Icarus: one of Matisse’s Most Famous Cut-Outs


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.

Icarus. 1947. Illustration for the book Jazz.

Icarus. 1947. Illustration for the book Jazz.

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

Click on the image above to learn more about the advantages of TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART.

Click on the image above to learn more about the advantages of TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

 

Matisse’s Cut-Outs: Drawing With Scissors


The summer of 2014 held an unforgettable event for the lovers of Matisse, one of the masters of 20th century visual arts. The Tate Modern in London offered an unprecedented exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs, the art form he created and developed in the last decade of his life, after undergoing a very invasive and traumatic operation for intestinal cancer in the early 1940s. This exhibition, Matisse: the Cut-Outs, showed nothing less than 130 pieces of Matisse’s works, a unique feat that some claim won’t be repeated in the foreseeable future.

Matisse’s cut-outs are deceptively simple compositions made of shapes cut out from sheets of paper painted in vibrant gouache colors and assembled together as a collage in somewhat abstract forms. After his surgery, Matisse found it difficult to stand at the easel and paint for long hours, so he decided to start experimenting with this radically novel art form. Sitting on his bed or in a wheelchair, he would dexterously cut shapes directly from the sheets of paper with huge tailor scissors, and then ask his assistants to pin them together in a variety of patterns. He changed the arrangements many times before he was fully satisfied with the overall look and effect of the piece.

Matisse’s cut-outs are revolutionary in the sense that they broke the barriers between drawing and painting fusing them in enchanting colorful shapes. Each cut-out was directly sliced from the colorful sheet without a previous penciled outline to help define the form. They are basically a celebration of color and an affirmation of life. Many considered this new artistic phase of Matisse his second life. A rebirth in every sense.

The Circus, 1947. Illustration for the book Jazz.

The Circus, 1947. Illustration for the book Jazz.

 

The first cut-outs appeared in a limited edition book called Jazz, which, in addition to the 20 screen printed cutouts, featured Matisse’s handwritten notes about the images, painted in black.The contrast between his beautiful monochromatic handwriting against the white paper and the fierce colors of the screen printed cut-outs creates a striking effect. In this book, a copy of which is kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the cut-cuts are mainly representations of circus performers, such as high wire walkers, trapeze artists, acrobats, clowns, knife-throwers and magicians.

Despite its vibrant colors, some identify a darker side to this book, though. Produced at the end of the Second World War, it’s not difficult to read metaphors of these violent and disruptive times into it. Take the iconic Icarus below, for example. You might see it as a representation of the mythological figure of the son of Daedalus plunging across the sky to his death, having flown too close to the sun, which caused his wax wings to melt down. Or you can see a corpse in the middle of exploding shells with a bloody spot right over his heart, as a clear reference to the war.

Icarus. 1947. Illustration for the book Jazz.

Icarus. 1947. Illustration for the book Jazz.

 

Matisse did not stop painting altogether as he started creating the cut-outs. Some of his most amazing paintings date from this period as well. However, after 1948, maybe because of his progressive frailty and growing infirmity, he practically gave up on painting. His creative force, therefore, was channeled to the cut-outs, which began growing in size, becoming murals, and totally capturing the artist’s imagination, becoming almost an obsession.

At first sight, some people may be taken aback by the simplicity of this art form, and some even dare to say this is something even a kid could do. Well, we defy them to try it. Only an artist of the scope of Matisse would be able to combine those kinds of colors and variety of shapes to produce such an impactful and pleasurable effect on the viewer. Besides, the best ideas, as we know, are usually the simplest ones: only nobody thought about them before. Copy cats abound afterwards in all areas of life.

 

The Snail. 1952/53.

The Snail. 1952/53.

 

No discussion about Matisse’s cut-outs would be complete without mentioning his final masterpiece: the design of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, built just down the road from the bucolic house – Villa Le Rêve – where Matisse lived in the last years of his life. It took Matisse four years to complete the project, which included stained-glass windows, three ceramic murals, the interior decorations and even the priest’s robes.

The chapel is famous for the atmosphere of serenity it infuses in its visitors. His maquettes for the stained-glass windows were assemblages of cut-outs, in soothing hues of green, blue and yellow. As the sunlight filters through them, reflecting on the marble floor, one notices the three ceramic murals opposite them, bearing monochromatic drawings representing in utter simplicity and some audacity (such as emphasizing the breasts of the Virgin Mary), the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus, the Stations of the Cross, and the founder of the order of the Dominicans, Saint Dominic.

Matisse was known for his atheism, which makes many wonder what prompted him to design this chapel and to consider it himself his greatest achievement as an artist. One reason might be he did it after becoming close friends with a Dominican nun, Sister Jacques-Marie, who nursed him during his period of convalescence after the surgery. Her convent did not have a chapel at the time, forcing the nuns to use an old garage for their rituals. Matisse used to say that he felt God only when he was working. Therefore, the chapel is more likely to be an expression of his devotion to the God of Art, using motifs of the Christian religion only as metaphors.

Interior of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vince. 1950.

Interior of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vince. 1950.

 

NOTE: You might want to check out our series of eBooks available  from AMAZON.COM TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART. Please click here:  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

Teaching English with Art

Teaching English with Art

 

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.