Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

12 October 2014 –  8 February 2015

MoMA - The Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery, sixth floor  


The Negro Boxer.  1947. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted.


We missed just missed seeing Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs when it did its initial run at the Tate Modern in London, and we were not going to allow any chance of our missing this amazing show during its current run at MoMA; so we went to one of the member's preview days this past weekend...and what an amazing experience it is!  It is being billed in MoMA's online description as


The largest and most extensive presentation of the cut-outs ever mounted, the exhibition includes approximately 100 cut-outs—borrowed from public and private collections around the globe—along with a selection of related drawings, prints, illustrated books, stained glass, and textiles.

The wonderful catalogue done for the exhibition (edited by Karl Buchberg, Nicholas Cullinan, Jodi Hauptman, and Nicholas Serota and published by MoMA; but cheaper to purchase from Amazon.com) opens with an essay by the editors entitled "The Studio as Site and Subject," which begins


In a 1952 interview...Matisse describes a cluster of colourful cut-paper forms pinned to his studio walls as a 'little garden.'  'You see,' he explains, 'as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk... There are leaves, fruits, a bird.'


The state of his health in Matisse's 8th and 9th decades caused him to develop this unusual artistic form and required he employ assistants to do most of the physical work involved in the construction of these pieces; but the vision and the creativity came straight from Matisse himself.  MoMA's online description notes,


The cut-outs were created in distinct phases. The raw materials—paper and gouache—were purchased, and the two materials combined: studio assistants painted sheets of paper with gouache. Matisse then cut shapes from these painted papers and arranged them into compositions. For smaller compositions the artist worked directly on a board using pins. For larger compositions, Matisse directed his studio assistants to arrange them on the wall of his studio. Subsequently, cut-outs were mounted permanently, either in the studio or in Paris by professional mounters. Subsequently, cut-outs were mounted permanently, either in the studio or in Paris by professional mounters.


The Fall of Icarus.  1943.  Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and pins.


In "Inventing a New Operation, Hauptman describes "Matisse's invention of this new form--his distinctive approach to a basic set of tools and materials."  Hauptman describes the three elements of his process:


...what Matisse called his 'cutting out operation'...was not a simple technique--though it may have started that way--but a system for thinking about and expanding the possibilities of shape composition.  Distinguishing this operation from painting, Matisse explains:


It is no longer the brush that slips and slides over the canvas, it is the scissors that cut inot the paper and into the color.  The conditions of the journey are 100% different.  The contour of the figure springs from the discovery of the scissors that give it the movement of circulating life.  This tool doesn't modulate, it doesn't brush on, but it incises in, underline this well, because the criteria of observation will be different.


What the scissors discovers are the positives and negatives, reversals and inverses, the organic relations between the shapes. their generation of one from another.


The iterative nature of the cut-outs--the variety of forms and the resultant multiplicity of potential compositions made possible by cutting--is extended and enriched by pinning, which itself allows the works to remain in a tentative or contingent state, all the better to compose and recompose.  Pins of course had a functional purpose: they were used by Matisse and his assistants to temporarily secure pieces of cut paper to each other and to boards when he worked on a small scale, or to the walls of his studio as his work grew larger.  Eventually, when the works were ready to leave the studio...the elements were glued to a paper support that was then sometimes mounted on canvas.  In the studio, however, the pins allowed the compositions to remain alive.


Composing: While the essential qualities and material logic of the cut-outs--the scissors' generation of multiple forms and the pins' allowance for contingency and deferral--were evident even early on when Matisse composed on his lap making intimate creations of book scale, their transfer to the walls of his studio marked an important shift, resulting in work that was environmental, sculptural, relational, boundless.  Reconfiguring the relationship between object and viewer, they were no longer solely to be looked at but were also to be lived in.

The Sheaf. 1953. Maquette for ceramic (realised 1953). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on paper.


Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs was initiated as the result of a decision to restore MoMA’s monumental cut-out The Swimming Pool acquired in 1975.  MoMA's online description notes

One morning in the summer of 1952, Matisse told his studio assistant and secretary Lydia Delectorskaya that “he wanted to see divers,” so they set out to a favorite pool in Cannes. Suffering under the “blazing sun,” they returned home, where Matisse declared, “I will make myself my own pool.” He asked Delectorskaya to ring the walls of his dining room at the Hôtel Régina in Nice with a band of white paper, positioned just above the level of his head, breaking only at the windows and door at opposite ends of the room. The room itself was lined with tan burlap, a popular wall covering of the time. Matisse then cut his own divers, swimmers, and sea creatures out of paper painted in an ultramarine blue. The blue forms were pinned on the white paper, which helped define the aquatic ballet of bodies, splashing water, and light.



The result was Matisse’s first and only self-contained, site-specific cut-out. With its reduction of forms, its dynamic deployment of positives and negatives, and its lateral expansion across the walls, The Swimming Pool was the culmination of Matisse’s work in cut paper up until that point. Matisse saw in paper’s pliability a perfect representation of the fluidity of water, making The Swimming Pool a perfect melding of subject and means.


MoMA decided to restore this master work, and to replace the discolored burlap backing with a backing more like the original color the burlap had been in Matisse's day.  (A complete recounting and discussion of the restoration can be found at www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2014/matisse/the-swimming-pool.html.)  It also recreated a room of the same size as the one Matisse had created it for, and covered the entire surface of the walls in burlap, as had been the case in the original room.






There are works of great simplicity,


The Lyre.  1946.  Gouache on paper, cut and pasted


Black Leaf on Green Background.  1952. Gouach on paper, cut and pasted.


and there are some totally wonderful drawings, in addition to the cut-outs,


Acrobat.  1952. Ink on paper.


and some that became so popular that they were probably on your dorm room wall...


Blue Nude II. Spring 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on white paper, mounted on canvas.


This is an immensely satisfying and edifying exhibition...and one you will not want to miss.

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