The Shape of Things to Come

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
The Museum of Modern Art
Through February 8, 2015

In the early months of 1945, Matisse wrote to his daughter that he had gone as far as he could with painting in oil, intending instead to focus his efforts on a large-scale decorative project using the cut-out paper technique he had employed to make sketches and maquettes for his mural and theater projects in the early Thirties ("Red Dancer" [1937-38], and "Two Dancers" [1937–38] for Diaghilev's Rouge et Noir). "Painting seems to be finished for me for now… I'm for decoration -- there I give myself everything I can. I put into it all the efforts of my life." Although he had already been employing this technique for years as an adjunct to his paintings, it was not until the mid-Forties that he turned almost exclusively to cut paper as his primary medium, introducing a radically new operation that came to be called a cut-out. The Museum of Modern Art has devoted an entire exhibition, a mini-retrospective of sorts, to this final chapter in Matisse's work.

Matisse's last few works in oil, "Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table" (1947) and "Still Life with Pomegranates" (1947) (not in exhibition), lend some understanding to Matisse's increasing turn to flat planes of color, juxtaposed with incredible subtlety. When looking at many of the first works in the exhibition, such as studies for the illustrations in the book Jazz, and "The Cowboy"(1943), the economy of means that Matisse employs, coupled with patience and restraint, begin to emerge. For example, one can see the tangible traces of his minute shifts of colored paper; Matisse used sewing pins to place his papers, a move inspired by his wife’s dressmaking patterns. By 1948, with Matisse's work on the Chapel of the Rosary, a large-scale architectural décor, we can see that what was once a means of arranging studies has become a method of direct painting. 

Videos that accompany the pieces in the gallery show Matisse at work, surrounded by dozens of sketches he is rapidly hewing from large sheets ("Pale Blue Window (Second maquette for the apse window of the Chapel of the Rosary)," 1948-49). In another work, "Little Girl" (1952), Matisse describes a girl walking in a woods or park. The figure is orange, with light blue hair, pulled back with a darker blue headband, and green, jagged shapes represent trees or bushes. Around this time Alberto Giacometti had become interested in Matisse's work. The apocryphal stories about this often point out the irony of the resolutely figurative Giacometti becoming interested in Matisse as he became almost totally an abstract artist. But given the severity of "Little Girl," one might see how Giacometti’s almost surgical reductive strategies might find inspiration in Matisse's similar approach.

The exhibition's strongest works, "Blue Nude IV" (1952) and "Acrobats"(1952), show Matisse mastering the method that he invented. Both the by-now-iconic Blue Nudes and the pencil studies for "Acrobats" show an increasingly precise vocabulary of shape being turned into complete stories of images. Though by now it is almost taken as gospel that these final works are "masterpieces" of Modern art, it is by seeing them all together that some trace of Matisse’s struggles still remains. After all, pictures such as this were never seen before, and aside from a constant exchange of letters with his son, the New York art dealer Pierre Matisse, and the well-documented conversations with Picasso and Gilot, Matisse worked in a more or less self-imposed disciplined environment. We can look back now at his letter to Marguerite and smile knowingly as he concludes, "Ever since [his stay in Lyon, the previous year] I feel myself no longer affected by the critics … and who knows how what I am doing at the moment will be judged in 25 years?" - Bradley Rubenstein


The Museum of Modern Art is at 11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019. 

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.