In the spirit of leap years, daylight savings and the possibility of stretching time, I am saluting the visionary Henri Matisse.
This glorious Frenchman understood that his purpose as an artist was to “recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it”. Driven by this goal, Matisse was able to tap into beauty, simplicity, and visual joy in a way that few others have been able to.
His story is inspiring. As a struggling artist, Matisse’s first foothold in the history of art was at the turn of the Century as part of the Fauvist moveent in painting. “Les Fauves” (wild beasts) took the liberties of Impressionism a step further by proposing brash colors and interpretations that strayed from literal representation. Throughout the stylistic waves of Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada, and despite his close relationships with Picasso, Derain, and others formidable artists of the 20th Century, Matisse drove forward his love for effulgent color and distilled composition with independent integrity.
Towards the end of his life, Matisse was diagnosed with a grave illness which placed him in a wheelchair and threatened to end his art career. In lieu of defeat, he traded in his canvases and brushes for a pair of scissors, sheets of paper and a couple of lovely assistants. Matisse reveled in the liberating nature of his new process, and its essential purpose. “You see, as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… There are leaves, fruits, a bird.” This resourceful pivot towards ease and play gave Matisse a new lease on life and the cut-outs that resulted are some of the most influential and beloved works by the artist.
Watch this rare snippet of Matisse, letting his scissors steer the winding landscape of a piece of paper.
This gorgeous video is revealing: while his cuts are clearly masterful- confident, controlled, and visionary, they also bely a childlike nature. Matisse then holds up tendrils of paper, and tries to divine the future that lies within those messy curls. Next we see him shuffling shapes on a blank page- basically a child at play with toys in his sandbox.
Creativity is the spirit of play. It is the ability to keep an openness and an innocence and to let things be easy. No matter how young or old you are, how healthy or sick, or how teeny-weeny your living space is, or whatever else you believe impedes you, creativity is the fountain of youth.
The great Irish Playwright, Bernard Shaw once said “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Here is a simple creative exercise inspired by Matisse’s cutouts
Happy Paper Squiggle
1. You need 1 sheet of paper (white or a color), scissors and a pushpin
2. Using organic curves (no straight lines or sharp angles), let your scissors make an ongoing squiggly line in the paper. Don’t over think. Just let the scissors and the paper do the work.
3. Try to keep line going as long as you can and touch all regions of your paper
4. Find a good point with which to hold up your coil of cut paper
5. Pin it on your wall
6. Observe the beautiful shapes and rhythms that it makes
7. You can repeat this several times. Using colorful paper, these can make very happy wall decorations to enjoy.
8. Photograph your work and share it with #tchcutout, or send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Matisse on Art by Jack Flam compiles the major writings of Henri Matisse. Flam provides an astute biography, and shares his reflections on the development of Matisse’s aesthetic values and theories.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs by MOMA was published in conjunction with the most comprehensive show of Matisse’s cut-out works, which were first created in the early 1940s and were made until the artist’s death in 1954.
The Unknown Matisse by Hillary Spurling tells of his early years in a gloomy French Village, discovering himself as a Fauvist and artist, the scandal that almost destroyed his career, and his fight back to life and the vivid joy of his paintings.