THE INVASION OF COLOR: Matisse’s Cut-Outs

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After a cancer-related 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 pre-painted card stock, which were them assembled on a support and glued in place. The son of a prosperous manufacturer of luxury textiles, Matisse wielded scissors with complete confidence, and he emphasizes their importance in the notes he wrote for Jazz (1947):

Dessiner avec les ciseaux: découper à vif dans la couleur me rappelle la taille directe des sculpteurs.

By the early 1950s, the cut-outs had completely supplanted his painting practice.

Ridiculed at the time, Matisse’s cut-outs are now, for better or for worse, his best-known works and the basis of his current popularity. Fearing that the cut outs would be perceived as a repudiation of his previous oeuvre, or worse, of painting in general, Matisse repeatedly points out in his letters the ways in which “drawing with scissors” was the logical extension of his paintings engagement with color. With a touch of defensiveness, he explained to his friend Rouveyre

. . . 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.

Matisse might also have pointed out that no break occurred because he continued to paint occasional easel pictures, including great ones like the Silence of Houses (1947) and the Large Red Interior (1948), throughout most of the years when he was primarily occupied with the cut-outs.

Furthermore, the the cut-outs were produced by painting. Matisse (or his assistants) applied several layers of gouache to sheets of uncolored, heavy card stock, which allowed for a degree of saturation which the manufactured colored paper available at the time could not attain. Once affixed to the support, corrections and adjustments were often made by brushed-on pigment. Consequently, all the cut-outs were painted to some degree or another and bear traces of painting, including visible brushwork, spattered pigment, and missed spots. Many of the cut-outs often have visible underdrawing.

Because they were produced at the end of the artist’s life, it is often assumed that the cut-outs represent Matisse’s most highly-developed pictorial thinking about color; that they caused him to understand the essence of color; and that those revelations led to great increases in the amount and intensity of color in his work. In reality, his palette may have been brighter, but its range of colors is narrow when compared with the infinite gamut of hues, tones and values made possible by blending oil pigments, which Matisse made full use of in his paintings. He was not entirely at ease working with pure color of the cut-outs, feeling at times that its effects were overbearing, even vulgar, and not always controllable. 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! (In fact, I don’t dare write how much color disgusts me and how my entire being rebels against its pushy, intrusive self-importance

Invasive and pushy are not qualities one associates with Matisse’s cut outs today, which is our loss. The fact that Matisse thought of them in those terms suggests that far from being a cheerful senior’s uncomplicated effusions of “joy,” the cut-outs were a risky experiment undertaken with death at his doorstep and in fauviste defiance of the standards of decorum required of high art.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is currently on view in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art, 25 October 2014 – 8 February 2015

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