Cutting into Color


In January of 1941 the French painter Henri Matisse underwent a risky and grueling operation for intestinal cancer. Though the surgery was successful, his recovery was difficult—and long. Matisse, weak and fragile, found himself confined to his bed—an unhappy prisoner of a new physical reality. The familiar tools of paint and brush were lost to him, but his desire to create was not. He needed a new way to make art.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs—at MoMA until February 9—celebrates his ingenious solution. The new tools he discovered were nothing more than those every child uses—scissors and colored paper. Yet what he did with them was full of magic.

To Matisse’s surprise, not being able to use brush and paint wasn’t limiting at all. The simplicity of scissors and paper released him to imagine forms, color combinations, and design that he had never thought of before. “I have been given a second life,” he wrote to his son.

Describing one of my favorite works in the show, The Parakeet and the Mermaid, Matisse wrote, “As I am obliged to remain in bed because of my health, I made a little garden around me where I can walk. There are leaves, fruit, a bird. I am the parakeet. And I have found myself in the work.”