Henri Matisse and all that Jazz

It is amazing what you can achieve even in the darkest hours. In 1941, Henri Matisse, one of the foremost artists of his generation, was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 72. After undergoing surgery, his mobility deteriorated, rendering him unable to paint or sculpt in a manner he saw fit to his own idea of art.
What is remarkable about this period – forgetting the fact that this was all against the backdrop of war torn France – was his resolve in the face of such adversity. Though he no longer had the ability to express himself as he once had, he nevertheless found another avenue through which he could thrive as an artist, regardless of ill health. Here begun the now famous cutouts.
In 1942, as he found himself experiencing another period of enlightenment, he remarked to a friend: “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.”
A year later he relocated from occupied Paris to Nice and began to work on Jazz, which would grow into a portfolio of colourful works that were accompanied by philosophical and poetic musings. Matisse’s brilliance had reconciled itself with another form and once again established him as an inimitable luminary.
“The cutout is what I have found to be the simplest and most direct way of expressing myself,” he said. “I have attained a form filtered to its essentials.”
All 20 prints from Jazz are now on show at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. They are from an edition that he worked on with the publisher Tériade in 1947. The following year it was gifted to Sarah Stein, sister-in-law of author Gertrude Stein, who subsequently donated it to Stanford University.
Needless to say, by virtue of the works from Jazz, it’s a vibrant exhibition, full of spirit, hope and almost a youthful approach to colour and base emotions. When we are young children, words elude us and we are yet to form any sort of real self-awareness. Yet we understood, we feel and we inquire.
It is this same instinctive feeling that manifests itself in the face of Matisse’s joyful, magical and evocative cutouts. He might have seen man at his most destructive, slaves to false ideologies and illogical and untenable grand plans, but he seemingly saw redemption at the end of it.
Jazz reminds us that we were all once children, naive yes, but innocent and in love with the world. Matisse understood the fragility of life, but he believed in the unwavering power of the human spirit. That’s Jazz for you.
Matisse Jazz at Cantor Arts Center runs until September 22nd 2013.
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