THE CUTTING PROW

“Everything must
Be arranged
To a hair’s breadth
In thunderclap
Order.”
Antonin Artaud, 1947[i]

In conversations with many of his friends over the years, especially with the poet Louis Aragon, Matisse often stated that:  “The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language….”[ii]

It truly was a new world of signs and images that Matisse was creating.  Even as he was recovering from several surgeries late in life and confined to his bed or wheelchair, he kept working.  The philosopher Henri Focillon described this as a carving out of space or as the work of art creating its own space in the life of forms.  The Beat Generation poet Ed Sanders has also described this as ‘those scissors flashing in the world of forms’ or as a ‘cutting’ form.

As Artoud described this process it is a project dealing with arrangements to “a hair’s breadth.”  Later it would be suggested by Sanders that he wants it adjusted “This way and that, Minutitudinous!”

Or as Matisse himself has noted “The artist’s role is not to translate an observation, but to express the impact an object makes on his own nature:  the shock, the initial reaction.”[iii]

“A work of art is situated in space.  But it will not do to say it simply exists in space:  a work of art treats space according to its own needs, defines space and even creates such space as may be necessary to it.  The space of life is a known quantity to which life readily submits; the space of art is a plastic and changing material.”[iv]

THE CUTTING PROW:  FOR HENRI MATISSE

“The genius was 81
Fearful of blindness
Caught in a wheelchair
Staring at death

But the Angel of mercy
Gave him a year
To scissor some shapes
To soothe the scythe

And shriek! shriek!
Became
swawk! swawk!
The peace of
Scissors.

prow1
Helene Adant
“Matisse at work in his studio in Nice”
B&W Photograph
1952
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

There was something besides
The inexpressible

Thrill

Of cutting a beautiful shape—-
For

Each thing had a ‘sign’
Each thing had a ‘symbol’
Each thing had a cutting form

-swawk swawkk___
to scissor seize.

‘One must study an object a long time,’
the genius said,
‘to know what its sign is.’

The scissors were his scepter
The cutting
Was as the prow of a barque
To sail him away.
There’s a photograph
which shows him sitting in his wheelchair
bare foot touching the floor
drawing the crisscross steel
a shape in the gouache

His helper sits near him
Till he hands her the form
To pin to the wall

prow2
Helene Adant
“Paule Martin and Matisse in the Hotel Regina, Nice”
B&W Photograph
1952
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

He points with a stick
How he wants it adjusted
This way and that,
Minutitudinous

The last blue iris blooms at
The top of its stalk
Scissors/scepter
Cutting prow

(sung)

Ah, keep those scissors flashing in the
World of Forms, Henri Matisse

The cutting of the scissors
Was the prow of a boat
To take him away
The last blue iris
Blooms at the top
On a warm spring day

prow3
Helene Adant
“Matisse in Vence with scissors and gouache cut-outs”
1947-1948
B&W Photograph
Cameraphoto, Venice

Ah, keep those scissors flashing
In the World of Forms, Henri Matisse

Sitting in a wheelchair
Bare feet touching the floor
Angel of Mercy
Pushed him over Next to Plato’s door

Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow

ahh
swawk swawk

ahh swawk swawk

ahh swawk swawk.”[v]


[i] Artaud, Antonin, (Clayton Eshleman, translator); To Have Done with the Judgement of God; Black Sparrow Press; Los Angeles; 1975. p. 1.

[ii] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, London; 1995; p. 150.

[iii] Schneider, Pierre; Matisse; Rizzoli International; New York, New York; 1984 and 2002; p. 355.

[iv] Focillon, Henri; The Life of Forms in Art; Zone Books; New York, New York; 1989; p. 65.

[v] Sanders, Ed; “The Cutting Prow,” Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century; Coffee House Press; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2009; pp. 151-153.

THE BLUE NUDE!

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.

blue1
Henri Matisse
“Blue Nude III”
1952
Guache, paper collage
73.5 x 112 cm
Musee National d’Art Moderne,
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

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.

THE MATISSE STORIES

At the Salon of 1907 in Paris, the critic Louis Vauxcelles described the “Blue Nude” as: “A nude woman, ugly, spread out on opaque blue grass under some palm trees.”[i]

In 1913 in New York and Chicago the Armory Show was a catalyst for derision of both European and modern art by the general American population. It was of course the first exposure of works by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and even Ingres to the American public. This exhibition also included selected contemporary American artists, including several who were associated with Alfred Stieglitz and his gallery.

Henri Matisse’s early painting, “Blue Nude, a Souvenir of Biskra” from 1907 was one of the pieces to cause a public stir. At the close of the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1913, the students rioted and burned both the painting and Matisse in effigy on the steps of the museum.

matisse-1
Henri Matisse
“Blue Nude, Souvenir of Biskra”
1907
36 1/4″ x 55 1/4″
Oil on canvas Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland

The painting had been purchased by Leo Stein in Paris at the 1907 Salon. Later it was purchased by the American collector John Quinn, whose estate in turn sold it to Etta and Claribel Cone of Baltimore, where it remains in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Blue Nude was also featured in an exhibition at Stieglitz’s gallery in 1921, where it was seen by the American poet William Carlos Williams. His prose poem, inspired by this painting, may be one of the first positive pieces of writing regarding the “Blue Nude.”

“A Matisse in New York”

“On the french grass, in that room on Fifth Ave., lay that woman who had never seen my own poor land.”

“So he painted her. The sun had entered his head in the color of sprays of flaming palm leaves. They had been walking for an hour or so after leaving the train. They were hot. She had chosen the place to rest and he had painted her resting, with interest in the place she had chosen.”

“It was the first of summer. Bare as was his mind of interest in anything save the fullness of his knowledge, into which her simple body entered as into the eye of the sun himself, so he painted her.”

“No man in my country has seen a woman naked and painted her as if he knew anything except that she was naked. No woman in my country is naked except at night.”

“In the french sun, on the french grass in a room on Fifth Ave., a french girl lies and smiles at the sun without seeing us.”[ii]

More recently, in 1993 the English writer A. S. Byatt has taken a similar approach to this subject in The Matisse Stories, a series of short stories each inspired by one of Matisse’s paintings. This time, it is the “Large Reclining Nude” also known as the “Pink Nude” purchased in 1936 directly from the artist by Etta Cone and donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art through the Cone Sisters’ bequest in 1950.

Dr. Claribel Cone’s will stated that the Baltimore Museum of Art should receive the bequest of their collection provided that “…the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore became improved.”[iii]

matisse-2
Henri Matisse
“Large Reclining Nude”
1935
26 1/8″ x 36 3/4″
Oil on canvas
Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland

“She had walked in one day because she had seen the Rosy Nude through the plate glass. That was odd, she thought, to have that lavish and complex creature stretched voluptuously above the coat rack, where one might have expected the stare, silver and supercilious or jetty and frenzied, of the model girl. They were all girls now, not women. The rosy nude was pure flat colour, but suggested mass. She had huge haunches and a monumental knee, lazily propped high. She had round breasts, contemplations of the circle, reflections on flesh and its fall. . . . She had asked cautiously for a cut and blow-dry.”[iv]

In conversations with his friends and fellow artists over the years, especially with the poet Louis Aragon, Matisse often stated that: “The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language…”[v]


 

[i] Flam, Jack; Matisse in the Cone Collection: The Poetics of Vision; The Baltimore Museum of Art; Baltimore, Maryland; 2001; pp. 41-42.

[ii] Tashjian, Dickran; William Carlos Williams and the American Scene 1920-1940; Whitney Museum of American; New York, New York; 1978; 29-31.

[iii] Flam; Matisse in the Cone Collection; p. 7.

[iv] Byatt, A. S.; The Matisse Stories; Vintage International; New York, New York; 1996; p. 3.

[v] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, London; 1995; p. 150.