On this date in history, 31 December 1869, Henri Emile Benoit Matisse was born. Although he studied for and passed the law examination in 1888, it was following an attack of appendicitis in 1889 that is mother gave him a set of paints during his recovery. By 1891 he had decided to abandon his law career and to study painting. In Paris he first began studies with Adolphe Bouguereau, but left the Academie Julian in frustration and ended up in the class of Gustave Moreau at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Moreau’s studio encouraged expression and filled the needs of many young artists, including Albert Marquet, Georges Roualt, Henri Manquin, Jules Flandrin, and Charles Camoin. It is here that Matisse began a life long process of experimentation and invention. By 1905 he and his compatriots Maurice Vlaminck and Andre Derain were accused of being ‘wild beasts’ and during the teens his experimentation was debated on whether it was too cubist, or not cubist enough. “The French Window” and the “View of Notre Dame” both from 1914 proved to be pushes into abstraction and invention completely different from what anyone else was doing at that time and for years to come.
Later during the era between World War I and World War II, Matisse would explore pattern space and abstraction through the use of textiles and architecture, and he would employ drawing and painting in this search for certain signs, which were abstracted from the things surrounding him in the studio.
In 1941 an illness and cancer surgery resulted in damaged abdominal muscles confining him to either his bed or wheel chair. When others would have been happy to just repeat and imitate themselves, he invented one last means of working: paper cut-outs that literally allowed him to carve with scissors and paper in space. The series of “Acrobats” and “Blue Nudes” were the ultimate results of these experiments.
The Blue Woman
“She dipped her hand in the sea.
It turned blue.
That pleased her.
She fell full-length into the sea.
She turned blue.
Blue in voice and silence.
The blue woman,
Many admired her
No-one loved her.”
Yannis Ritsos, 1966[i]
Finally, in a collection of writings titled “Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century” the poet Ed Sanders paid tribute to Matisse and his paper cut-outs. Sanders wrote:
“He couldn’t paint, he couldn’t sculpt. He was confined to a wheelchair, and gripped with timor mortis. From his bed at night he’d draw on the ceiling with a long stick with crayon attached. Yet somehow he adjusted his creativity, finding a new mix of the muses, so that from the spring of 1952 through the spring of ’53, in his final creative months, Henri Matisse was able to produce some of the finest art of the century—works such as The Swimming Pool, Large Decoration with Masks, The Negress, Memory of Oceania, Women and Monkeys, and the smaller Blue Nude series. He thought he could scissor the essence of a thing, it’s ‘sign’ as he termed it, as if he had vision in Plato’s world of Forms.”[ii]
[i] Berggruen, Olivier, and Max Hollein; Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors; Prestel; Munich, Berlin, London and New York; 2006; p. 151.
[ii] Sanders, Ed; “Introduction to The Cutting Prow;” Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century; Coffee House Press; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2009; p. 202.