Henri Matisse


Paper Cutouts

First of all, a distinction should be made between the nature of simple paper cutouts (papier decoupe) and gouache cutouts (gouache decoupee) followed by a purely terminological choice between "gouache cutouts" and "gouached-paper cutouts". According to Matisse's daughter, Marguerite Duthuit, the correct term should be "gouached-paper cutouts", and she is right, for that expression says it all. It was nevertheless Pierre Matisse who had the last word, and today the standard French term is just gouache decoupee. Since gouache can be both a colored substance and a work produced using that basic substance, it was understandable that Duthuit held her ground during her many debates with her brother over "gouached papers" versus "gouaches". There are nevertheless standard, if less precise, English usage that refers simply to "paper cutouts", although occasional use is made of the more accurate term "gouached-paper cutouts" as an indirect tribute to Duthuit.

What became involved was no longer simply cutting plain "paper". Matisse would take high-quality paper and then seek to develop just the right shade of color in gouache, which a studio assistant subsequently applied to the paper. Only then did the artist cut out the elements that would compose the work, first assembling them in a provisional manner, then definitively. Each shade and each cut of the gouached paper therefore represents a specific creative act.

The full term "gouached-paper cutout" suggests the difference in material and visual effect that may exist between ordinary paper cutouts and gouache cutouts. Gouache is a water-based paint, like watercolor, but whereas watercolor technique focuses on the transparency of colors, gouache is opaque. It can therefore be applied in multiple layers of the same hue in order to reinforce visual intensity. After having prepared the gouached paper-the raw material-the "painter" could then elaborate the various elements of his composition. Each one was a fragment of colored surface that a stroke of the scissors would assert with greater incisiveness than the stroke of a brush. The new technical approach dictated by this material and this medium meant that Matisse worked more like a sculptor who carves directly into the material. Cutting with scissors rules out all hesitation or revision of what has been eliminated.

In preparation for a major exhibition planned for Tokyo from March 3 to June 6, 1951, Matisse was interviewed by a Japanese artist, philosopher, and poet named Riichiro Kawzhima. On meeting Kawzhima, Matisse realized that everything he told his interviewer would be understood in all its subtlety and depth. The catalogue of the show included a foreword by Matisse, a text by Asano, and an article by Kawzhima titled "Words from Matisse". In reference to his paper cutouts, Matisse stated, "I cut paper, but I'm drawing with the scissors. The drawings I obtain by cutting paper are, in a sense, an abstraction. That is why they aren't limited to one thing or one meaning, they seem to vary infinitely depending on who is looking at them".

Matisse thought he had attained a transcendence or sublimation of color through the synthesis of forms suggested by incised outlines. Thus from late winter 1943 to the following autumn he threw himself body and soul into the visual explorations that would culminate in a commission - withdrawn in late 1943 or early 1944 - from friend and publisher Andre Teriade for a publication that was ultimately titled Jazz. The album would not see the light of day until 1947; it required not only obstinacy on the part of Matisse to obtain the effects he sought, but also help from Teriade to overcome the technical difficulties of the undertaking. The result was a truly exceptional publication. The elaboration of twenty gouached-paper cutouts with a view to facsimile reproduction was in full accord with Matisse's enthusiasms of the moment. Specific titles were given to each composition, and it was only much later that Matisse dubbed the whole set Jazz thereby alluding to the similarity between that music, with its strident harmonies and chords, and the equal stridency and sensitivity of Matisse's colors.

For an exhibition of drawings and paper cutouts held in Stuttgart in 1993-94, Lydia Delectorskaya recounted the difficulties that had arisen during the production of Jazz, and the variety of successive presentations initially envisaged for the work. Matisse asked, for example, that colors be reproduced using the pochoir (or hand-stenciling) technique, which would prevent any subtleties from being altered by the printing process.

Three years of experimentation at the printing stage did not dampen the creative power and joy that Matisse displayed in all the paper cutouts produced over that long period. Nor did it alter his production methods. He always devoted his afternoons "to making new combinations of colors", and the walls of his room were "full of cutouts". Furthermore, Delectorskaya records that he "was determined to show some twenty paper cutouts at the exhibition of his recent work at the Musee national d'art moderne, (presenting them) as fully autonomous works of art".

Today it is obvious that these paper cutouts constitute major works in the history of art. Such series as Nus bleus (Blue Nudes) are not only recognized as such but are widely appreciated. In 1962, eight years after the master's death, the French postal service chose to issue two of his Nus bleus as stamps. The two figures, whose choice was sanctioned by the Matisse family, give a good idea of the monumentality of the original paper cutouts. Marcel Billot rightly referred to the "impression of monumentality created by these (gouaches) - a monumentality that seems at odds with the actual size of the book (Jazz)".

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            Henri Matisse
                  Life and work.
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                  Paper cutouts.


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