PRINT January 1978

Performing Forms: Notes on Matisse’s Cutouts

IN ABOUT 1949 HENRI MATISSE made a small paper cutout called The Dancer. It is a relatively simple work, not likely to be reckoned among Matisse’s major productions in a technique that had already preoccupied him for eight years. But it is one of the few cutout pieces in which he made deliberate use of a profile head. Alfred Barr pointed out that Matisse’s work in cut paper owes more to early 19th century silhouettes than to the Cubists’ use of collage. For the most part, Matisse avoided as too obvious the kind of facial profile that seems the natural subject and lurking inadvertence of the silhouette technique. Yet you cannot look at many of Matisse’s cutouts without scanning for hidden profiles. It is a temptation that the very technique of paper cutting keeps before your mind. I think Matisse must have been aware of this, and that his particular use of the obvious in The Dancer implies a way of seeing many of the more important cutout works. (The Dancer is included in the recent exhibition “Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” organized by the St. Louis Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts and first presented this fall at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

The Dancer is a white cutout figure applied to a blue ground. The white figure extends beyond the blue rectangle at its bottom edge, touching a horizontal red rectangle of “stage” below. At the right, a vertical black rectangle of “curtain” covers all but a thin margin of red in the lower right-hand corner of the image. The shape of the dancer’s figure suggests a fan dance, while the figure’s left outline defines a facial silhouette in the blue ground. Because the dancer’s form suggests we should think of her as female, it is natural to see the profile head as that of a male spectator. The Tin Pan Alley dance of the sexes is part of what is implied in Matisse’s recurring theme of the dance—though there’s nothing to keep us from seeing the profile as a woman’s, or as the dancer’s own, doubling in another way the representative function of a single form.

The dancer’s figure bears a clear family resemblance to the vast array of amoebic, leaflike, creaturely forms that Matisse cut from single sheets of paper, painted over in gouache or unpainted, in making his late cutout works. He spoke of the cutout technique in terms of his search for a correct “sign” to represent each subject. “One must study an object a long time to know what its sign is,” he wrote in 1951. “Yet in a composition the object becomes a new sign which helps to maintain the force of the whole. In a word, each work of art is a collection of signs invented during the picture’s execution to suit the needs of their position.” The figure of the dancer is a good example of Matisse’s sense of a pictorial sign. It does not illustrate the dancer, but like an ideogram, its shape reflects traits of what it signifies. The figure of the dancer seems to incorporate the springing movement we expect of a dancer, as well as the feathers of a fan. You might even see a dancer’s vanity implied in the way her figure defines her observer.

Because this dancer is such a singular figure, isolated on a ground that is a “stage,” I think we can see her figure as a sign for the very technique of Matisse’s cutouts. The dancer’s figure is a representative performance of Matisse’s cutting technique. If the lurking profile that we look for in Matisse’s cutouts manifests itself in the dancer’s form, it is the profile of the dancer’s observer, and figuratively, that of the picture’s observer as well. I want to suggest that the profile we feel to be lurking within the contours of Matisse’s cutout forms is always figuratively our own, that of the work’s observer. The dancer’s figure is a sign for the unselfconscious attention of the observer that her figure outlines, and that makes her, further, a sign for the unselfconscious attention that we give the picture.

Taking Matisse’s work, with our consciousness of history, as a celebration of pleasure and of life, we reasonably wonder what our pictorial sign is within Matisse’s family of forms. Matisse did construct human figures in cutout, the Acrobats and Blue Nudes, for example. But these figures are timeless and faceless ideal beings. I think if Matisse’s cutouts allude to us, it is in terms of a process of life happening through us that is really our own spontaneity. It is already accepted that his figures derived from organic forms are signs of natural process. I’m suggesting that many of these figures are also signs for the aspect of natural process in ourselves. Some of the pleasure of Matisse’s cutout works may lie in a tacit recognition of symbols that release us a little from the exaggerated idea of personal responsibility and control that infuse our collective life.

My reading of The Dancer so far neglects an important point about the cutout technique. I have treated one figure of a dancer as if it were representative of a great many others that are formally related to it. Yet when there is more than one cutout figure in Matisse’s compositions, each figure may represent something, but no one figure represents another or even suggests the possibility of its representing another. This is a surprise, as many of Matisse’s cutout figures resemble each other more closely than they resemble the things for which they are possible signs. But it is crucial to the impact and significance of Matisse’s cutouts that in them each figure is materially specific. Color differences among figures or elements in the same composition tend to emphasize this still further. These aspects of the cutout works lay bare the risks they involve. Everything is clear and crisp; all decisions are open to view, even if they cannot be rationalized.

Although he had an extraordinary facility with the scissors, Matisse’s technique left him composing with a set of rigid forms. His art had always rested upon his confidence in his own judgment of when a work was finished. This is most openly the case in his liveliest Fauve paintings and in the late cutouts. The compositional difficulty of the cutouts varied from work to work, but it was usually a matter of handling flat color as well as flat shapes. In a way, the unmodulated color in the cutout works is a counterpart to the material rigidity of the cut forms.

Among the effects in the cutouts that escape reproduction are striations of brushwork that give certain paper shapes a kind of visual grain, and a sense of orientation not directly due to the cutting and composing process. Matisse did all the cutting and composition himself. His assistants had the task of coloring the paper sheets to be cut.

The daring of Matisse’s cutout works lies in the fact that their method is obviously more conducive to decoration than to image-making. But the criteria of good decorative composition cannot be decoded from Matisse’s works, especially as they depend so much upon color relationships. His art continues to present us with feelings of intuitive rightness that cannot be accounted for formally. The givenness, the unaccountability, of feelings is a recurring subject in Matisse’s work. What makes a shape pleasingly apt, or an arrangement of colors inherently gratifying? Can any explanation we construct seem as right as the sense of esthetic rightness it hopes to explain?

Are there really any “abstract” Matisse cutouts? The abstractness of the cutout forms themselves is like that of an unintelligible sign. Think of an ideogram again, or of a character from an alphabet you don’t know how to use. Not knowing the meaning of a sign allows you to see the ultimate arbitrariness of its form. The unintelligible sign can communicate one thing tentatively, namely, that it is a sign. You feel the same communication being made by the most abstract of Matisse’s cutout forms, such as those that comprise The Snail (1952; Tate Gallery) or Memory of Oceania (1952–53; Museum of Modern Art). Yet even Matisse’s most graphic cutout figures let you see them as “just shapes,” as you can see even a familiar sign as an empty form if you disattend its meaning long enough.

Matisse’s cutout works are never abstract in the sense of renouncing signification. Their abstraction is not the antithesis of representation (or of signing); it is more a matter of their degree of stylization. We might see those cutout works that accumulate many small figures, such as the Large Decoration with Masks (1953; National Gallery, Washington) as an effort to stylize further the effects of the cutting technique. The array of bright cutout floral shapes in Large Decoration with Masks gives rise to an optical sense of atmosphere or of something phenomenal and analogous to the nature that the work invokes. The large decorative compositions are abstract in the sense of developing an effect that cannot itself be pictured but can only be experienced. From figure to figure, the cutout technique itself allowed Matisse to signal his mindfulness of abstraction as a pictorial issue and as a possibility.

Matisse’s cutout method was, I think, a way of presenting us with each new work as an accomplished fact—a material, not just a pictorial, state of affairs. The cutout method conveys the idea (or perhaps it argues) that the convincingness of Matisse’s compositions is not just a matter of his taste pre-empting your own, but is instead an objective, or at least perceptible, quality of the compositions themselves. Even in a simple work like The Dancer you can see that the relations among its material elements take on an importance equal to that of the paper components themselves. To see the intuitive rightness of Matisse’s compositions is to see relations you will likely not be able to name, for they will be relations among “signs invented during the picture’s execution to suit the needs of their position.”

Interchanges of figure and ground are central events in many of Matisse’s cutouts, as even The Dancer suggests. In The Swimming Pool (1952; Museum of Modern Art) relations of figure and ground reach a high point of felicity and suggestiveness in Matisse’s art. The Swimming Pool was well installed in the National Gallery, being placed above eye-level, as it was in Matisse’s studio, rather than at eye-level and below, as in its unfortunate installation at the Museum of Modern Art last spring. The Swimming Pool is a panoramic composition of blue and white shapes on a supporting surface of burlap. As you read from one end of the work to another, what is figure at one end gradually becomes ground at the other, and vice versa. White swimmers arching against a blue ground are dissolved and recomposed to form blue figures deployed on a ground of white. Along the way, figure and ground jostle and course around each other in such a way that even areas you read as ground must also be read as figures—as shapes as positive and definite as the more illustrative shapes that you readily identify as the swimmers. The aim of the composition, though, seems to be to make all the forms you can see in it swim. You can see a similar effect in many of the cutout works, even in many single cutout figures that engage long “fingers” of figure with long “fingers” of ground. But The Swimming Pool is Matisse’s grand statement of the pictorial reality of relations as things seen rather than as ideas.

The “swimmers” in The Swimming Pool are in a way counterparts to the spectator, whose attention dives and surfaces and dives again in following the interpenetration of figure and ground through the work. The swimmers define, and are defined by, the medium that buoys them. The swimmers and the pool are mingling aspects of a single process or entity. The Swimming Pool thus celebrates or at least evokes an aspect of actual life, the final undecideability of what is figure to what and what is ground to what. To “swim” is to acknowledge, even to plunge into and embrace, this feeling about feelings. So The Swimming Pool carries an implication similar to that of The Dancer: that your point of view on the process of life is itself part of the process. Further, you might see in The Swimming Pool a kind of vision of evolution, a metaphor for passage—although not explicitly for the passing from birth to death. For me The Swimming Pool is one of Matisse’s finest works, not least because it is a leisurely meditation upon the reality of images and of the art object, as well as a triumph of visual design.

Now part of the ingenuity of Matisse’s cutout forms is in their being signs for the tactility of things. The silhouette condenses information about solid realities into its flat contours. Within the sinousities of Matisse’s cutout signs you can see patterns of reaching “fingers”: in Black Leaf on Red Background (1952), for instance. The cutouts take the idea of pictorial flatness to an extreme, while at the same time restoring to images the kind of tactile immediacy that illusionism can no longer convey. Matisse’s cutouts are images of the way they are made (I think this shows clearly in The Dancer). Their patchwork record of process is their modernist aspect. If you think Matisse’s cutouts were not for him a way of thinking about painting, consider how many of his cutout figures can be taken as signs for pools of spilled, spreading paint.

Kenneth Baker