In the early 1940s, Matisse underwent a serious and invasive surgery as part of treatment for intestinal cancer. After the operation, he was a very different person, lacking the energy and strength to be on his feet for long stretches of time at the easel painting on a canvas.
However, he was about to start a revolutionary new phase in his artistic life. Despite his physical weakness, his mind seemed to be ablaze with creativity and many say he was given a second life. This resurrection manifested itself mainly through a new art form he began to develop at the time: his famous cut-outs. Instead of painting, Matisse would now spend his days in bed or in a wheelchair, cutting out, with huge tailor scissors, abstract forms directly from gouache-painted sheets of paper, and then, with the help of assistants, pin them against a white background in striking and original compositions.
He would constantly move the pieces around until he was fully satisfied with the final result of these “collage-like” designs. The colors were vibrant and pure, lending the composition a life-affirming quality. Icarus is one of the most famous works from this period.
The Legend of Icarus
In Greek mythology, Icarus and his father Daedalus, a master craftsman from ancient Athens, were made prisoners on the island of Crete after helping Ariadne and Theseus escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth, which Daedalus himself had designed for King Minus.
The Minotaur was a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man who lived in the center of the labyrinth
Daedalus plotted to escape from his prison by making wings of feather and wax for himself and his son. However, he warned Icarus against flying too close to the sun because his wings would melt. Icarus, in the typical fashion of bold young men, disobeyed his father’s instructions and soared to the heights, coming dangerously close to the sun. His wings melted and he plunged to the sea, drowning. The story of Icarus is usually used as a cautionary tale against excessive ambition.
Many critics and viewers suspect that there is an alternative source of inspiration to the Icarus cut-out. What do you think it might be? What may this work represent if not necessarily the legend of Icarus?
Imagine that this work is about the horrors of war instead. After all, Matisse put it together soon after the end of the Second World War. In this case, what do you think each element of the cut-out stands for? Think about this interpretation and try to see the elements of the work in the light of this new context. It will add a lot to it.
If you wish to read more about Matisse’s cut-outs, please refer to our previous blog post: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1kq
For those of you who are English Teachers and love Matisse and art in general, we offer a wonderful collection of didactic eBooks for the students to practice vocabulary, speaking and writing, based on the works of famous painters: TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART. The series is comprised of 7 books so far, and features works by Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio, Monet, Norman Rockwell and Vincent van Gogh. For further information on how to download the materials, please click here: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS