Matisse: Cut-Outs at MOMA – Part One by Franklin Hill Perrell

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A Sketch of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) I love the image of Matisse in the 1998 film, Surviving Picasso. He appears majestic and large: notably taller than Picasso. Dressed in white, and rising with dignity from his wheelchair, Matisse greets Picasso, who twitches in a frisson of unconcealed nervous anxiety, suddenly fearful that his mistress, Francoise Gilot, may be diverted by the elderly French artist, who though seriously compromised in health, exerts a compelling attraction. The movie setting is suitably splendid: the sun drenched double salon studio of Matisse’s residence at the Hotel Regina in Nice, affording a sumptuous atmosphere redolent of Riviera foliage and light (though most likely they met at Villa le Reve, smaller and darker). While a director’s conceit, the mood and tone are correct.

Matisse, who favored Charvet shirts and impeccable tailoring, is shown in a documentary film at this MOMA exhibition, wearing his pale cream couturier version of the French work jacket, with deep blue silk scarf, over a teal cashmere cardigan with big white buttons, gracefully wielding long-bladed scissors as he trims out silhouettes of algae and tropical leaves with intuitive dexterity.

Matisse, who invented an earthly paradise painted in brilliant color and syncopated pattern, from the very start defied circumstance and convention to do so. Few may realize that this artist, who is regarded as the only rival to Picasso as greatest artist of the twentieth century, had to struggle till past the age of fifty in comparative penury. Moreover, it would be a shock to us that in the immediate aftermath of Cubism, by the 1920’s, his art was written off by the younger generation as superficial and irrelevant.

The Cut-Outs at MOMA, provides an unprecedented focus on a media that Matisse explored in the 1930’s and which came to dominate his work by the mid 1940’s, leading him to ultimately abandon traditional painting. Instead of directly brushed paint on canvas, the pigment is first applied to paper which is then cut into shapes with scissors. The artist explained, “cutting directly into color reminds me of a sculptor carving into stone.” The cut color forms, which might resemble leaves, coral, flower forms, or the human figure are then glued down to a larger sheet which becomes the background, sometimes with intervening colored sheets for contrast. The initial forms, usually organic, may be presented singularly or layered in complex arrangements. While the use of cut and glued paper (usually with pre-printed imagery) was pioneered by the Cubists earlier in the century, Matisse’s approach would be entirely different. The refined development his self-described “drawing with scissors,” proved the perfect vehicle to expand his lifelong commitment to expression through color into a new vocabulary of form and design, producing an unprecedented clarity of shape and silhouette.

Photos Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art Left: Cover of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2014 Right: Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). Large Decoration with Masks (Grande Décoration aux Masques), 1953. Preliminary maquette for ceramic. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and ink on white paper, mounted on canvas. 139 ¼ x 392 ¼” (353.6 x 996.4 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1973.17.1. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Bottom Left: Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). The Fall of Icarus (La Chute d’Icare), 1943. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and pins. 13 2/4 x 10 5/8” (35 x 27 cm). Private collection. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Bottom Right: Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). White Alga on Orange and Red Background (Algue blanche sur fond orange et rouge), 1947. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted. 20 11/16 x 15 15/16 (52.5 x 40.5 cm). Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Marron, New York. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


This three part essay is part of Artful Circle’s journalistic endeavor: Artful Observer: Blog. To read the blog, you can visit on our website, or directly on Our articles will not only feature Artful Circle activities, but also art news about blockbuster museum exhibitions and showcasing selected artists and gallery shows. For the last few weeks, Franklin Hill Perrell has been making several visits to the latest exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art on Henri Matisse and his cut-outs. After viewing the show and doing extensive additional research, he has put together an in-depth article that will help you appreciate the exhibit and art with deeper understanding. Whether you have the opportunity to get to MOMA or simply want to learn more, Franklin has created a comprehensive essay for your reading pleasure.

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