Livres d'Artiste: Henri Matisse, Jazz
"Drawing with scissors. To cut to the quick in color reminds me of the direct cutting of the sculptors. This book was conceived in the same spirit." Henri Matisse, Jazz (Paris: Editions Verve, 1947).
In 1941, while recuperating from a serious operation and still bed-ridden, Henri Matisse turned to a technique that he had briefly explored earlier in his career and that became his principal medium of expression during the last decade of his life--paper cut-outs. The first project Matisse completed using this medium is the important livre d'artiste Jazz, of which Cirque (shown in this month's centerspread) is a part. Livres d'artiste --literally meaning "books from an artist"--are books whose illustrations are original works of art (woodcuts, etchings, lithographs and so forth, executed by the artist and printed under his or her supervision. Such books are usually published in small editions of less than 300 copies, numbered and signed by the artist and frequently the author as well. Virtually every major painter, sculptor and printmaker of the twentieth century has collaborated in one or more of these wonderful books.
In 1941, the French publisher Teriade suggested to Matisse that he produce an illustrated book in color. Prior to that, all of Matisse's book work had been in black and white. Matisse was initially reluctant, but began explorations with cut-outs.
Unable physically to stand at an easel to paint, Matisse began to cut shapes out of papers painted with gouache by his assistants. The actual cuts, swift and fluid, were preceded by conditioning and coordinating of both his mind and his hands. Matisse refined his images, drawing and redrawing, sometimes merely in the air, before putting the scissors to paper. The images were then carved, never clipped, with wide open scissors through the sheets of pure color. Matisse found that "cutting into pure color reminds me of the carving of the sculptor" and that "scissors can acquire more feeling for line than pencil or charcoal."
In Matisse's view, art has three critical elements: color for its own sake, as both decorative and emotional components; precise draftsmanship; and three-dimensional forms inspired by sculpture. All three of these elements are addressed by this medium. By cutting directly into color, Matisse not only drew with scissors, but created shallow reliefs as well. None of the spontaneity of drawing was lost and, in fact, the resolution of line and color was strengthened.
There are two key elements in Jazz. The first is the creation of space through color. In a 1952 interview with Andre Verdet, Matisse stated, "What I was trying to do with these paper cutouts was to rediscover, through unusual technical means, the lovely days of line and color, to wring out of them resonance and concurrence of a new freshness." The highly saturated colors create a dense, vibrant environment.
The second important element is the use of positive and negative space. For each cut of the paper two shapes result. Often only the positive image is used. Matisse frequently used both, beginning his investigations into this relationship between negative and positive space early on in his work in cutting paper. Cirque illustrates Matisse's manipulation and use of these spaces well. The red and white image on the left suggests the entrance to the circus arena. This shape was created by simply cutting into red paper, separating the resulting shapes, and placing them on a white ground. The red is the positive image while the white is the negative one.
In 1946, well after the images had been executed, Matisse decided to write the text for the book himself and to have it reproduced in his own hand. Although Matisse describes the role of the text as "purely visual," a subtle but definite relationship between the text and the plates does exist.