artist / participant
"My curves are not crazy." - Henri Matisse, Jazz, 1947
In 1943, while convalescing from a serious operation, Henri Matisse began work on a set of collages to illustrate an, as yet, untitled and undecided text. This suite of twenty images, translated into "prints" by the stenciling of gouache paint, became known as Jazz---considered one of his most ambitious and important series of work.
The years of World War II were a difficult time for Matisse and his family. He had separated from his wife Amelie in 1940 when he moved to the south of France. His wife and his daughter Marguerite were each tried and then jailed by the Gestapo for their parts in the French Resistance movement. Marguerite was tortured and then deported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp but was miraculously rescued before arriving there. The artist's two sons, Pierre and Jean were living in New York and Paris, respectively, and communication with them was intermittent at best during the war years. Jean, a sculptor, was also a Resistance fighter, training soldiers in marksmanship in his studio.
Matisse himself was recovering from a bout of intestinal cancer and, unable to stand, spent great periods of time in bed. After a risky operation, Matisse remarked to his friend Albert Marquet in 1942, "Truly, I'm not joking when I thank my lucky stars for the awful operation I had, since it has made me young again and philosophical which means that I don't want to fritter away the new lease on life I've been given." It seems clear that, despite the illnesses, the change in direction in Matisse's work was already under way. This was, in fact the only period of his life when all of his various media were at play toward the same goals. Still, despite his optimism, there was pain and difficulty ahead of him as he was forced to wear a metal corset for weeks at a time. Further, he was plagued by gallstones, liver problems, deteriorating vision and, worst of all, terrible insomnia.
IMAGERY It was the insomnia which greatly informed the look of Jazz. The daylight color range of his painting gave way to the artificial light and synthetic color of the cutouts. Nocturnal creative activity became his salvation from the anxiety of poor sleep. It is not surprising that several of the images in Jazz are nighttime scenes, figures enveloped in remote darkness, like the deep blue night sky. In fact, only the Lagoon images can assuredly be viewed as daylight scenes.
"These images in vivid and violent tones have resulted from crystallizations of memories of the circus, popular tales or travel." The themes set forth in Jazz can be separated into four categories: the world of the French music hall and circus, mythology and legends, symbolism for the War between France and Germany, and memories from his life and travels. Rather than painting from life the artist was, as older artists often do, depending on his memory for inspiration and imagery. In a letter to Marquet, Matisse wrote, "I'm growing old, I delight in the past."
The three lagoons depicted in Jazz are decades old recollections of his trip to Tahiti and the vision of aquatic life he saw there through the hull of a glass bottom boat. He says of the Lagoons, "Aren't you one of the seven wonders of the Paradise of painters?"
It also seems obvious that other themes revealed in the Jazz imagery related to his emotional sentiments of this period. For many of these themes, Jazz was the first time Matisse had conjured them into pictorial space. With others, such as the image of Icarus, the artist returns to a meaningful theme within his repertory of images.
The depiction of Icarus falling through a field of deep blue with yellow starbursts all around him can also be read as a visual metaphor for the resistance fighters' courageous attempts to navigate the skies between the Nazi artillery shelling. The victor/victim duality of war is symbolized in the complementary but opposing dangers expressed in two related prints; self-inflicted danger in the case of the sword swallower and victimization at the hands of another in the depiction of the knife thrower and assistant. The image of the wolf was given a red eye and a menacing mouth as a representation of the Gestapo.
The elephant balancing on a circus ball depicts the precariousness of life itself. The black foliate shapes suggest the exotic quality of the elephant's original habitat and the red slashes give the sense of a confining cage. In Jazz he states "An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc."
The Toboggan, among the first images completed, suggests the thrill of danger and the lack of control one has over one's destiny. "He who loves, flies, runs, and rejoices; he is free and nothing holds him back." The trapeze artists' death defying acts are comparable to the risk Matisse took in changing from his established medium of painting to the revolutionary newness of cut-paper collage. "There is no interruption between my older paintings and my cutouts. Just that with an increasing sense of the absolute, and more abstraction, I have achieved a form that is simplified to its essence," Matisse remarked in 1952 after the greatest cut-out works were complete.
The Cowboy is a ballet between man and beast, or perhaps man and woman, in which neither appears to have the upper hand. Matisse probably recalls this image from one of the Western fantasies at the Folies-Bergères and perhaps from his first trip to America in 1929. He traveled from New York through Chicago and across the American west to Los Angeles and San Francisco before departing for Tahiti.
In 1942 Matisse had planned to go again to America and then on to Brazil. At the last minute the artist canceled. Writing to his son Pierre, an art dealer in New York, "When I saw what a mess everything was in I asked for my money back on the ticket. I would have felt I was deserting. If everyone of any value leaves France, what will remain of France?" Â THE CREATION OF JAZZ Jazz was published by Efstratios Tériade with whom Matisse had previously collaborated on several other printed projects involving art and text. Tériade's artful magazine Verve had already featured, as cover illustrations, examples of Matisse's cutout work. No serious artist had ever taken collage to this extreme of simplicity and description, and there were those who ridiculed him for it. Nonetheless, Jazz was a natural outgrowth of the increasing limitations of Matisse's physical agility and the abundance of his creative spirit at this time. For almost a decade Matisse had been making the cut-paper collages as complete works of art. Several elements in Jazz can be traced back to specific early abstractions with flat areas of color painted between 1911 and 1917. It is also known that in his early work Matisse had used cut-paper pieces to approximate shape and color in his painted compositions. As his health failed and his dexterity decreased Matisse worked more and more with cut-paper, which became an increasingly direct method of imagemaking. He produced very few paintings during this period and until his death from a heart attack in 1954. In fact he produced his last sculpture in 1950 and his last painting in 1951.
Matisse's enthusiasm for his new medium is expressed in his writing, "The paper cutouts allow me to draw with color. For me, it is a simplification. Instead of drawing an outline and then filling in with color-with one modifying the other-I draw directly in color...It is not a starting point, it is a completion." The artist felt he must search for the sign in each object and that the composition would become a "collection of signs invented during the picture's execution to suit the needs of their position," as he stated in a 1951 letter to Luz.
In 1947, the year Jazz was published, Matisse wrote, "Cutting into color reminds me of the sculptor's direct carving." In fact, in the cut-out collages, Matisse combined his abilities for painting and drawing with his gift for sculpture in an unprecedented synthesis. Unlike previous collage artists who used found materials, Matisse preferred using new sheets of plain paper which were brushed with brilliant colors of gouache, a densely pigmented watercolor paint.
WORKING METHODS He would cut the shapes out, generally freehand, using a small pair of scissors and saving both the item cut out and remaining scraps of paper. With the help of Lydia Delectorskaya, his secretary and nurse, Matisse would arrange and rearrange the colored elements until he was satisfied that the resulting collages were perfect. It took two years to complete the twenty collages and, after years of trial and error, a practical and appropriate method was agreed upon for bringing the collages to life as two-dimensional works.
From the beginning, Tériade was a collaborator on Jazz because of his desire to create a "livre-fleur." He described how, "this old project keeps me from sleeping: the modern "illustrated manuscript." Initially Matisse had used the Linel brand of gouache paint because of its brilliance and depth of pigment. He was also advised that Linel paints in particular could be keyed to corresponding colors of printing inks.
Tériade told Matisse to "use all the gouache colors that you can imagine, and that Madame Lydia can prepare for you. I guarantee that we will obtain in the print, the exact color. From the moment that the print is in the plates, there will be nothing to fear, one will always be able to find the exact color, especially when the printing of each color is different."
Tériade met with the printers and then described in a letter to Matisse, "I wanted to personally give them the two plates and explain to them your desires. They understood the importance of the book. They are enthusiastic, and I believe that they will do the impossible to arrive at perfection... Because the printing inks are oily, they cannot give exactly the quality of gouache. My printers are studying the possibility of how to render the original colors, and they envision printing with colors specially prepared by Linel. If this succeeds, we will arrive at perfection. This will be extremely difficult, but I strongly believe that we will achieve it." Yet Matisse was still worried, and feared that certain colors wouldn't come out in the same brilliance of the original. Tériade continued his trials in order to select the best process for reproduction. "I promise you that we will have the trials in three procedures, the only possible ones for this exceptional work in Linel colors and in German typographic colors, near the end of February. Don't think that the trials will be easy. With the Linel colors, for example, it is not only a question of putting them under the press. Many problems present themselves with respect to their fluidity, as they are very sensitive to pressure. It's even necessary to make special rubber ink rollers. There is much work to be done at the laboratory before making the first proof. I hope that all these studies will help us determine the best process to use."
MATERIALS AND PROCESSES In the end, no available inks proved satisfactory to the artist for translating the clarity of the color and the direct handling of the physical texture which Matisse and his publisher required. Additionally, several different methods of printing, including lithography, linoleum block printing, woodblock and even zinc block printing were considered, attempted and rejected before settling on pochoir. A very refined method of hand-stenciling, pochoir had previously been used by such artists as Man Ray, Sonia Delauney and Mary Cassatt and more recently by Helen Frankenthaler.
Matisse had enjoyed using the particularly bright gouache paint made by Linel and used it exclusively to color the papers he used in his cutouts. The stroke of genius behind using pochoir to translate the Jazz cutouts was that the two-dimensional images could be produced using the same brilliant paint as in the collages. By directly brushing the Linel gouache through hand-cut stencils Tériade's printers were able to give the Jazz stencils a directness and richness similar to what the artist had achieved in his collaged maquettes. The stencils were cut by hand from thin sheets of metal, probably brass or copper.
The quality of stencil work done by Edmond Variel in order to satisfy Matisse's requirements is extraordinary. The number of paint colors per image ranges from two to ten. A minimum of five and sometimes over thirty separate stencils are employed to create the complex angular and curvaceous shapes. In one of the lagoon images a single loopy shape requires ten stencils because of the details of all its delicate appendages. In others it is creating the flat field around the shapes which requires the high number of stencils. Because gouache paint is water soluble the interlocking stencils must abut each other but cannot overlap one another. The result is a subtle patchwork made of hand-brushed washes of pure color, sometimes transparent and grainy, at other times dense and opaque. Though these gouache pochoir from Jazz are often seen in books, no reproduction of this work can reveal the tremendous range of subtle textures and shades of color apparent in the stenciled pieces.
Jazz was produced as an edition of 250 books, with the pages folded in half. A separate edition of 100 portfolios were offered as flat sheets with no center fold. These are extremely rare in the marketplace as many of them were purchased for museum collections. The suite we are offering is a printer's proof set of the unfolded pages. This set was owned by a private family foundation in Liechtenstein before it was sold at Sotheby's in New York.
In the book edition, fifteen images are printed as full sheets while five images use only half-pages and are juxtaposed against Matisse's prose, photoengraved from his own handwriting. This poetic text, meandering between philosophy and aesthetics, provides a fascinating view of some of the thoughts Matisse did not directly express in his artwork. It was produced after the images were delivered to Tériade, written out in oversized cursive script, full of the arabesques Matisse so loved. The second paragraph of Jazz contains this witty description of his intentions, "All that I really have to recount are observations and notes made during the course of my life as a painter. I ask those who will have the patience to read these notes the indulgence usually granted to the writings of painters."
Originally the title of this work was to be Le Cirque (The Circus) and it was to accompany text by a poet or another writer as several of the other publications of the time had done. Matisse had illustrated the writings of Mariana Alcaforado, Charles Baudelaire, James Joyce, Stephane Mallarmé, Henri de Montherlat, Pierre de Ronsard, the 15th century poet Charles d'Orléans, and George Duthuit, his son-in-law and most important biographer.
TEXT OF JAZZ As the project evolved the title changed to Jazz, which had no specific relation to the varied images of performers, Tahitian bays, and well-known legends. For Matisse jazz was viewed as "chromatic and rhythmic improvisation" and later described by the artist as "Jazz is rhythm and meaning." As a title for the suite, Jazz evoked for Matisse the idea of a structure of rhythm and repetition broken by the unexpected action of improvisations. The artist wrote to a friend in late 1947, "There are wonderful things in real jazz, the talent for improvisation, the liveliness, the being at one with the audience."
As a way of providing a syncopation and then breaking it with the unexpected, Matisse designed the book so that each full-page image is preceded by five pages of text and each half-page image by three pages of text. As part of the Jazz text Matisse writes of this format, "I'd like to introduce my color prints under the most favorable of conditions. For this reason I must separate them by intervals of a different character. I decided that handwriting was best suited for this purpose. The exceptional size of the writing seems necessary to me in order to be in a decorative relationship with the character of the color prints. These pages, therefore will serve only to accompany my colors, just as asters help in the composition of a bouquet of more important flowers. Their role is purely visual."
Matisse's early works were highly finished paintings with a concentration on the end result. In his later years they are about the process of arriving there---the pentimento of choices, alterations and decisions.
In her excellent essay on Jazz, Riva Castleman, (Curator of Prints, Museum of Modern Art) wrote "With Jazz you hold an artist's spirit in your hands. Each page reveals deeply felt ideas, years of dedication to art and its craft, innate sensitivity to visual stimuli and their perfect organization for the most exhilarating, most satisfying result. Few artists have added to their pictorial work words that have been equally important in form and meaning. The precise equilibrium of these elements in Jazz is Matisse's unique achievement. The dark rhythms, roiling counterpoint, happy staccatos, and jolting dissonances of this Jazz will sound forever. Matisse has taught the eye to hear."
The connection of these varied images to the idea of Jazz is rooted in the very nature of abstraction. In jazz music, a musician can take a simple, familiar, even conventional melody and with a few changes twist it into a barely recognizable tune. The performer can control with just a few notes the extent of the abstraction of the original tune and his audience's ability to recognize it as familiar. From the elegance of Count Basie and Duke Ellington to the dizzying compositions of Eubie Blake or Scott Joplin, the breadth of jazz allows a diversity of expression which is matched in the visual arts by artists such as Matisse, Miro, Picasso and more recently Motherwell, Diebenkorn and Elizabeth Murray, each of whom were greatly influenced by Matisse. For an artist like Matisse, the ability to suggest the natural world in all its diversity through the simple act of cutting shapes from colored paper became the ultimate act of creation by his knowing where to start and when to stop.
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Henri Matisse - Lithographs & Etchings