Henri Matisse

(French, 1869 - 1954) 

“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

- Henri Matisse

             Henri Matisse was born in December of 1869, and raised in a small industrial town in northern France. His family worked in the grain business, and as a young man Matisse labored as a legal clerk and studied for a law degree between 1887-89. He took drawing classes in the mornings before work. A couple years later Matisse moved to Paris to study art, and older artists at schools such as the Académie Julian and École des Beaux-Arts taught him.

            Matisse showed his work in large group exhibits in Paris starting in the mid 1890s, and his pieces gained popularity. By the 20th century, he became under the influences of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac who painted with small dots of color, known as a “Pointillist” style. It was also during this time he submitted art to the Salon des Indépendants. In 1904 he held his first one-man exhibition at the gallery of dealer Ambroise Vollard.

            The painting style known as Fauvism uses strong brushwork and bright colors with loose structure began to grow, and much of Matisse’s mature work emphasizes this style – capturing a mood, not so much a realistic image. His subjects remained traditional, portraits of friends and family and arrangements of figures in rooms or landscapes.

            Later in his career, Matisse received several commissions, including a mural for an art gallery in Pennsylvania and poetry illustrations. Matisse had surgery in 1941 and was often bedridden, but continued to work on art. His final project was creating a program of decorations for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence where he designed murals, furniture, and stained-glass windows.

In 1941 Matisse was diagnosed with cancer and, following surgery, he started using a wheelchair. Before undergoing a risky operation in Lyon, he wrote an anxious letter to his son, Pierre, insisting, "I love my family, truly, dearly and profoundly." He left another letter, to be delivered in the event of his death, making peace with his ex-wife Amélie.

However, Matisse's extraordinary creativity would not be dampened for long. “Une seconde vie”, a second life, was what he called the last fourteen years of his life. Following an operation he found renewed and unexpected energies and the beautiful Russian-born assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, to keep him company. Vast in scale (though not always in size), lush and rigorous in color, his cutouts are among the most admired and influential works of Matisse's entire career. They belong with the grandest affirmations of the élan vital in Western art.

This new lease of life led to an extraordinary burst of expression, the culmination of half a century of work, but also to a radical renewal that made it possible for him to create what he had always struggled for: “I have needed all that time to reach the stage where I can say what I want to say.” With the aid of Lydia Delectorskaya and assistants he set about creating cut paper collages, often on an enormous scale, called gouaches découpés. By maneuvering scissors through prepared sheets of paper, he inaugurated a new phase of his career.

Matisse was hardly new to cutting. It was already present to him as a descendent of generations of weavers, who was raised among weavers in Bohain-en-Vermandois, which in the 1880's and 90's was a center of production of fancy silks for the Parisian fashion houses. Like virtually all his northern compatriots, he had an inborn appreciation of their texture and design. He knew how to use pins and paper patterns, and he was supremely confident with scissors.

The cut out was not a renunciation of painting and sculpture: he called it “painting with scissors.” Matisse said, "Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.” Moreover, experimentation with cut-outs offered Matisse innumerable opportunities to fashion a new, aesthetically pleasing environment: "You see as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk... There are leaves, fruits, a bird." In 1947 he published Jazz, a limited-edition book containing prints of colorful paper cut collages, accompanied by his written thoughts. In the 1940s he also worked as a graphic artist and produced black-and-white illustrations for several books.

Matisse also employed cut outs that he designed for the stained-glass windows for the Chapelle du Rosaire, a project he took on as a gesture to a young woman who had nursed him in Lyon in 1941 and later became a Dominican nun. The small modern building on the grounds of the Dominican nuns' residence in Vence took almost four years to complete. It was, Matisse said, the production of "an entire life of work." La Gerbe, multicolored leaves that resemble a spray of flowers, was completed a few months before his death, but it explodes with life. The artist who almost reinvented color in painting had by now found freedom in the simplicity of decoration. "I have the mastery of it," he told André Rouveyre in a letter. "I am sure of it."

Among his first adventures with paper cutouts was a cheerful book called Jazz, which Matisse prepared during the war but which was only published in 1947. The book and the concurrently published album with the twenty color plates was only printed in a hundred copies. The lively multicolor forms, both abstract and figurative, seem to echo the voice of a man stubbornly refusing to be cowed by the times. But he was also enchanted by the technique. "The walls of my bedroom are covered with cutouts," he wrote to André Rouveyre in 1948. "I still don't know what I'll do with them."

Jazz was published by Efstratios Tériade with whom Matisse had previously collaborated on several other printed projects involving art and text. Tériade's artful magazine Verve had already featured, as cover illustrations, examples of Matisse's cutout work. No serious artist had ever taken collage to this extreme of simplicity and description, and there were those who ridiculed him for it. Nonetheless, Jazz was a natural outgrowth of the increasing limitations of Matisse's physical agility and the abundance of his creative spirit at this time.

Matisse viewed jazz as a "chromatic and rhythmic improvisation." The title Jazz evoked for Matisse the idea of a structure of rhythm and repetition broken by the unexpected action of improvisations. The artist wrote to a friend in late 1947, "There are wonderful things in real jazz, the talent for improvisation, the liveliness, the being at one with the audience."

Matisse designed the book so that each full-page image is preceded by five pages of text and each half-page image by three pages of text. As part of the Jazz text Matisse writes of this format, "I'd like to introduce my color prints under the most favorable of conditions. For this reason I must separate them by intervals of a different character. I decided that handwriting was best suited for this purpose. The exceptional size of the writing seems necessary to me in order to be in a decorative relationship with the character of the color prints. These pages, therefore will serve only to accompany my colors, just as asters help in the composition of a bouquet of more important flowers. Their role is purely visual."

Matisse generally cut the shapes out freehand, using a small pair of scissors and saving both the item cut out and remaining scraps of paper. With the help of Lydia Delectorskaya he would arrange and rearrange the colored cutouts until he was completely satisfied that the results. It took two years to complete the twenty collages and, after years of trial and error, a practical and appropriate method was agreed upon for bringing the collages to life as two-dimensional works.

After having cut off the shapes, the second part of the creative process entailed pinning the cut pieces of paper to the walls of his studio, which created a paradisiacal, garden-like world of organic shapes that resembled algae, leaves, seaweed, and coral, shapes recalling patterns that appeared in many of Matisse's earliest works, which floated atop brilliantly colored grounds. When the desired balance of form and color was achieved, the finished composition was glued to some type of support such as paper, canvas, or board.

Matisse was clearly sensitive to the particularly physical nature of these works: while they were in progress he would leave them lightly pinned to the wall where they would tremble in the slightest breeze. This pinning of images to the wall began the second of the two processes that produced the cut-outs: the decorative organization of the preformed signs. This was by far a longer and more deliberative process than the first one; it sometimes lasted several months, and even from one year to the next for larger works. Matisse would change the position of the images, adding new ones, at times modifying existing ones, until the desired configuration was reached. By the end of the 1940s, Matisse was using "cut-outs" for various decorative arts projects, including wall hangings, scarf patterns, tapestries, rugs, and the designs for the Dominican chapel at Vence.

From the beginning, Tériade collaborated closely on Jazz. Initially Matisse had used the Linel brand of gouache paint because of its brilliance and depth of pigment. He was also advised that Linel paints in particular could be keyed to corresponding colors of printing inks. Tériade suggested to Matisse to "use all the gouache colors that you can imagine, and that Madame Lydia can prepare for you. I guarantee that we will obtain in the print, the exact color. From the moment that the print is in the plates, there will be nothing to fear, one will always be able to find the exact color, especially when the printing of each color is different." By directly brushing the Linel gouache through hand-cut stencils Tériade's printers were able to give the Jazz stencils a directness and richness similar to what the artist had achieved in his collaged maquettes. The stencils were cut by hand from thin sheets of metal, probably brass or copper.

With the aid of his assistants, Matisse invented a systematic approach to the technique of his cut outs. First, his studio assistants brushed Linel gouaches on sheets of white paper. Once dry, a stockpile of colored paper was available to Matisse at any given time. He often quite spontaneously cut out elements and placed them into compositions. As the play between consciously sought-for and the fortuitously arrived at effects worked into their balances the projects moved toward completion. In the meantime many of them were posted about the studio walls. The Linel gouaches were employed because they "directly corresponded to commercial printers ink colors" (Cowart 17) and would reproduce perfectly. The cut-outs pulsate with energy. The bright, vibrant Linel colors, deep and Light Japanese Green, vert Emeraude (Imitation veridian), Deep Cadmium Yellow, Deep Cadmium Red, Deep Persian Red, Persian Violet, and Yellow Ochre (Cowart 274), keep leaping in front of our eyes.

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