After a cancer-trelated surgery of 1943 limited his ability to stand in front of an easel, Henri Matisse changed his primary medium from oil painting to gouaches découpés, or, forms cut directly from card stock painted with watercolor. Matisse was ridiculed initially for the new technique, which he called “drawing with scissors” and “cutting into color,” but by the time of the consecration of the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence in 1952, the cut-outs had surpassed his painting production in terms of popular appeal, and today they are, for better or for worse, remembered as his signature style.

Matisse worried that the advent of the cut-outs would be perceived as a break with, or worse, a repudiation of his previous work, upon which his reputation rested in the 1940s. “There is no gap between my earlier pictures and my cut-outs’, he wrote, ‘I have only reached a form reduced to the essential through greater absoluteness and greater abstraction.”

In reality, there was no break, for the simple reason that Matisse continued to paint occasional easel pictures with brush and oil pigments throughout most of the years when he was primarily occupied with the cut outs. Furthermore, the actual method by which the cut-outs were produced involved painting: rather than using prefabricated colored paper, Matisse (or his assistants) painted sheets of uncolored, heavy card stock with several layers of gouache, which allowed for a degree of saturation which colored paper could not attain. Consequently, all there cut-outs were painted to some degree or another and, bear traces of painting including visible brushwork, spattered pigment, and missed spots. Finally, the cut-outs were not entirely without precedent in the avant-garde and the Cubist collages of two decades earlier hastened critical acceptance of Matisse’s new work.

Matisse was not entirely at ease with the new prominence of pure color in his work, feeling at times that it was uncontrollable. In 1947, he wrote to Tériade, the publisher of Jazz, « Au fait ! la couleur me dégoûte et je n’ose l’écrire. […] tout mon être se révolte devant son importance envahissante!” Nevertheless, one senses that the cut-out technique enabled Matisse to break out of the confines of modeling, which was never his strongest suit, and to achieve finally what he had set out to do in the earliest fauve paintings.

Matisse: The Cut-Outs

London, Tate Modern, 17 April – 7 September 2014

New York, Museum of Modern Art, 25 October 2014 – 8 February 2015

6henri matisse, cut outs, gouaches découpées

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