This fall, “Henri Matisse: Cut-Outs” traveled across the pond from the Tate Modern in London to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it will remain until Feb. 8. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see the exhibit in both locations; though the exhibit was the same in both places, the architecture and permanent collections of each museum made the experiences unique.
The MoMA owns 284 of Matisse’s works, including major masterpieces from his earlier and perhaps better-known fauvist phase, such as “The Dance,” “The Piano Lesson” and “The Red Studio.” The Tate owns only 20, none of which are particularly well known. While the MoMA’s extensive Matisse collection informs visitors’ understanding of the artist throughout his career, the Tate’s exhibit proved more powerful in fulfilling the exhibition’s goal of exploring this final era in its own right. It is the most extensive exhibition of the cut-out period ever mounted.
At the MoMA, examining Matisse’s darker fauvist works before climbing up a flight of stairs to see the “Cut-Outs” exhibit colored my perception of it. The origins of this exhibition’s brightly colored compositions, ranging from floral to anthropomorphic to abstract, can certainly be traced back to the color-blocked, nonrepresentational and assemblage-style composition he was doing in his fauvist period. Matisse began his deconstruction of spatial illusion in these earlier 1910s pieces, which he pushed further in his cut-outs.
“Henri Mattise: Cut-Outs” contains 100 cut-outs from private and public collections displayed alongside related drawings, prints, textiles and stained glass. In the final 14 years of his life, from 1941 to 1954, after being diagnosed with cancer that confined him to a wheelchair and limited his sight, Matisse turned to cut-outs to continue his creative expression. This new art form did not require the same vigor of movement that his paintings had demanded and he hired the young Lydia Delectorskaya as his assistant. Matisse referred to his new process as “drawing with scissors,” the opportunity for “une seconde vie.” It also became Matisse’s favorite art form as he said only what he created after his illness was his “real self: free and liberated.”
The exhibition artfully breaks down these final years into 14 rooms that explain the development of the cut-out technique from his earliest small-scale collages to his larger pieces. In the final room hangs a glorious stained glass window commissioned for the Time-Life Building in New York. Some highlights of the exhibition include “The Snail,” a massive and colorful abstract reinterpretation of the shelled molusc. Though the colors and shapes appear hastily selected at random, they are a deliberate choice of complementary colors and shapes whose angles could unite in composition but consciously do not. The spiral-like movement that guides the eye through the piece mirrors what one would experience tracing the whorl of a snail’s shell.
Matisse’s famous “Oceania, The Sky” — another large work presenting an ocean of white objects including doves, coral and abstract shapes on a gold background — highlights a different facet of Matisse’s cut-outs. The piece began because Matisse had cut out a swallow from a sheet of writing paper; not wanting it to go to waste, he pinned it onto his studio wall to cover up a stain that had bothered him. Over the following weeks he pinned more shapes onto the same wall without knowing what the final composition would contain. He was inspired by a visit to Tahiti 16 years before, and he wanted to transfer the dynamism of the natural world he had seen there into the Paris studio to which he was now confined.
Matisse’s cut-outs are both a culmination of and departure from his earlier body of work. He turned to this fresh form of creativity out of necessity but these works proved ultimately to be the ones he prized most. Matisse evolved in these final years to drawing not the outlines of his figures and filling them in with loud colors as he had in the fauvist years, but instead cutting directly into color. We find in his cut-outs a return to simplicity of decoration, but also a purity in technique that his earlier works strive for but do not attain.