming past seaweed of paper and paint. It seems, although breaking boundaries throughout his entire career, in the last years of his life Matisse was ready to take painting to a different level, as if he was bored with the medium that was tied to the canvas with its particular surface and, most importantly, limits. Canvas has an edge and therefore a painting has to “stop” there. But for Matisse that was not enough. Throughout the years that he was working with this medium, Matisse managed to create a wide range of objects – from relatively simple-looking paper-based collages to book illustrations, clothes and even an interior chapel (Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence). The various uses of cut-outs presented an incredibly versatile medium to work with, which, at the same time, did not require too much movement from the artist who was by then in his 70s. He tested the gouache paints to achieve a desired shade and then used scissors (he had many to choose from – from miniature nail-clippers to large dressmakers’ scissors) to create the desired shape. Because of the fast movements these objects are mostly void of sharp edges and angles and instead have smooth fluid outlines that result from the razor-sharp blades cutting the thin paper. It reminds me of his brushstrokes – they were always fluid – not even brushstrokes, really, but brush movements, like the movements of the scissors.
The exhibition of the cutouts – the first one to bring these works together in one show - is an incredible delight both to the eye and the soul. It shows the beauty of not just making, but conceiving art, living it; it inspires and brings a smile to one’s face; it overwhelms and inspires. As one of Matisse’s assistants - Jacqueline Duhême – remembers, even Picasso himself was in owe of the cutouts. He would say: "what has the old man come up with now? He is as crafty as a monkey! Even at his age he still comes up with things like that... ...it gives me hope!”. Being over 70 and almost unable to move Matisse managed to create ground-breaking works that would be the envy of his peers. And we are incredibly lucky to able to see them brought together, in one show, and be touched by their inventiveness and beauty.
Opening Image: The Sheaf (La Gerbe), 1953. Maquette for ceramic (realized 1953). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on paper, mounted on canvas. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.