Escaping Inner Turmoil: Notes on Matisse’s Cut-Outs
Henri Matisse is the sort of artist who appeals to the young: His art is just bold enough to hint at assertiveness but benign enough to splash across a bedroom wall, or, in my case, above a desk in a freshman dorm. His art did not have any suggestion of the pastel naiveté of the Impressionists, but it wasn’t, say, Picasso’s bloody "Guernica," beautiful as that may be.
At least that was how I used to see his work, but now I am not sure I got Matisse right. I stepped into “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was struck by contradictions. This was not “comfort” art: “The Dancer” (1937-38) looked less like a body moving joyously and more like a witch casting spells; its counterpart, “Two Dancers,” (1937-28) more like bodies falling through the evening sky. Figures were composed of incongruous cuts of gouache-stained paper that were pinned to a canvas over and over again until Matisse had found the proper position for them. This left many of the shapes with tiny perforations—imperfections, to be sure, but also something akin to tiny stabs on paper masquerading as algae, flowers, women. One piece, a sailor-blue-and-white maquette for the cover of a book on Guillaume Apollinaire, had the appearance of a building shelled during wartime.
These were not the motifs I was familiar with from paintings: no pretty women languishing on chairs, no tables crowned with flowers, no frilly arabesques.
Matisse did not embrace the cut-out art form until he was 71. His first series of sustained cut-outs, “Jazz,” (1947) was published soon after World War II. The violence is subdued, masked by the rich colors and the delicate arrangement of the shapes: Icarus, mouthless but perhaps screaming, with red flames pinned to his chest but arms open like dove wings; a sword-swallower with three weapons staked in his mouth, but on a pleasant magenta background and his black eye almost heart-shaped; a serpentine knife-thrower taking aim at a woman, though she’s shaped like a lavender vase and doesn’t seem to mind.
A 12-foot-long rectangular work is freckled with hearts along the top and bottom. “Look at all those little Valentines,” a father says to his small daughter. Between the hearts are lanterns haloed in pink and yellow, lightning-shaped stars, a red circle meant to symbolize sexuality, or perhaps dawn. But there is something amiss, too, suggested by the language in the upper-right corner that translates to “She saw the light of day; she’s now discreetly silent.”
The piece is based on Scheherazade, a fictional character in One Thousand and One Nights, from which this work borrows its name. Held captive and sentenced to death, she’d tell the sultan a tale each evening, but not reveal its conclusion until morning, thereby saving her life for another day. A clever girl. I think of Marguerite, Matisse’s daughter who was held captive and tortured by the Gestapo. In Matisse the Master (Knopf, 2007), Hilary Spurling writes that Marguerite’s captors beat her “alternately with a steel flail and a triple-thronged rawhide whip.” She was hung by her wrists and beaten again; she was nearly drowned in a tub of freezing water.
Matisse famously decried Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) for being too aggressive, too violent. It was then, writes critic Jack Flam in Matisse and Picasso (Basic, 2004), that Matisse recognized his boundaries: “His way of dealing with [feelings] was to try to sublimate them—to feed off the energy they generated but not to risk giving them free rein.” Was there something about the medium of paper and scissors that made sublimation more difficult?
“Matisse cultivated a sense of clarity and wanted his art to have a calming effect,” Flam says. “The bright colors and the decorative motifs were part of a strategy for distancing his art from his inner turmoil.”
There’s something very comforting about this method: retreating into art to escape turmoil, to produce light and harmony. But maybe it’s a trick. Are we really witnessing light and harmony, or is it all a guise—drab unhappiness cloaked in color?
In the London Review of Books, T.J. Clark attempts to define what makes “Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table” (1947)—one of the last paintings to use the familiar theme of a brightly colored room, complete with table, flowers, window—so “hard to bear.”
Partly it has to do with the zigzags of black on red being like a child’s sign-language for electric shock, or a strip cartoon’s for a punch to the head. I don’t want the head on the wall (a plaster of a long-ago lover) to be Marguerite’s in the cell at Rennes, but the idea won’t entirely go away. The dreadful, irresistible still life of apples in the foreground is like a malignancy under the microscope.
Ultimately, Clark concludes, the painting as a whole evokes calmness, but that it only arrives there once everything’s been “pushed almost to the breaking point.” This makes sense, given the use of emotion as fuel to create art; there is still a trace of it in the final product.
By 1950 Matisse had added human figures to his repertoire of cut-outs, an art form that he’d begun to refer to as “decoration.” A room of faceless anonymous blue bodies is innocuous, until you lean in and see the sharp cuts made, the tiny stabs from pins, the way that limbs and trunk are not part of a whole but cobbled together. Around this time the artist creates his own “swimming pool.” It loops around the four walls of a tiny room in the MoMA exhibit: Lithe blue figures dance and dip, fluid as water, and we stand in the center of the pool, watching it all go round. I felt enchanted and trapped at the same time. Were we all drowning?
What pleased me most about T.J. Clark’s review, “The Urge to Strangle,” is that Matisse reportedly told several people “that in order to begin painting at all he needed to feel the urge to strangle someone, or lance an abscess in his psyche.”
The cut-outs were his escape from that disquiet, or so he said. And that’s where I’m puzzled. The cut-outs were where I first noticed the delicate violence, the bubbling beneath the surface. I’d prefer to think of Matisse fighting the urge to strangle with paintings and those cut shapes alike, but I suppose that’s just one person’s ill-defined romanticism. It is probably more likely that cutting out amorphous shapes, with all their child-like allusions, quieted some inner squall. But I’ll still see something else in most of the cut-outs, all their figures pinned like butterflies, even if you tell me the pins are just to hold them in place, and that hearts really are just hearts.
One piece that stands as comforting and peaceful is in the last room of the exhibit: the 25-foot-wide “Parakeet and the Mermaid” (1952). Floppy algae-figures in happy colors swarm the canvas, surrounding the blue title characters. Heart-like apples are plopped throughout. Matisse was too weak to walk outside at this point and often confined to bed, but for all the claustrophobia and upset that must have caused, this cutout is delightfully cheery. He referred to it as “a little garden all around me where I can walk,” and it was there, for me, that the exhibit finally quieted.
“Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” appears at MoMA Oct. 12, 2014 – Feb. 10, 2015