I am watching the footage of Matisse at work on his cut-outs. The artist cuts in the air. He holds and turns the sheet of paper, which stops being stock, and becomes skin, a living membrane. The form is alive, moving and twisting as it comes into the world. I am mesmerized by the physicality of Matisse's act of cutting, of rotating the paper, of turning the scissors, of the two struggling with one another.
The film is part of the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs on view at MOMA through February 10, 2015. The show, a collaboration with Tate Modern, came to New York from London, where it could have been seen last Spring and Summer. The most comprehensive exhibition of the cut-outs to date, it comprises almost a hundred, many on loan from public and private collections from around the world; and includes the iconic and newly conserved The Swimming Pool (1952), acquired by MOMA in 1975 and on view for the first time in more than 20 years. The cut-outs are accompanied by drawings, prints, illustrated books, textiles, and stained glass related to either preparatory work on the cut-outs or their subsequent incarnation in a different medium. The 300-page catalogue reproduces over 70 photographs of the cut-outs in progress in Matisse’s various studios.
I continue to watch the film. Matisse does not cut along drawn lines or in the flat plane, but surely in 3-dimensional space. A young woman helps him with the membrane; her youth, her keen agile movements as if transfer even more life, more vividness to the membrane. Another woman in a yellow dress tacks the cut-outs to the background paper on the wall. Her bare arms, the material of her flowing dress and the sinuous, alive cut forms are inseparable. The cut-outs are a skin shed; not lifeless - but transforming into another life.
In several episodes the artist cuts in his sunglasses. I think of another movie that I have recently seen, Frederick Wiseman’s The National Gallery. I was captivated by a sequence of the art history classroom: People seated board room style and a teacher talking about Camille Pissaro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897). She passed what looked like black-and-white diagrams of the painting around the table. They were medium-sized sheets of paper (I took them to be slightly larger than A4) with black lines designating main diagonals and shapes of the painting. As the camera circled the classroom, I noticed that most students were older people, several wearing sunglasses. As I observed the people starting to work with the diagram, I realized most students were blind. Each student had a partner who took their hands and placed them on the diagram, guiding their touch along what must have been palpable lines, shadowing the teacher who described the color and light making Montmartre at Night visible. I found this experience breathtaking; seeing a painting with your touch, sensing really.
I wish I could touch the cut-outs. I want to follow the edges of their shapes. I want to close my eyes and steer my finger along the wavy paper thresholds. Will an occasional (and perhaps not fully adhered) sharp edge cut my finger? Did Matisse (and his assistants) get a few paper cuts? I imagine the contrast of the dull sting with the jubilation of form and color. Perhaps, it is not a contrast, but an accompaniment.
I contemplate the four Blue Nudes (1952). Matisse’s model and assistant Lydia Delectorskaya recalls that the Blue Nudes I, II and III were cut “with mastery. Each on a different day, they had been cut in one line / stroke, with one stroke of the scissor, in 10 minutes or 15 at the maximum.”[i] But look at the Blue Nude IV: charcoal traces, many pieces of paper as if struggling to feel each other. Matisse started working on it first, but finished only after having cut the other three, hence the first became the fourth.
I study the photographs of the nine states of the Blue Nude IV in the catalogue. It is as if a body is trying to find a comfortable pose, not knowing what to do with the right arm, folding the right leg, and finally submitting, putting her arm on her knee, tilting her head forward, taking a breath, stopping. I turn to the opposite page and look again at the final state. Many faded lines enmesh the figure. The blue body is cut and patched. It has seen life and carries a few scars. I feel the pain of the cut and of being human in this work more than in any other cut-out.
I turn the page and look at theBlue Nude I and five pencil studies for it on the opposite page. The pencil line is trying to feel the body, to discover its shape, its curvature, its way of moving, of shifting, and of flowing. The form runs smoothly, as if a blue liquid flooded the paper in the most natural way. The Nudes II and III are a little tauter. The Second thinking with her head bent forward. The Third brought her head back touching her forehead with her arm as if trying to wrap her mind around something.
In the exhibition catalogue Flavia Frigeri mentions that Matisse could no longer handle the strain of easel painting because of increasing fatigue and weakening eyesight; and after 1948 did not engage with painting in any sustained way[ii]. He started making cut-outs around 1941, after debilitating surgery for abdominal cancer; he was using wheelchair, and gave cut-outs more and more time and space.
I imagine Matisse cutting in the wheelchair, struggling with his own physical limits, and with the help of youth and beauty pinning the fluid bright forms onto the walls. Perhaps, the artist cut the past and current pleasures and pains through a metamorphosis in the body of his opposite. I wonder if these works also register that cutting and looking can transform one another.
Writing about Matisse’s cut-outs few writers fail to mention the artist’s state of health and his supposed feeling of living on borrowed time, hence the unabashed joy of the cut-outs, which I agree is also true. But I don’t see the bright colors, precise edges and stark forms simply as an expression of such joy perhaps akin to le bonheur de vivre he felt early in the century and recorded in the eponymous painting of 1905-06. I wonder if facing one’s own finiteness, touching one’s own mortality intensifies the light of the world; and one is able to see its true piercing crispness, its beautiful intensity. In a way, light becomes cutting. It stings. And cut-outs do not just express this, but give it flesh. I wonder if the visible spectrum becomes more dazzling, and diminishing eyesight might be a synergetic sacrifice of chromatic nuance to vision beyond visibility.
I ask myself if this quality – finding form that not just portrays, but materializes a fundamental stratum of life, of human nature, or of human condition – is what sets truly great art apart. It is when an artist does not just render an idea via his medium, but musters his medium to substantialize idea in a possibility of a medium that corresponds to idea. Just as Rembrandt’s light and darkness take one beyond good and evil, Matisse’s cut dissects life’s pain and pleasure, the continuity of life at large and the finiteness of one’s own.
When excising his cut-outs, Matisse made sketches and drawings before, studying his subject, exploring a form, feeling a shape, but cut right into the paper’s flesh. In the catalogue Samantha Friedman mentions that Matisse related his practice of cutting to the feeling of flying: “the sensation of flight which emanated from me helped me better to adjust my hand when it used the scissors. It’s rather difficult to explain. It’s a kind of linear and graphic equivalence to the sensation of flight.”[iii] I contemplated this statement for a long time. What does the artist mean? A human can only imagine a true sensation of flight or experience it in a dream.
I muse at the cut-outs. The cut-out forms are wandering; they sometimes move from one work to another. There’s fluidity to their shapes and trajectories. The cut-outs are dis-attached, yet they are attached in more ways than one. They are pinned, like butterflies, then glued. They are locked in with the paper they are pasted onto by way of their negative (or positive, if the artist chose to use the negative of his cut-out). I look at Icarus (1943-44), and I don’t see him either flying or falling, but rather caught in stillness, even if only for an instant. I see the final cut-outs almost in reverse to the original act of cutting out. As if by putting cut-outs in place, the artist was trying to pinpoint the gravitational forces that would hold them together in the two-dimensional world.
When I look at the algae-like forms that lock in with the light paper they are pasted onto, I think of a ying-yang symbol with its perfect balance of two worlds. I see Matisse’s dichotomy as being in search of its point of equilibrium, perhaps in a state of continuous tug-of-war between life and death. I think this is reflected both in the studio practice of composing the cut-outs, and in the contrast between the act of cutting and the final “settled” state.
I appreciated the curators’ question interpreting Matisse’s unceasing reworking of the cut-outs on the walls of his studio:
Can the incessant rearranging in those last years be seen as a means of warding off the most absolute of terminations, that is death?....
The profusion and lack of finish of the cut-outs, then, were not solely the product of wartime, but might be described as the central features of what some call ‘late style’, a set of practices based on the artist’s understanding that one’s working life is rapidly nearing its end.[iv]
In his New York Times review of the exhibition Holland Cotter quotes the famous observation of Edward Said on late style:
Each of us can readily supply evidence of how it is that the late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty, unresolved contradiction?
Yet the artist himself felt:
By creating these colored, paper cutouts, it seems to me that I am happily anticipating things to come. I don’t think that I have ever found such balance as I have in creating these paper cut-outs. But I know that it will only be much later that people will realize to what extent, the work I am doing today is in step with the future.[v]
I wonder if the difference between balance and irresolution is felt only outside the rift between life and death. Perhaps this is what Matisse meant by the sensation of flying in his act of cutting. He was in the ebb and flow of this rift.
In the catalogue Jodi Hauptman asks where the viewer is when encountering The Swimming Pool (1952): “The frieze is above us – and Matisse probably composed it seated – so are we at the bottom of the pool looking up? Above the pool looking down? Treading water alongside the swimmers, watching as their bodies cross in and out of water?”[vi] Hauptman observes that the work “presents a perfect melding of subject and means: cutting through paper is shown to be equivalent to swimming through water.” She considers two earlier wall size works of Matisse, Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, The Sea (both 1946), citing the artist as envisioning a “cosmic space in which I was as unconscious of any walls as a fish in the sea.”[vii] To me, these works mirror two spaces, the air and water, perhaps flying and swimming, splitting the question of “where” in two as well. Where’s the viewer? Where’s the artist? I am not sure if the word ‘where’ is of much help here. I think cut-outs go beyond the space bound by our adverbs aimed to determine location in relation to the beholder. The viewer is in the state of looking. The artist is in the state of being. And the work itself unites these two states.
As the photographs of Matisse’s studios testify, his works evolved over long periods of time. I think of Picasso’s paintings of his studio from the 1950s and the two different places the studio claimed in each artist’s practice during these years. In Picasso’s case, the studio came into his work afresh. In Matisse’s, the work overtook the studio, and the artist was in both simultaneously. What was it like to live in your work, sleep in your work, and dream in it? I think that cutting as an equivalent to swimming through water is only a case of a larger phenomenon of cutting as equivalent to being in its sense of creative presence here and now. Matisse is here, cutting directly into paper. But then, he is all looking, choosing, shifting, affixing his shapes. And it is the resulting state of found stillness that the viewer witnesses. Where’s (s)he? Can we define perspective from which (s)he catches the state of being, in whatever guise it might take (swimming, algae, or acrobat). I think the cut-outs register the ultimate non-coincidence of creator and beholder, the paradox of these two states in an artist, and the threshold separating an artist from his (un)finished work.
But what about the two late cut-outs: the Snail (1953) and the Memory of Oceania (1952 – 53)? The forms do not lock with the background or with each other. Their world is shifting. The gravitation is weakening. The cut forms are unraveling, opening a passage somewhere. I sense these two works are about exit, about crossing the rift. They are beyond irresolution or balance. These works seem to defy the stillness and continue to create themselves before the beholder. I think the Snail might be the equilibrium found.
[i]Hauptman, Jodi, “Bodies and Waves”, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, The Museum of Modern Art, 2014, p. 194
[ii] Frigeri, Flavia, “Chapel Factory”, Ibid., p. 156
[iii] Friedman, Samantha, “Avant la Lettre” , Ibid., p. 89; in her essay “Bodies and Waves” Jodi Hauptman cites the same, but slightly differently translated statement. Ibid., p. 201
[iv] “The Studio as Site and Subject”, Ibid., p. 15
[v] Hauptman, Jodi, “Inventing a New Operation”, Ibid., p. 23
[vi] Hauptman, Jodi, “Bodies and Waves”, Ibid., p. 198
[vii] Ibid., p. 201