January 14, 2015

Matisse: Shaped Color

Memory of Oceania, summer 1952 - early 1953; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas, 112 x 112 7/8 in. 
(I took all photographs from the catalog of the exhibition.)

If you can somehow ignore the crowds, Matisse: The Cut-Outs at MoMA is an exhilarating exhibition, an apotheosis of Matisse's work with color and line. Each shape is bounded by fluid lines, each shape carries strong color, and they play with each other across a surface, abutting, overlapping, full of energy. You can understand why this show was such a crowd pleaser with its bright colors and cheerful shapes, but the work is more complex and full of interesting tensions than mere decoration. The monumental Memory of Oceania, in the collection of MoMA, has long been a favorite of mine; to see it in the company of a hundred other works which lead up to, and accompany, its accomplishment is a joy.

The Sails, The Propeller, Composition (Red Circle with Four Black Triangles), Ace of Clubs;
all 1945-6; gouache on paper, ca. 20 x 16 in. 

Matisse began using cut paper as an aid to composing large works, such as the Barnes Collection's The Dance. During the last 10 years of his life (he died in 1954), he worked exclusively with cut paper. Earlier works are small, but none are as simple in form as these four pieces, which were among my favorites in the show. They have the air of icons, of meditative aids like Tantric paintings.

Cover maquette for the journal Verve, ca. 1954; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 14 1/8 x 21 5/8 in.

Most of Matisse's work, however, has more "verve", more elements in buoyant relationships. I especially love some of the maquettes for book covers. Using the close warm hues of orange and red seems very audacious to me.

Cover maquette for the book Les Fauves, 1949; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 12 3/4 x 20 in.

From organic forms for Verve, to geometric ones for Les Fauves, both have a quality of lively experiment.

Destiny, maquette for plate XVI from the illustrated book Jazz, 1947; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, mounted on canvas, 17 1/2 x 26 3/8 in. 

The Heart, 1943, maquette for plate VII from the illustrated book Jazz (1947); gouache on paper, cut and pasted, mounted on canvas, 17 1/2 x 26 1/2 in. 

 Then there are the illustrations for the book Jazz, so many of which have brilliant juxtapositions of shape and color. I love the deep violets that Matisse uses. His assistants would paint sheets of paper with gouache colors, usually straight from the tube, but sometimes mixed; he would choose papers and cut them without drawing or tracing on them first. At the link for the show at the beginning of the post, you can see photos and read more about the process.

Composition (Tahitian Harmony), 1945-6; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 22 1/4 x 143/8 in. 

Two organic forms float on a loosely brushed purple ground; their weightlessness is emphasized by the stable circle enclosed in an orange square.

Negro Boxer, 1947; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 125/8 x 10 in.

The image and the color are very powerful in Negro Boxer, as black flowing forms rise on top of an irregular red rectangle, all backed by a strong green; Matisse must have been thinking of the Pan African flag. You can see a bit of the three dimensionality of the papers in this photo since some areas were not glued flat. If you see the works in person, their tactility is much more evident; the photographs in the catalog make all the work look very flat. The shapes were pinned to surfaces to work out their positions, making it easy to adjust the compositions. Matisse would direct his assistant to move pieces around until he was satisfied. If you enlarge this photo you can see evidence of many pin holes.

Alga on Green Background, 1947; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 9 3/4 x 5 3/4 in.
Palmette, c. 1947; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 28 x 21 in. 

The long fronds of an aquatic plant and of a palm wave elegantly on their colored grounds. All the leafy, wiggly shapes that Matisse worked with speak of life. When I wrote above that his cut-outs were not merely decorative, I should now add that some of them were done with a designed purpose: for textiles, and some of his later large works were for stained glass or ceramic walls. 

Michael Sima, Matisse's studio wall in Vence, 1948

It must have been thrilling to see a wall of these works tacked up casually, the texture of the paper more evident, making one grand statement. The images were later separated and framed separately, as those above. 

The Japanese Mask, early 1950; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 31 1/4 x 19 1/2 in. 

In some ways The Japanese Mask is so simple––two colors on a white ground, shape and shaped line––but the inventiveness of the shape and line, their offbeat quality, engages the eye in a dance.

Blue Nude 1, spring 1952; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, mounted on canvas, 41 3/4 x 30 3/4 in. 

Matisse did a series of large blue nudes, with variations on this pose. What I find especially intriguing is the way the white line left between shapes clarifies their form; again, a simple complexity. The way Matisse cut the shapes implies volume enclosed by a fluid line.

Acanthuses, 1953, maquette for ceramic (realized 1953); gouache on paper, mounted on canvas, 122 1/2 x 138 1/2 in. 

The last galleries in the exhibition contained very large works, including a couple of maquettes for ceramics. I loved Acanthuses, the clear color-shapes separated by hue, floating on a large white ground; the few charcoal lines added looser movement. It seems so perfectly balanced, so full of joyous life. And why not joy in art?

The Snail, 1953; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on paper, mounted on canvas, 
112 3/4 x113 in. 

Seeing The Snail and Memories of Oceania (posted above) in the same room, on nearby walls, was exciting for me. They are very large works, over 9 feet, and are sure in their arrangements of shapes and color, their tipsy but ultimately perfect balance. I am so admiring of Matisse to have turned a restriction of age and health into a leap into something new. Only a great master could have produced a late body of new work so full of beauty, as though effortlessly.


  1. This goes to show you should do what you can and enjoy it. Someone else will too.

  2. If my arithmetic is correct, Matisse made these from 75 to 85 years old. After listening to an interview of Huston Smith, when he was over 90 years old, this evening, I'm associating Smith's identification of contentment with his life with Matisse's work, which strikes me as evidence of happiness, playfulness, beauty, and contentment. The work is wonderful. Thanks for the post.

  3. Yes, Matisse was elderly when he made this work. I believe it's a lesson for us all.