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Oct 9, 2014

Henri Matisse's "Garden" Recreated at MoMA

These are two panels from the newly restored cut-out, "The Swimming Pool," by Henri Matisse, which is part of a new exhibit at MoMA. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.)
The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” includes a newly restored work the museum purchased in 1973, “The Swimming Pool” (1952), among other spectacular examples of what the artist himself described as a “cutting out operation.” These works, which Matisse (1869-1954) began in the last decade or so of his life, were created with a pair of scissors and brightly colored gouache applied to white paper. The resulting shapes, which recur through several works, are sometimes imbricated, but often more simply arrayed across paper or burlap.

“The Swimming Pool,” pinned to burlap and on view in a room of its own, was the inspiration for the entire show. As Mr. Karl Buchberg, Senior Conservator at MoMA, explained at a press conference on Tuesday, he noticed the burlap was deteriorating and discoloring the paper. He proposed that it be replaced; the resulting restoration is what led to the idea of staging the exhibition. In a video which screens at the exhibit, Mr. Buchberg is seen removing some of that burlap thread by thread. He and Ms. Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, along with Ms. Samantha Friedman, Assistant Curator in that department, organized the exhibit, working in collaboration with London’s Tate Modern, which recently held a similar show. 
"Zulma" 1950, one of the cut-outs on display at MoMA's new exhibition. (Photo courtesy of MoMA.)
The exhibition is beautifully hung and lit; one thoughtful arrangement comes to mind of “La Fillette” (“Little Girl,” 1952), which shares a corner with the cut-out of a full-grown woman, “Zulma” (1950). Orange is prominent color in each of the figures, but as Ms. Hauptman pointed out during the press conference, Matisse used seventeen different shades of orange. Asked later if the color held any symbolic significance in these two works, Ms. Hauptman replied: “I don’t think so, but I do think that the contrast of colors in each work is, and of course the arrangement of the shapes.” In Ms. Hauptman’s essay “Inventing a New Operation,” she states that the “importance” (paraphrasing Matisse) of the cut-outs is their “economy of means, their graphic geometries, their play with colour and contrast . . .”

No doubt, the elemental nature of Matisse’s cut-outs is part of their appeal: It is modern art, and some works in the exhibition, such as “The Snail” (1953), are abstract, a collection of multi-colored paper boxes, yet the viewer can still pick out the snail, or in the other works, a frond of algae or seaweed. The cut-outs are accessible, and joyful. Most of them were created when Matisse was ill and perhaps bereft of mobility (his assistants pinned the shapes to the walls of his studio), yet they are filled not only with color and light, but depth and movement as well, as is apparent in “The Fall of Icarus” (1943) and “Two Dancers” (1937-1938), to name just two. Matisse once told an interviewer that he was creating a “little garden,” but that garden grew to encompass large works, such as the delightful “The Parakeet and the Mermaid” (1952).

"The Parakeet and the Mermaid," one of the larger works on display at MoMA's new Matisse exhibition. (Photo courtesy of MoMA.)
In addition to the cut-outs, “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” includes drawings, maquettes, stained-glass windows, and photographs of Matisse and his studio, as well as video installations, including one about the restoration process for “The Swimming Pool.” At some point during the press conference, Ms. Hauptman said that the cut-outs “reduce natural phenomenon to a child-like sensibility.” Indeed, Matisse compels us to simplicity, but also to wonder, to a place of possibility, where parakeets and mermaids, the real and the imagined, share space.

More information on the exhibit is here:http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1469