A Second Life

The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs
he has introduced into the language of art.

Henri Matisse, 1942

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I), 1952.

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I), 1952.

I missed ‘The Cut-Outs’, the exhibition on Henri Matisse’s famous paper cut-outs which showed in Tate Modern, London and MoMA, NYC.

However, reading a tiny Penguin Book was a nice consolation. I borrowed ‘Henri Matisse, a second life‘ written by Alastair Sooke from my sister and found myself immersed in the surprising turn Matisse’s artistic life took after he was diagnosed with cancer.
One January morning in 1941, Matisse had just turned 71, he underwent a life saving surgery in Lyon. Only in May he came home to his apartment in Nice.To his son Pierre he wrote “It’s like being given a second life, which unfortunately can’t be a long one.”

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953.

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953.

He would survive for another 13 years, but due to his deteriorating health often compelled to use a wheelchair and frequently bedridden. In his last years, Matisse developed a thrilling new method of making art using scissors and painted sheets of paper that allowed him to work with brilliant colours even when he was bed bound.

In an astonishing burst of creativity, he produced hundreds of new works in his seemingly effortless late style that came to be known as his ‘paper cut-outs’.
Matisse created the cut-paper designs for Jazz, a book 20 colour plates, which was his first important cut-out project. The cut out forms quickly took over the walls in his apartment together with drawings in charcoal and ink.

Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, 1943-4, Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz, 1947.

Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, 1943-4, Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz, 1947.

Matisse himself considered the Chapel of the Rosary that he designed for the Dominican nuns at Vence to be his masterpiece. He called it “the culmination of a lifetime of work”. It might be an odd thing to say for an artist who had devoted most of his career to painting, but also for someone who considered himself an atheist. “When I go into the chapel, I feel that my whole being is there – at least everything that was best when I was a child” he said. Suffering from insomnia and anxiety throughout his life, Matisse could still create a sanctuary of tranquillity. Constructing it required “immense effort“, as the artist said, but the finished effect was effortless. This might well be the essence of Henri Matisse.

Henri Matisse, La perruche et la sirène, 1952-53, gouache, collage on paper on linnen, 337 x 768,5 cm.

Henri Matisse, La perruche et la sirène, 1952-53, gouache, collage on paper on linnen, 337 x 768,5 cm.

Another chance to see Matisse’s cut-outs and other works is right there: “The Oasis of Matisse” at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam from 27 Mar to 16 Aug 2015. I won’t miss this one!

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