Matisse Cutouts: A New Art Form

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Suffering from intestinal cancer, Henri Matisse underwent surgery that left him bedridden and in recovery. Wanting to continue his work, he began to create some of the most vibrant and life affirming images: cut outs. By creating the cutouts he invented a whole new art form that stripped the image to its basics with the use of large scissors and coloured paper that to this day endure in its originality and daring. He was mortally ill and could no longer create paintings and sculptures, he created a different means of art and replaced paint with paper and the brush with scissors. Although popular and known for his cut outs today, during his time they were considered paper jokes (1). Many of his cutouts were not exhibited and were only noted 20 years after the beginning of his cutouts (noticed by many pop artists including Warhol). However, Picasso recognised his work was ahead of his time and often visited him to look at them bringing Francoise Gilot with him.

From 1944-1947, Matisse worked on the Verve Magazine Jazz that featured lithographic reproductions of his large scale cut out works, the edition was later republished in 1983 as a revival of the verve legacy and its most important volumes (2). Its graphic simplicity of form and bold colour was perfectly represented in Jazz that only lithography could capture. In essence, The Verve Jazz demonstrated in small scale the vibrant colour exhibited in his cut out works. Matisse is truly ahead of his time in terms of colour and form using paper that isn't seen again until pop art from 1960-1980 where a revival of colour and form was key to its movement. Those who knew Matisse best, including Picasso and Fracoise Gilot, appreciated his revolutionary new art form.

It not only represented a change in his art direction but also his personal life and struggle. During the creation of this book, Matisse was extremely sick during the height of WWII. Daily bombings, death and destruction were rampant and represented in his art work through mythological figures and stories. Icarus is shown falling from the skies but in context of the war, it could be exploding shells and a dead corpse, articulating death through simple form and colour. Yet, with that symbolic darkness comes light with joyful imagery of clowns, acrobats and elephants in bright pops of colour. Despite death there is life and hope and joy, themes brought out in this verve edition with the use of the cut outs. Through its simplicity, deep and meaningful concepts emerge giving it a depth that could only have been achieved through his cut outs.

However, there may be another underlying message in his use of circus show acts including tight rope walkers and acrobats. The dexterity and athleticism as well as concentration required to create the cutouts was extraordinarily high. Cut outs required quick straight cuts and lines with extremely large scissors. His cutouts weren't necessarily small images, but large scale images that required one large piece of paper and one very long precise cut. He even created the coloured paper himself with the help of an assistant. He would prepare the colour, the assistant would apply it to the paper in one solid colour block and pin it to the wall to dry. Matisse would then cut up the pieces and again pin it to the wall to create a cohesive working piece . Although following his recovery process he was still able to paint (of which his last was painted in 1948), Matisse chose to focus on his cut outs exclusively. He worked on a larger scale and was able to do so more than he could have as a painter. Francoise Gilot spoke on his new art form as "It [cutouts] was creation itself. It was a moment in his life that he was one with his mind and his body and thats why at last he could be spontaneous, I think."

His Jazz works left a legacy that permeates in its importance today. His popularity now is a testament to his innovative creativity and curiosity that continues to bring joy and depths of meaning relative to all who view it. If there is ever a work by Matisse that I would think is important it would be his Jazz cut outs. They represent a time of vulnerability and strength that can be felt and seen in the most extraordinary way.

1. Christian Zervos, in 1949, wrote in his French Journal the Cahiers d'art after an exhibition celebrating Matisse's 80th birthday, that his cutouts were paper jokes and refused to accept them as art. Ref: Henri Matisse: A Second Life by Alastair Sooke, ch.5- Nice.

2. The designs were initially intended as covers for Verve, a French art magazine published by Tériade. In 1947, Tériade issued the compositions in an artist's portfolio. The book included 20 color prints, each about 16 by 26 inches (41 by 66 cm), as well as Matisse's handwritten notes expressing his thoughts throughout the process. Tériade gave it the title Jazz. In 1983, the MOMA reprinted the edition.

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