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:

Teaching English with Art

Teaching English with Art


Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Matisse and Picasso: a competitive and productive conversation

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”  Pablo Picasso

Matisse and Picasso, two of the greatest masters of the 20th century visual arts, were introduced to each other by Gertrude Stein, an American intellectual and writer whose family moved to Paris. Her family became also one of the main patrons of both artists, although, as time went by, Gertrude seemed to favor Picasso’s work over Matisse’s.

From the beginning, both men always had a competitive relationship with each other. This competitiveness, however, proved very productive, as their work, at each stage, was often a response to the other’s more recent painting or change in style. The exposure to the competitor’s latest work usually goaded each of them not only to incorporate some new and intriguing element just discovered by his opponent but to surpass it or give it a more personal angle.

Harmony in Red by Matisse, Henri

Harmony in Red by Matisse, Henri

In a grossly simplified way, we can say that Matisse’s paintings were more cerebral, carefully planned, based on a representation of living models, despite all the distortions and changes to which this model may be subjected on the canvas, whereas Picasso’s work was more visceral, entirely produced from his imagination alone, without the need of a reference in the real world. Matisse painted in daytime, he had a family and was a quiet and sensible man. Picasso, on the other hand, was the stereotypical passionate bohemian artist, living in poor and disheveled quarters with his mistress of the moment. He painted at night. Matisse was French; Picasso, Spanish.

Matisse was the master of vibrant colors, ornament and light. His lifeline was the arabesque. His art style was part of Fauvism (from the word fauve, which means wild beast in French), a movement considered the natural continuation of Impressionism, with a direct influence from the painter Cezanne. Picasso was the master of fragmentation, radical abstraction and the use of varied and intersecting geometric planes slicing the image on the canvas. His paintings were a lot darker and more aggressive than his colleague’s. These features were the essence of Cubism, a movement that consisted of deconstructing the human form in the painting by replacing it with geometric ones, mainly cubes, assembled together in a way that barely resembled the original idea when finalized. Cubism also had no problem incorporating in the same painting the vocabulary and technique of other styles, composing a complex and mesmerizing whole. This was probably a reflex of Picasso’s personal life, a foreign in France, who could never express himself fluently in the language of his adopted country, therefore becoming very aware of the arbitrariness of the different codes of representation, language and painting included.

Three Women by Picasso, Pablo

Three Women by Picasso, Pablo

Neither Matisse or Picasso thought that the aim of art was to represent a naturalistic view of the external world. Photograph could do that. The important thing was to apply the “Instagram” filter of emotion and personal experience to it. Hence the progressive abstraction of their works.

Matisse was 12 years older than Picasso, but, as their parallel artistic lives developed, they became the closest friends. Each understood the richness and breakthrough quality of the other’s new paintings and variations in style long before anyone else. Their respect and influence was mutual: their conversation lasted a lifetime.

After Matisse’s death, Picasso missed his friend’s feedback and, sometimes provocative reaction to his own paintings, so deeply that he incorporated obvious references to Matisse’s art into his own work, so the dialogue could carry on intrinsically, within the painting itself.

For me the works of these two artists can only be described as breathtaking. Matisse’s paintings have a soothing and relaxing effect on my life. I revert to Picasso’s whenever I feel the need to nurture my darker side and infuse my days with a boost of passion.

NOTE: You might want to check out our eBooks series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART, available  from AMAZON.COM. Clique here for more info:

Teaching English with Art

Teaching English with Art


Au revoir/Saludos

Jorge Sette

Carnaval, Baco e Aprendizagem de línguas

Os que acompanham meus posts neste blog, meus amigos de Facebook e seguidores de Twitter já devem ter notado que tenho uma certa queda por pinturas, esculturas e design de forma geral. Fui também professor de línguas e teacher trainer por muitos anos. Portanto, nada mais natural do que conjugar paixões e habilidades num veículo educativo impactante e prazeroso. Bem, essas são minhas razões e motivos pessoais para combinar arte e ensino de línguas em instrumentos e objetos didáticos específicos: tenho no momento três ebooks publicados na AMAZON sobre o tema com atividades suplementares para professores de inglês envolvendo obras de Matisse, Picasso e Caravaggio.

Havendo exposto meu prazer na produção desses instrumentos, como acho que isso possa ser relevante para alunos e professores? A citação abaixo pode começar a ajudar a explicar meus objetivos:


Georgia O’Keeffe

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for”Georgia O’Keeffe.

Ou seja, as artes visuais são uma complementação da expressão verbal. Se não consigo comunicar pela fala ou escrita, mostro. E assim, meu trabalho como professor  de línguas, e, num âmbito maior, como educador,  se completa. E a aprendizagem do aluno de línguas se enriquece com algo que está fora do universo linguístico, mas que se integra a ele, acrescentando-lhe novas dimensões.

Entre as possibilidades de expressar o não verbal, está a capacidade da Arte de inspirar emoções, através de luzes, cores e formas.  É capaz de traduzir a beleza de uma forma diferente da língua.

Outro aspecto interessante é que, usando arte, estamos acrescentando conteúdo ao ensino de língua. Faço parte da corrente dos que acreditam plenamente no poder de CLIL  (“content and language integrated learning”) para a eficácia da aprendizagem. Ou seja, exceto no caso da poesia e da literatura, a língua não é um fim em si mesma, mas um canal para veicularmos toda sorte de assuntos, tópicos, e conteúdos de forma geral. O aluno de inglês em geral quer a língua como ferramenta para uso em sua área específica de atuação profissional ou acadêmica. Poucos se tornarão escritores ou poetas. Portanto, o uso da arte visual pode nos ajudar de forma criativa a discutir assuntos como mitologia, história, profissões, geografia, política, violência, religião, ou qualquer outro tópico do interesse do seu público. Tudo isso com um poderoso invólucro de emoção, força expressiva e beleza. A arte visual é interdisciplinar por sua própria natureza. Tudo que você precisa fazer é escolher o artista mais adequado para um certo tema.

Para concluir, gostaria apenas de contar uma experiência pessoal, que é bem pertinente neste sábado momesco em que escrevo este texto.  Era aluno de Letras na Universidade Católica de Recife na época, e tinha uma dedicada professora de Literatura Portuguesa. Não preciso dizer que suas bem preparadas aulas não eram as mais populares entre os alunos,  que mal podiam esperar  pelo toque da campainha indicando o final da sessão e o ínicio dos prazeres da sexta-feira à noite (que se resumiam  para quase todos a cerveja barata e serenata pelas ladeiras de Olinda). Um dia, porém, a professora entrou na sala portando um projetor de slides (nada de “data show” naqueles tempos medievais), e, para contextualizar o período barroco da literatura, que estudávamos, decidiu inovar, deixando os áridos textos e enfocando a pintura da época. Assim,  nos apresentou Velázquez, explicando em detalhes o que deveríamos observar nas pinturas. Os alunos se quedaram em choque. A aula se prolongou por muito além dos 50 min de praxe. Todos ignoraram o toque da campainha, e permacerem imóveis, extáticos e atentos, enquanto Irene discorria elegantemente sobre Baco cercado por bêbados de dentes estragados pelo vinho. É a única aula dela de que consigo me lembrar.


The Triumph of Bacchus (Los Borrachos, The Topers), 1628-1629. Velázques. Diego. (Clique na imagem para vê-la ampliada)

Bom carnaval!

NOTE: If you are into art, you may consider checking out our eBook series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART:

Click on the links below to go to AMAZON.COM and buy your ebooks:

1. Teaching English with Art: Matisse

 (30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Henri Matisse)

2. Teaching English with Art: Picasso

(30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Pablo Picasso)

3. Teaching English with Art: Caravaggio

(30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Caravaggio)



Jorge Sette