His True Colors: The Matisse Cut-Outs Exhibit
On Friday, January 30th, our small group bundled up and headed out to the Museum of Modern Art. This group was made up of members of the Honors Program and students from Professor Joanne Jacobson’s First Year Seminar, “Illness and Healing Narratives.” When I first stepped into the Matisse Cut Outs exhibit, I was taken aback by the rainbow of colors. There were paper cutouts of all sorts and types: dancing people, swaying fronds, and floating shapes. I smiled at a piece called Toboggan, in which the little brown sled was wedged in a paper snowdrift and its rider was thrown into the open air. A work called The Fall of Icarus also caught my attention, with a symbolic white figure on a field of black and scattered yellow explosions. However, the exhibit is best captured in a film that was playing, featuring an ailing man in a wheelchair slowly cutting pieces of red paper.
Henri Matisse was an accomplished French artist who was renowned for his colorful and intricate paintings such as Dance and The Open Window. However, in 1941, he was diagnosed with cancer. A risky surgery which followed forced him to use a wheelchair. One would expect this to be a devastating blow to Matisse’s art, for how can a sickly man who can’t even stand up have the ability to paint? Shockingly enough, the exact opposite happened. Matisse’s creativity blossomed throughout the fourteen years before his death, in a rebirth which he called “une seconde vie”—a second life.
Matisse funneled his creativity into a new form of art: paper cutouts. He would paste sheets of paper with many different hues of gouache, and then cut the papers into all sorts of intricate or simple shapes. In the Matisse exhibit, there was a photo of the wheelchair-bound Matisse, with a colorful explosion of paper shards scattered on the floor around him. The dissonance between the man’s grey face and his colorful papers was beautiful. Once he cut out the shapes, he would pin and paste the various bits together to form a masterpiece. If the masterpiece he was creating was too large for him to manipulate, he would use a pointer to indicate to his assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, the exact place he would like to put each and every pin.
Matisse claimed that “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.” When one has a close encounter with death, it rids him of his false identities and earthly fetters. Every cutout of the exhibit was saturated with freedom. In his work The Parakeet and the Mermaid, Matisse didn’t use realistic dull greys and browns. Instead, he used azure blues, coral pinks, and fiery oranges. In the same masterpiece, he didn’t bother placing the fruit in a basket or in a tree. The pomegranates and seaweed fronds fly across the generous white background, the essence of freedom itself. On a different wall, I found the Creole Dancer. Most artists would go through all the bother of making sure every limb was perfectly proportioned before calling it a finished product. Matisse instead had in mind the raw rhythm and motion of a dancer, emphasized by the dancer’s explosion of feathers and flying limbs. Through illness and a new art style, Matisse was finally able to show his true colors.
As we moved through the MOMA exhibition, we suddenly found ourselves in a room entirely ringed in blue. When I looked closer, I saw that the rings of blue were made of many diaphanous shapes reminiscent of fish, sea-stars, and even people. This was Matisse’s pool. The story goes that Matisse, who had been trapped in his house by his illness, asked his assistant if she could take him to see swimmers in a pool. Unfortunately, the sunlight was too painful to allow him even this simple pleasure. This could have been a perfectly reasonable moment for him to cry out in frustration. Instead, he simply said “I will make myself my own pool.” Many blue cuttings later, Matisse had created a watery mesh of graceful figures. The cut-outs were more than just a hobby for Matisse—it was his way of taking back what illness had stolen from him.