Matisse’s ‘Blue Nudes’
Matisse found it increasingly difficult to paint from the early 1940s and following an operation when he was confined to a wheelchair, he gave up a painting and concentrated on cutouts. He cut out large shapes from paper painted according to his instructions by his assistants. The shapes were then fixed to the walls and rearranged again and again until Matisse was satisfied with the composition of the large-scale murals. The Blue Nudes series consists of four works, each depicting seated or standing female nudes in an abstracted and simplified form, executed by Henri Matisse in 1952. The series was inspired by Matisse’s collection of African sculpture and a visit that he made to Tahiti 20 years earlier.
My huge regret is not getting to the Matisse exhibition last Summer at the Tate Modern. If I could, I would jet off to New York to see the exhibition there. I have had to make do with vicariously reading the reviews of critics and other students who did manage to get there. Everyone has seen these cutouts as reproductions, reduced in size and with the colours distorted and texture lost. Many people who have seen the real-life series, have commented on the sheer presence of the cut outs, the huge size, vivid colours and also of the surprisingly rough texture and rough cutting, which is lost in the reproductions. They are such simple shapes but I think what makes them so powerful is how the human figure has been reduced to its simplest form, still recognisable yet completely distorted. The eye is drawn to the negative space as much as to the central figure.
Artists working in a similar way to Matisse
We were then asked to find other artists who work in this way and to compare them with Matisse and to what we are doing in this project. I researched the internet for artists using paper cut outs over the years and found that many artists have been influenced by Matisse over the years but he wasn’t the first to work with paper cutouts, decoupage or collage.
Early paper cut outs
The process of cutting out shapes and sticking down as decoration was used in China more 2,000 years ago and from 10th Century calligraphers in Japan started using collage with their poems. Cut out paper decorations made their way to Europe in the 17th Century and were used in decoration or decoupage of furniture and interiors. Traditional folk art paper cutouts are found in a number of countries including China, Japan, Latin America, as well as Poland, Switzerland and Germany. The intricate, stylised and often symmetrical patterns and motifs of the cutouts are often inspired by nature and geometric shapes. They are often brightly coloured, as are the cutouts by Matisse.
Artists have over the years used silhouettes cut from paper in their artwork. The history of paper-cut portraits dates back to the court of Catherine de Medici in the late 16th century in France. There are a number of contemporary artists using intricate paper cut out techniques. Kara Walker’s silhouette panoramas are intricate and look like children’s book illustrations but tell stories of the cruelties and excesses of racism.
Rob Ryan’s works comprise of highly intricate decorative paper cut-outs that include words and images of figures in idyllic environments.
However, the above artists’ works do not relate at all to Matisse’s works apart form the technique of cutting shapes from paper.
The above-mentioned paper cut outs and silhouettes are intricate and representative compared to the simple forms used by Matisse but early in the 20th Century Cubist painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques began experimenting with an abstract style of collage (or papers collies), involving glued-on paper patches and clippings from newspapers which were attached to charcoal drawings. This relate more to Matiss’es work. Other artists such as Jean Miro and Gris also used simple shapes and figures to form an abstract motif.
Matisse used paper cut outs as a way of emphasising the negative space. Such techniques have been effective since the 50s for commercial purposes such as printed fabrics, graphic design, and book illustration. Even if not used in the final artwork cutouts are often used as masks in the printing process.
1950s textile designers e.g. Lucienne Day, Gerald Downes creatively abstracted pattern, shapes, forms and colours from natural shapes and the human figure to create abstract motifs for textile designs.
In the 60s Pop artists such as Andy Warhol used collage techniques in their work.
The paper cut out technique has been used successfully in children’s book illustration. Ezra Jack Keats was one of the first American book illustrators to use collar in his work. Leo Lionni and Eric Carle use vividly coloured textured papers cut to shape and layered together, sometimes embellished with crayon or other marks. When I was teaching children to read I often used his famous book, ‘The Very Hungry Caterpiller’ by Carle as children found the illustrations very appealing.
I recently watched Alistair Sooke interview Dutch artist Dick Bruna (who illustrated the ‘Miffy’ book)s in his studio. Bruna is very clear about the huge influence of Matisse’s paper cut-outs has had on his book illustration techniques.
In my research I found a number of contemporary artists who use paper cut outs in collage or as masks or stencils in the printmaking process to produce images that relate to those produced by Matisse in their simplicity and use of positive/negative space.
Michela Sorrentino – uses simple abstracted shapes which look like cut outs and reflect her background in graphic and textile design.
Elizabeth Lever is a screen printer whose work captures the movement of the human form by exaggerating poses so that the most interesting shapes dominate. Her ‘cut out nudes’ series was inspired by Matisse’s ‘Blue Nudes’.
Jane Burrows – uses flat colours and simplified figures and forms to create a style bordering on abstraction and representation. She produces monotypes with figures outlined in white and stand out against a coloured background. Her work relates well to the present monoprinting project and I shall refer to her work as inspiration as I conitnue through the project work.
Inaluxe is a Design Studio that specialises in screenprints with simple geometric shapes in bold colours. Some of the designs remind me of Matisse’s cutouts.
Laura Slater is a textile designer whose creative process involves cutting out paper shapes to make masks, inspired by drawings she makes of environmental and architectural features Her designs are hand screen printed and she then produces interior products. She adds mark making which gives texture. The shapes remind me of Matisse’s cutouts and I am inspired to use some of her techniques and mark making in my monotype experiments.
Atelier Bingo are a duo of French artists who make collages ‘in the spirit of Matisse’. They combine digital and paper cut compositions of abstract colour shapes. According to their website ‘each composition is an experiment in the relationships between shapes, colours and positive and negative space.’ Like Laura Slater, they also bring in mark-making and drawing to add to the bold and simple shapes. I am inspired by their work to add back drawing to the masked monotypes.
There are many other artists and I will continue the research as I find it an interesting exercise suing their work to try to work out which techniques they have used. This if difficult from the internet as most images are of low resolution and so lose some of the textures. I plan to visit some exhibitions and galleries to seek out more artists!