Matisse In Baltimore

Henri Matisse's cut-paper collage, " Horse, rider and clown," from the 1947 illustrated book "Jazz." The legendary book will be on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Aug. 27, 2006. (AP Photo/The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, Henri Matisse)
Henri Matisse/AP Photo
In 1941, French artist Henri Matisse, already a legend, was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. The prolific painter found himself too weak to even stand at an easel.

But inside, though his body was ravaged by cancer, the strong inclination toward invention and expression burned on. And it was following surgery that Matisse created one of his most beloved and best-known works.

With the help of assistants, he worked from bed, creating cut-paper collages called gouaches decoupes. He was one of the innovators of this craft.

2It took him four years to complete one work in particular using this method. It became known as "Jazz," an illustrated book of stark, geometric yet colorful and playful works of art. And it would be the culmination of his storied career.

The entirety of the legendary book will be on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Aug. 27. "Jazz" is part of the BMA's Matisse collection, the largest comprehensive collection of Matisse works, including painting, sculpture, drawings and prints, in the world.

Jay Fisher, the senior curator of prints, drawings and photographs, said it is rarely displayed. "It's so distinctive. There's no other book in the 20th century that looks quite like this," Fisher said. "Matisse had the power, particularly in these works, to be so simplified and elemental and yet have the capacity to communicate something universal."

The works, completed in 1947, were inspired by Matisse's memories of the circus, folk tales and voyages. Perhaps the most popular of the vibrantly colored stencil prints is "Icarus," the dynamic image of a dark, free-flowing human image against a blue backdrop with yellow bursts. Another work from the book, "Circus," is also vividly colored, with pinks, greens and swirling designs in blacks.

The works accurately represent the evolution of Matisse's work in his later life, Fisher said. "He went through this process of refining and simplifying all through his career, moving to abstraction," he said.

3Originally a law student and court administrator, Matisse eventually studied art in Paris at the Academie Julian. He was always a devotee of color, inspired not only by the works of Cezanne and Van Gogh but also by Japanese art.

He is often compared with Picasso, his younger friend and rival. "Matisse was inspired by nature and music and he never got away from it," Fisher said. "He just explored it in different ways."

Though "Jazz" is now considered a masterpiece among 20th century artists' books, Fisher said Matisse wasn't sure at first if he even particularly liked what he had created.

He was hesitant about these cutouts, unsure whether the colors were vivid enough. But since his time, these 20 folios have been revered for their representation of the syncopation between music
and the forms it represents.

He eventually stuck with his cutout innovation, making them until the day he died in 1954.

"People are just immediately enchanted by them," Fisher said. "You have to spend some time with them before you really figure it all out. But they, like all of Matisse's work, are lively surprises."

It's no wonder, then, that Picasso once said, "All things considered, there is only Matisse."