​Carving into color: Matisse's stunning cut-outs

The painter Henri Matisse made his name by putting brush to canvas. And when chronic illness made painting difficult, he made his mark all over again by putting scissors to paper. Martha Teichner shows us how he did it:

A flickery home movie of an elderly Henri Matisse shows the artist in a hurry with his giant scissors, cutting odd, floppy leaf forms out of paper . . . that his assistants would eventually pin to the walls of his home studio in the south of France.

In the last years of his life, Matisse -- one of the most famous painters in the world -- all but gave up painting for these huge, colorful collages made out of cut paper.

Most people think of cutting colored paper as something children do, but curator Jodi Hauptman said, "What I might say is that what he's doing is reducing form to its essentials, and that's one of his great achievements."

Hauptman, one of the organizers of "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said, "Even at that point when he'd had a full career, he was well-known, he could have rested on his laurels, and he doesn't; he reaches for something new."

The Museum of Modern Art owns one of his best-known paintings, "The Dance," from 1909. But Matisse used cut-outs of dancers to figure out his composition for the famous mural commissioned in the early 1930s by the American collector, Dr. Albert Barnes.

Teichner noted, "All of this looks like a dressmakers' pattern."

Detail from "Two Dancers."
Musée national d'art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Dation, 1991. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

"It does," said Hauptman. "Matisse himself actually grew up in a textile region of France, and he collected textiles. So that connection is, I think, very significant. He's working this out, he's pinning and unpinning -- really having his assistant pin and unpin these forms and he's thinking through the shapes of the figures."

For decades, the cut-outs were a means to an end, a tool, until in 1943, when Matisse was commissioned to produce a book, called "Jazz."

"There are 20 images in the book, and he uses cut paper to compose each plate," said Hauptman.

Matisse liked the look of the stuck-on bits of cut paper, but when the book was printed, all that texture was lost. Suddenly, he realized cutouts could be important -- a new art form.

Paul Matisse, an artist himself, remembers visiting his grandfather: "He had the 'Jazz' series out, all around his room, and he looked at it, and he said, 'It's the work of an invalid.' And of course he still has the urge to go and to do more."

He says his grandfather was driven to work, no matter what the personal cost.

The artist at Villa le Rêve, Vence, c. 1946-47.
La Biennale di Venezia - Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee/Interfoto

"There were all sorts of issues, and he wasn't a cozy person," said Paul. "But mostly, it was his intensity that drove what happened around him."

A man who had to create, even though, from 1940 until his death in 1954 at the age of 84. Matisse was practically housebound, as a result of a succession of near-fatal illnesses. So, with shapes cut out of painted paper, he conjured up the world on his walls -- even a swimming pool that filled a room.

"Matisse is known to have told his assistant, 'Call a cab and let us go to a swimming pool,'" said Karl Buchberg, senior conservator at the Museum of Modern Art. "He wanted to see divers, and he got there -- there were no divers. He says, 'Let's go home. I'm gonna make myself my own swimming pool.' And that's what he did."

It was Buchberg's painstaking four-year conservation of "The Swimming Pool" that led to the exhibition.

"One of the features of our exhibition here at MoMA is that we want to show how Matisse lived with these works," said Buchberg. "They were all pinned up, and we want people to see the pins," he said.