ON THE CUT OUTS OF HENRI MATISSE AT THE MoMA
If this review is not typed now it will not see the light of day and become just faint remembrances. The delightful immersion experienced in viewing the monumental exhibit of the cut-out works of Henri Matisse is a veritable feast to the eyes. This most expansive cut- outs collection ever put together is now on exhibit at MoMA in New York City and stays till February 2015. Before I left New York, I visited the exhibit early on the first day of for members-only viewing (not crowded) and again two days later, yes this is how moved and absorbed I was by the depth and expanse pf the varied themed collections. A most common first impression is that the Matisse cut outs are merely playful and childlike (in fact there were many children with by parents or adults at the exhibit) but they are much more than that, they are also more complex and intricate with their execution achieved quite masterfully. The simplicity and complexity of approach in the presentation of ordinary animate and inanimate subjects is its forte. They give the feeling that despite the enormity of many canvasses they appear to have been scissored, executed and pasted together with facility. Some refer to the process as “scissor painting.” While the facility of execution maybe so for Matisse, still his methodical and well-thought out approach for every piece of work particularly the mural-sized ones is clearly evident… diverse subjects are shown in various angles of shapes and forms, well typified by his pomegranates, jelly fish, fish, birds in flight, cornucopia of familiar fruits and fauna and inventive biomorphic creatures and decorative figures..
The sensuous flow of rhythm, motion and musicality typically resonate with each dancer gracefully in canvasses where dancers are the focus. Making something so simple and yet so complex at the same time is the genius in Matisse. Of the dancer cut-outs, there is one that breaks the mold which is simply called The Dancer. This is a tall island dancer that is diagonally presented in an equally elongated perpendicular canvass. This dancer gyrates with the beat and tempo of loud music, emits the heat and beat of a tropical paradise, and the dance outfit worn shouts with vibrancy of various colors. An initial quick once-over, however, gives the impression of colorful tropical beach with wild palm trees swaying in the breeze, under the heat of a hot tropical sun; until one discovers the existence of an appealing oval face with flowers atop dancer’s head with well-formed thick lips. Then the pieces of an apparent puzzle all come together. Such is the gift of Matisse he plays with the optics of the viewers. He did something similar with an early painting called the Moroccans. In this particular painting there is clearly one identifiable Moroccan, in a squat position with one hand raised, and his back faces the viewer. To the his left are four white turbaned figures, seen on aerial view, all outfitted with vague loose roundish green cassocks seated on a carpet as if praying or in communion. Matisse is said to have stated that these are actually watermelons he painted and the green color supports this premise. This writer believes otherwise. For why else would the title of the painting be called The Moroccans, if there is only a single Moroccan, it is antithetical to the very title, and why the round white turbans atop watermelons? Turbans on watermelons? Again I believe that Matisse is playing with optics of the viewers. Let’s go back to the pair of dancers, (simply titled the Dancers, and the word is used many more times in the exhibit because forms and shapes of dancers in motion are one of many signatures of the cutouts) although relatively small in size this piece undulates with the rhythm and motion of the two dancers and is aptly placed as the first piece of work which catches the viewer’s attention as one enters the exhibit. The female dancers flowing dress with neatly finely folded out smooth edges gives this piece a certain depth and perceptivity that resonates gracefully with the movements of the dancers.
THE BLUE NUDES AND THE SWIMMING POOL
The five large separate blue cut-outs of nude women, juxtaposed in one neat row initially seem formulaic and repetitive but they are not. On scrutiny each nude is as different as their integral cut-outs that make up the individual figure different, their postures and anatomy positions also differ. Each represents a separate persona. Sometimes the limbs are more slender or more robust, and the limbs may be separated by space and at times overlapped, some limbs, or the feet may occasionally be apposed…Ditto with the upper limbs which also assume different relations in the other parts of the torso. The first of the five nudes shows some pencil lines or marks along the side of the integral parts of the nude configuration consistent with a sketch outline of the figure. This may have been the prototype of the rest of the figures, after the prototype is completed he scissored away to do the other four figures. The prototype thus became his template. All figures are reliably and precisely pasted together by apprentices under his direct supervision. There are visual records that showed Matisse pointing to where a fragment of the figure should go by using a pointer. Some pencil outlines are also evident in a few other works. The five blue female nudes have some comparable impact, when viewed together, as, (at least to me) the viewing together of the five of six oversize abstract expressionism pieces of work of five similar women by Wilhelm de Kooning, albeit the mode and style are gulfs apart. To view five separate pieces of work on one subject, that are at once similar and dissimilar gives the viewer clear points of contrast and appreciation. These five de Kooning women were also exhibited at MoMA not too long ago as part of his retrospective.
An extension of this genre of cut-outs is the famous Swimming Pool. Matisse loved the ocean and thus one day decided to have the feel of the ocean in his own dining room. He created a swimming pool to decorate his the walls of the rectangular dining room. With the help of an aide the dining room walls were cleared and thus was born his swimming pool. The blue swimmers mostly if not all females follow the template of the five blue nudes described earlier, except that the upper part of the torso and limbs are shown in swim movements. The cut-outs must have given the room a cool almost Klein blue sensation. The canvass used to create the Swimming Pool throughout was made of burlap which became a big issue because in time it deteriorated the burlap strands frayed, fibers breaking, and these created an uneven surface which affected the integrity of the swimmers and the pool.. It took four years to restore the Swimming Pool by trained conservators after MoMA acquired it. There is video shown on how meticulously and patiently the conservators worked to replace strand of burlap fibers, one strand of fiber at a time and then flattening out the bulged areas. I have seen the Swimming Pool, before the MoMA acquisition at one or two other museums decades ago, and if memory still serves, and as magnificent as the restoration had been, the Swimming Pool size now looks smaller, the height of the pool maybe shorter and some figures are either not fully restored or missing. The original work is most likely so damaged that it could not be restored in its entirety. The room it at the exhibit is accordingly smaller. (I invite any correction to this impression.) Time can sometimes be cruel in the preservation of art pieces and this maybe an example. That said, it remains one of Matisse’s great legacy.
THE MERMAID AND THE PARAKEET
Henri Matisse is not only playful and diverse with the forms and shapes and angles he uses but he also likes to be vague, and sometimes deliberately camouflages, hides or obscures the theme or object that he wants to show. One example of this is his huge canvass of The Mermaid and the Parakeet. This particular canvas is inundated by various types of flowers, fauna fruits like pomegranates shown in various angles, all in celebrated glory of colors. Buried in all this collection of beauty are a mermaid and a parakeet in stark darker color and are distance apart; if an imaginary line is drawn between the two figures, each is drawn to the other. This elicits an amusing satisfaction when the viewer has outed their hiding places. Some gratification fills the viewer and perhaps a partial smile may even ensue. What is the relevance of a mermaid and a parakeet gazing at each other? I don’t know. One is animate the other a fantasy figure. In the Matisse mind there may be some relevance.
Equally huge and awesome are his canvasses titled Oceania: on Land and Oceania: in Air which must be viewed side by side, as they are here; because the two gargantuan pieces do converse continually and endlessly of the grandeur and beauty of the skies, the ocean and Tierra firma and the multitude of beautiful creatures real or imaginary that inhabit the water, land and air. The Ocean is common to the land and the Air and the latter is appropriately shown predominant with birds in flight and skies while the latter shows biomorphic forms and denizens of the sea including more commonly recognizable jelly fish, dolphins, and maybe whales and various species of fish simply represented by scissored minimal silhouettes. That Matisse choose a different color other than blue, after all the pieces are about the skies and the ocean which are blue, is a little puzzling., Perhaps too much blue would obscure the very objects, forms and figures that are represented in the canvasses. These canvasses are worth investing some time to view. There is one particular decorative form that predominates and appears ubiquitously in most of his work, regardless of the theme, and these are the arrays of pedunculated bulbous structures. Which occasionally look stellate or floral; the bulbous part resembles a swollen thumb and when arranged in arrays they interweave or interdigitate with the opposite row usually carries the color of the canvass. Some appear more floral when they are drawn like petals. The ubiquity of these fern-like forms extend to the ecclesiastical vestments (which we will come to later) seen at glass windows of the Church of the Rosary in Vence, France. Buried, and they are small in size are two pieces of work, that one has to purposely look for, are a single slightly truncated red heart and a white on black background single clover leaf (club) which may represent an ace of heart and an ace of club. Although in the colors of black and white appear in reverse. While dwarfed out by the other pieces of work these two aces possibly reflect a shared penchant of cards and cards players like Cezanne. Cezanne liked cards as evidenced by his earlier renditions of card players seated intently focused in their game inside a room with minimal lighting. An example of this work is in the possession of the MET and exhibited in the with other impressionists masterpieces.
TRAVEL AND OTHER INFLUENCES
That Matisse was well-traveled, inside France, St. Tropez, Paris, and outside, London, Morocco, Tangiers, Spain, and other European countries, plus various tropical islands, is known. That he was also exposed, familiar and absorbed cultures of foreign origin like Japanese ukiyo-e and Chinese calligraphy, in the use of China ink, Middle Eastern decorative tapestry, fabrics, carpets and rugs. He was also widely influenced by J.H.M. Singer, Paul Signac and Russell from Australia. These different variables are well-borne out in his works. Besides being well-known colorist, Matisse along with Andre Derain, then Raoul Dufy started the short-lived Fauvism movement which advocated the dissonance of colors of nature. In short the movement violated the colors innate to nature and objects. All these factors are manifested in his cut-out works despite the constraints of paper colors availability. The Moroccan influence can be appreciated not only in his early paintings such as The Moroccans but also in colors he used to create the ecclesiastical vestments of Catholic clergy at Church of Rosary in Vence. His fascination for colors also led him to collect tapestry, carpets fabrics and rugs from the Middle East which were shown at the Metropolitan Museum some years ago.
CHURCH OF THE ROSARY
This brings us finally, to the Matisse masterpiece, The Church of Rosary at Vence, sometimes simply referred to as The Matisse Chapel. Matisse was unable to attend its opening but sent a written message, which included these words that expressed his own personal feelings. “This work required four years of exclusive entiring (untiring) effort and it is the fruit of my whole working life. In spite of all its imperfections, it is considered as my Masterpiece.” Amen to this. Matisse was an atheist but one cannot discern this from the religiosity of his masterpiece which is truly a place of worship. He devoted the years 1948 to 1951 completely and exclusively to this project which entailed detailed and laborious dedication as a sign of gratitude to a young French woman Monique Bourgeois who took care of him when he was sick. Ms. Bourgeois later became a Dominican and assumed a different name. Matisse input in building the Chapel is total with the help of Venetian artisans and a room where he allowed Bourgeois to decorate. Matisse’s travels and his openness to absorb and embrace different cultures can be seen in the Chapel, from its interior of white walls and floors, luminous stained windows, decorative paintings and cut-outs, the colorful ecclesiastical vestments, the simple Spartan abstract outlines of clergy and the stations of the cross, (of which two are presented in the exhibit) all support this. A cut-out canvass of a decorated window, later translated into a luminous stained glass shown side by side and viewed together are breathtaking. His use of colors in the vestments are second to none, and this may be influenced by the Moroccan tapestries and fabrics in his own collections. His familiarity with China ink is echoed in the abstract drawings already mentioned and sketched etchings of figures in the glass windows. The entire exhibit although not complete is still enough to evoke memories from earlier visits and perhaps may prompt a third visit to The Rosary Church at Vence. This is truly the crowning glory of Matisse lifetime work.
MoMA is to be commended for installing such a tremendous exhibit. Consider the hours needed for curating the pieces exhibited, and the planning and thinking process that went to pace this body of work at just the right phases and their sequential collocations are magnificently executed. All these contribute to an easy and pleasant navigation for the viewer through what initially may appear just a maze of beautiful collections. This is a must-see. See the show, it is quite uplifting if for nothing else.
Review by Wilfrido M. Sy, MD
Early November 2014