Henri Matisse: What Cut-Outs, What a Cut-Up!

Henri Matisse, The Swimming Pool

This column is going to be about “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” which closes at the Museum of Modern Art this coming Tuesday, February 10. So what you need to do now is drop whatever you’re doing—which is reading this column—and head directly to MoMA. If you can. You only have a few hours to see an art installation you’ll never forget.

Henri Matisse, The Swimming Pool
Henri Matisse, The Swimming Pool

Now that you’ve returned from it or weren’t in the position to get there, I’ll carry on about the absolutely joyful occasion.

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The late works of artists are almost always of particular interest. Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, which plumb the effects of aging, are mesmerizing. J. M. W. Turner’s late works, currently memorialized in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, command attention as a result of his airier landscapes and seascapes. Monet’s late works, painted when his sight was failing, are fascinating in the loosening of his palette, not unlike Turner’s. For a while before Picasso’s 1973 death and for a while afterward, his late works were dismissed, but are now—in part thanks to Larry Gagosian’s exhibitions—being more favorably considered.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is another instance of attention-commanding later output, because, for one thing, he found a new way to express himself: with gouache-pointed paper and scissors. You could say he wasn’t running with scissors, he was sitting or lying in bed with scissors—with more than one pair of scissors.

In the 1940s when the war was going on not that far from where he was, he began his cut-outs phase. He continued it after the war and up to his death at 84, accumulating scores, no, hundreds of cut-outs he assembled and reassembled according to his whims. He had them pinned here and there and back and forth, according to the pleasures he was getting through his manipulations of form and color. He referred to his endeavors as “cutting into color.” It seemed as if—always aware of the power of color—he was merely taking the next preordained creative step.

The results, which were on view at London’s Tate Modern before transferring to MoMA, is a long series of exhilarating pieces that belie Matisse’s condition as he made them. He’d undergone serious surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation and periods of insomnia, leading to his believing his days must be numbered. And since Matisse took up the carefully colored papers and the pairs of scissors when his health kept him from painting, they initially were no more than a pastime for him. He said, “I am cutting out all these elements and putting them up on the walls temporarily. I don’t know yet what I’ll come up with. Perhaps panels, perhaps wall hangings.”

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Nevertheless, their reputation grew, and in no time Matisse received commissions from clamoring enthusiasts, from eager patrons. The publisher Tériade brought out Jazz, the (still) best-selling illustrated book. He spent four years preparing a wall-hanging for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, where he had one of this three homes. (Since he was becoming a master of various bits of colored paper, why wouldn’t he be wanted in a venue where stained glass is a tradition?). The collector Alfred J. Barnes requested a mural for his Merion, Pennsylvania, home.

Henri Matisse, The Wolf
Henri Matisse, The Wolf

Now, ambling through the exhibition, a visitor would easily assume the works were the output of an artist having an unadulterated good time and becoming the cause of a cracking good time for others. Everything on view at MoMA is guaranteed to prompt a smile—with the possible exception of The Wolf (1944), which has been interpreted as Matisse’s response to the German invasion.

At least, I can say I smiled and sometimes laughed as I made my way through the Tate Modern exhibition last June and again when I saw it at MoMA. One part of the exhibition, however, which wasn’t included in the London show and is very much included in the New York City version, is The Swimming Pool, which the museum acquired in 1975 but hasn’t been shown in a few decades. For me, as exhilarating the entire exhibition is, The Swimming Pool is the high point.

Matisse made it for himself and his family. Deciding he wanted to bring a pool into his dining room at the Hotel Régina in Nice, he cut out a series of abstract divers and other blue figures. He mounted them on burlap and had them installed high on the walls. At either end, he had smaller blue figures affixed—just above the entrance is a related piece called Women and Monkeys.

The beauty part—or the added beauty part—of MoMA’s The Swimming Pool treatment is that it’s been hung in a room constructed to the precise Hotel Régina measurements. Furthermore, it’s been hung to the exact heights at which it was so calculatedly put into Matisse’s dining room. The restoration took five years. At times, removing the figures from the deteriorating burlap on which they’d been mounted required gingerly pulling single strands.

The expenses had to have been great, but predictably, the museum doesn’t release those costs. Whether they do or don’t, the effect of those man-woman-hours is heartthrobbing. Entering the room and imagining sitting at a dining room table, a visitor has the sense of being in the pool itself, gazing up at divers about to hit the water. It’s a refreshing experience. Calling it a baptism in art may not be going too far. And if it is going too far, so be it?

About his cut-outs intentions, Matisse said:

By creating these colored papers, it seems to me that I am happily anticipating things to come. I don’t think that I have ever found such balance as I have in creating these paper cut-outs. But I know that it will only be much later that people will realize to what extent, the work I am doing today is in step with the future.

How right he was. Among other things he anticipated were, without question, color field paintings. Wander through MoMA’s sixth-floor rooms and try not to think of, for one instance, Ellsworth Kelly. Of the things Matisse might never have quite anticipated was the boundless delight he’d bring to anyone now or in the future looking at his fireworks-like profusions. They’re a testament to the potential for advancing age maintaining a vigorously youthful aspect.