My earliest memory of seeing a Matisse cut-out was the Maquette for Nuit de Noël (1952), the large window design in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was merely a child and this piece thrilled me to the core of my being. It was a deeply personal and resonant experience, and it made me feel a part of a world. It would be no exaggeration to report that Henri Matisse has been the touchstone of my artistic existence ever since. For me, he is the most seminal thinker and practitioner of the Modern Era.
From the standpoint of my own approach to things, what I have always most appreciated about the cut-outs of Henri Matisse is the absolute mobility of their freely formed elements. The sheets of drawing paper were pre-painted with gouache (in a fairly brushy, uneven manner, and usually by assistants), then independently scissor-cut and brought to an evolving pictorial situation (a wall, or other sheets of white paper). This constituted a radical liberation from the more deliberately sequenced, chronological development of a painting. The pinning down, temporarily, of colored paper shapes which can then be added to, exchanged, or removed from various grounds or previous iterations represented a very new and original approach to his visual research.
I think Matisse originally came to use cut paper as a diagnostic tool, to test the effect of larger swathes of color in ambitious mural projects such as the Barnes Foundation lunettes. Eventually, of course, he saw the cut-outs as ends in themselves, a vast new frontier enabling him to turn his compositions into magnetic fields—as brilliant for their economy of means as they are for their vibrancy and energy of expression.
The sharpness of the cut paper, the edges of the color planes and their juxtaposition, provide the works with an enormous sense of scale—an infinitude almost. Even the smaller ones look as if they could occupy an entire wall and still maintain a feeling of intimacy. It is interesting to me how their razor-sharpness gives them such a fully dimensional reality: they become imaginally real.
Also, I see the cut-outs as being profoundly imbued with the memory of his first visit to New York in 1930. Upon his arrival, Matisse experienced what he described as the “crystalline” quality of light: sharp, penetrating, unfiltered, and quite distinct from what his acute photic sensibility had previously known. I believe the shock of this encounter stayed with him, and shows us just how crucial the role of sensual memory and geography was in the development of his work. In fact, the cut-outs do have a staccato-like clarity, a sharpness and prismatic exuberance which epitomized for him the New World.
The distinctive philosophical principle of the cut-outs for Matisse, in his own words, was that “they are an assemblage of signs invented during the picture’s execution to suit the needs of their positions.” (1) Although I have always loved this particular remark as a working mantra, I would add another factor which I find to be of compelling interest, especially with regard to how the cut-outs function for the viewer. This has to do with the dramatically contrasting velocities that belong to the execution of these works. Matisse was in the habit of using his scissors with maniacal speed. He cut the paper with great precision, and he cut it as fast as he could. He got into a rhythm as fluid and as exacting as his figure drawing. When a sufficient number of these cut pieces had been produced and assembled, Matisse would then enter into another and very different phase of the work. At this stage, he started using the cut color shapes almost as artifacts from a previous activity, as he began the painstaking and slow deliberative process of organizing the composition. He would devote so much time and attention to fine-tuning his compositions that he rarely had time to actually glue the paper elements down onto the surfaces. The positions of the paper pieces were indicated and the final composition was sent away to be adhered at another location. Many of the cut-outs were simply pinned to a surface or quickly spot-glued until after the death of the artist. What I am trying to suggest here, and I think it is something which can be easily overlooked, is that the different speeds inherent to the cut-outs, the rapid improvisatory scissor cuts, and their slow and carefully organized placement (which is still a further zone of improvisation), are what lends these works their singular magical power.
To say that Matisse was a radical experimentalist, that he invented methods of art making which pose new challenges for future generations, seems like a foregone conclusion. Yet to call Matisse an avant-garde artist is also somehow beside the point. He didn’t have to try to move ahead of other artists because he was already there. His purpose was to consolidate and to distill his understanding of the history of art for the rest of us. He wanted to make his works more complete by including elements unknown to him, a process of synthesis that he was continuing to master towards the very end of his life. Most importantly, Matisse had the courage to remain steadfast in his commitment to his central artistic vocation, which was to stir the emotional and sensual depths of the human soul. And there is nothing more “avant-garde” or forward-looking than this.
1. Maria Luz, ‘Témoignages: Henri Matisse,” Xxe Siècle, no. 2 (January 1952), 55-7. Reprinted in Flam (1995), 208.
This text first appeared in Tate Etc. Issue 31, 2014 (London)