Author: Henri Matisse
Introduction: Jack Flam
Published on: 15.08.2019
Jazz, 1947 (1)
Matisse began the cut and pasted designs for Jazz some time around 1943 and the book was published on 30 September 1947, as a folio of almost one hundred and fifty pages. The pictures of the book consist of some twenty colorful plates of pochoir prints executed after Matisse’s original cut-paper compositions, using inks based on the same colors that he had used for the originals. The subjects of the plates are taken largely from folklore, mythology, and the circus - a departure from Matisse’s usual subject matter - with an accompanying text reproduced in Matisse’s own large, sprawling handwriting, Jazz was in effect Matisse’s first major public affirmation of his new cutout technique, and he was especially concerned about its reception. (2) Matisse worked on the text for Jazz in a number of notebooks, from which he used only parts of the projected text. (3) As published, the text is divided into sixteen sections, some of which are introduced by a title, others by an underlined opening phrase (printed here in italics).
In the introduction to the text Matisse notes that the holograph text is meant to “serve only as accompaniment to my colors… THEIR ROLE IS THUS PURELY SPECTACULAR.” With typical modesty - (not to say indirection) - Matisse states that he can only offer some remarks, made in the course of his lifetime as a painter: “I ask of those who have the patience to read them, that indulgence which is generally accorded to the writing of painters.” The introduction, then, serves as a modest and indirect way for the painter to introduce his desire to make some observations about the nature of art and about life itself. The device of saying that the writing is unimportant gives him freedom to ramble in the text and to be fanciful and metaphorical - and at times intensely personal - in contrast to the usually rather abstract or methodical explanations of his ideas.
In fact, the writing of this book was very important to Matisse; and though the pictures were mostly finished by 1944, he continued to work on the text until shortly before its publication in 1947. And while the handwritten text gives the impression of great spontaneity, it went through a number of different drafts and versions - as can be seen in a 1946 notebook that is usually referred to as “Réperoire: 6.” (4) Some of these variants are given in the annotations to the text below.
Although for many years most writers accepted Matisse’s avowal that there was no particular relationship between plates and text, a subtle but firm relationship does exist. The illustrations themselves seem to have two major kinds of subjects: the isolated figures (the Clown, Icarus, Swimmer, etc.), which seem to be metaphors for the artist; and the double figures (Knife Thrower, Cowboy, Heart, etc.) which suggest a dialogue, in the manner of “artist and model”. (5) The underlying theme of the Jazz plates thus seems to be art and artifice; and these themes find many parallels in the text. Further, despite the vivid colors of the plates and their circus themes, few of them are actually cheerful; several are among Matisse’s most ominous images. (6)
There are also some wry juxtapositions, such as the placement of the falling “Icarus” at the end of the “Airplane” section. In a draft for this section, Matisse had written: “You find yourself in a completely white landscape, in radiant but not blinding light. The forms of the clouds seem to block the route. We come closer and then penetrate them in silent fog and diffused light. We emerge, the noise of the plane grows louder and once again we find ourselves abruptly in the bright, caressing light (a light not only bright but delectable). Isn’t this what we need to help us forget? An airplane trip can help us both to forget and to find the peace of mind that makes everything possible. What is surprising is the feeling of motionlessness and of great security. It seems impossible that we could fall.” (7)
Not only is the subject matter of Jazz unusual for Matisse, but so is the feeling conveyed. It is quite likely that in Jazz Matisse was striving after the kind of meaningful cacophony found in Erik Satie’s Parade of 1917, which he associated with the improvisatory nature of jazz music. (8)
The twenty plates and rambling text of Jazz, full of subtlety and innuendo, at once bold and gay and tragic (Satie had said of jazz that “it shouts its sorrows”), form one of Matisse’s most interesting statements about his art - and in fact amount to a kind of artistic credo.
- Jack Flam
- Henri Matisse
Why, after having written, “He who wants to dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his tongue,” do I need to resort to a medium other than my own? (9) Because now I wish to present color plates in the most favorable conditions possible. To do so, I need to separate them by intervals of a different character. I decided that a handwritten text was most suitable for this purpose. The unusual size of the writing seems to me to provide the necessary decorative rapport with the character of the color plates. Thus these pages serve only as an accompaniment to my colors, as asters add to the composition of a bouquet of more important flowers.
THEIR ROLE IS THUS PURELY SPECTACULAR.
What can I write? I certainly cannot fill these pages with the fables of La Fontaine, as I did when I was a solicitor’s clerk, for “engrossed conclusions” that no one, not even the judge, ever reads; and which only serve to use up a quantity of official paper proportionate to the importance of the case.
I can only offer some remarks, notes made in the course of my lifetime as a painter. I ask that those who have the patience to read them do so with the indulgence generally accorded the writings of a painter. (10)
During a walk in the garden I pick flower after flower, gathering them one after the other into the crook of my arm as I chance to pick them. Then I go into the house with the intention of painting them. After I have rearranged them in my own way, what a disappointment: all their charm is lost in this arrangement. What has happened?
The unconscious grouping made when my taste led me from flower to flower has been replaced by a willful arrangement, the result of remembered bouquets long since dead, which have left in my memory the bygone charm with which I have burdened this new bouquet.
Renoir told me: “When I have arranged a bouquet in order to paint it, I go round to the side I had not seen.”
A simple voyage by plane from Paris to London gives us a revelation of the world that our imagination cannot anticipate. (11) At the same time that the feeling of our new situation delights us, it confuses us with the memory of the cares and annoyances with which we let ourselves be troubled on that same earth that we catch sight of below us as we cross over holes in the plain of clouds that we are overlooking from an enchanted world which was there all the time. And when we are returned to our modest condition of walking, we will no longer feel the weight of the grey sky upon us because we will remember that beyond this wall of clouds, so easily crossed, there exists the splendor of the sun as well as the perception of limitless space in which for a moment we felt so free.
Shouldn’t one have young people who have finished their studies make a long journey by plane. (12)
The character of a face in a drawing depends not upon its various proportions but upon a spiritual light that it reflects. So much so, that two drawings of the same face may represent the same character though drawn in different proportions. No leaf of a fig tree is identical to any other, each has a form of its own, but each one cries out: Fig tree. (13)
If I have confidence in my hand that draws, it is because as I was training it to serve me, I never allowed it to dominate my feeling. I very quickly sense, when it is paraphrasing something, if there is any discord between us: between my hand and the “je ne sais quoi” in myself that seems submissive to it.
The hand is only an extension of sensibility and intelligence. The most supple it is, the more obedient. The servant must not become the mistress.
Drawing with scissors
Cutting directly into vivid color reminds me of the direct carving of sculptors.
This book was conceived in that spirit.
My Curves are not mad
The plumb line in determining the vertical direction forms with its opposite, the horizontal, the draughtsman’s points of the compass. Ingres used a plumb line. (14) You see in his studies of standing figures this unerased line, which passes through the sternum and the inner ankle bone of the “leg that bears the weight.”
Around this fictive line the “arabesque” develops. I have derived constant benefit from my use of the plumb line.
The vertical is in my mind. It helps me make precise the direction of my lines, and in my rapid drawings I never indicate a curve, for example that of a branch in a landscape, without being conscious of its relationship to the vertical.
My curves are not mad.
A new picture must be a unique thing, a birth bringing to the human spirit a new figure in the representation of the world. The artist must summon all his energy, his sincerity, and greatest modesty in order to shatter the old clichés that come so easily to hand while working, which can suffocate the little flower that does not come, ever, in the way one expects.
A musician has said:
In art, truth and reality begin when you no longer understand anything you do or know and there remains in you an energy that is all the more strong for being balanced by opposition, compressed, condensed. Then you must present yourself with the greatest humility, completely blank, pure, candid, your brain seeming empty in the spiritual state of a communicant approaching the Lord’s Table. You clearly must have all your accomplishments behind you, and have known how to keep your Instinct fresh.
Do I believe in God?
Yes, when I work. When I am submissive and modest. I sense myself helped immensely by someone who makes me do things that surpass myself. Still, I feel no gratitude toward Him because it is as if I were watching a conjurer whose tricks I cannot see through. I then find myself thwarted of the profit of the experience that should be the reward for my effort. I am ungrateful without remorse. (15)
Young painters, painters misunderstood or only lately understood – no hatred!
Hatred is a parasite that devours everything. One doesn’t build upon hatred, but upon love. Emulation is necessary, but hatred…
Love, on the contrary, sustains the artist.
“Love is a great thing, a great goodness, which alone renders light that which is heavy and endures with an equal spirit that which is unequal. For it carries weights that would be a burden without it, and makes sweet and pleasant all that is bitter…
“Love wants to rise, not to be held down by anything base…
“Nothing is more gentle than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing more complete, nothing better in heaven or on earth, because love is born of God and cannot rest other than in God, above all living beings. He who loves, flies, runs, and rejoices; he is free and nothing holds him back.”
(Im. De J. C.) (16)
Derive happiness from yourself, from a good day’s work, from the clearing that it makes in the fog that surrounds us. (17) Think that all those who have succeeded, remembering the difficulties of their beginnings, exclaim with the conviction: “those were the good old days.” For most of them: Success=Prison. And the artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist must never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, prisoner of a success, etc… Didn’t the Goncourt brothers write that Japanese artists of the great period changed their names several times during their lives. I like that: they wanted to protect their freedoms. (18)
Wouldn’t you be one of the seven wonders of the Paradise of painters? (19)
Happy are those who sing with all their heart, in the forthrightness of their heart.
Find joy in the sky, in the trees, in the flowers. There are flowers everywhere for those who want to see them.
Wouldn’t it be consoling and satisfying if all those who gave their lives to the development of their natural talents, for the profit of all, were to enjoy after their deaths a life of satisfactions in accord with their desires. (20) While those who live in narrow-minded selfishness…
These images, in vivid and violent tones, have resulted from crystallizations of memories of the circus, of popular tales, or of travel. I have made these pages of writings to appease the simultaneous oppositions of my chromatic and rhythmic improvisations, pages forming a kind of “sonorous background” which carries them, which surrounds them and thus protects their distinctiveness.
I pay my respects to Angѐle Lamotte and Tѐriade - their perseverance has sustained me in the creation of this book. (21)
1. Henri Matisse, Jazz, Paris, 1947. The book was published by Tériade on 30 September 1947. The plates were executed by Edmond Vaivel after the découpages of Matisse, using the same colors. The cover and manuscript pages were printed by Drager Frѐres. The edition consisted of 250 numbered copies (and twenty copies, numbered I-XX, hors commerce) on vellum. All were signed by the artist. In addition 100 albums of plates only were printed.
2. Initially, Matisse was somewhat disappointed by the way the printing of the plates in the book turned out. On 25 December 1947 he wrote to his friend André Rouveyre: “But I know that these things should remain as they are, originals, quite simply gouaches.”
3. For variants, see Schneider 1984, pp. 659-669.
4. See Schneider 1984, p. 666.
5. Of particular relevance here are the following remarks in Répertoire: 6: “I say to my model, ‘Imagine a very pleasant story and follow its unfolding. Do I dare admit that in this way I create the cinematography of my model’s private feelings? In my work I am as unobtrusive as a cameraman who is standing at the front of a train and who films the various aspects of an unknown countryside.” Schneider 1984, p. 666.
6. In an interview with André Verdet around 1952, Matisse responded to a question about whether he had done the Jazz cutouts to amuse himself: “Amusement that is neither facile, nor superficial, nor frivolous. Some, critics or colleagues, will say: ‘Old Matisse, nearing the end of life, is having fun cutting up paper. He is not wearing his age well, falling into a second childhood.’ That won’t make me happy, of course, but this kind of thing doesn’t make me feel angry or bitter either. On the contrary, I try to understand good or bad reactions, to analyze criticisms wherever they come from, to analyze them in relation to what I’m doing.
“Well, I had a lot of fun cutting up my paper. But with the utmost seriousness, balancing all the weight of my past experiences, the weight of an entire life devoted to incessant effort, with highs and lows, successes and failures, failures that I considered inevitable but intolerable and that I had to counteract as quickly as possible.
“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 the resonance and concurrence of a new freshness.
“… But at that time, I was unaware of inner light, mental - or, if you prefer, moral - light. Today I see that light every day. Natural light, the light that comes to us from outside, from the sky, merges with it. My light now commands a more concentrated power of crystallization. It is not so much that my sensations have gone through a slight metamorphosis, but that their condensation occurs in a more unusual way, and I try to sublimate as much as possible…
“But here it is not a brush winding and gliding on canvas, but scissors cutting through stiff paper and color. The procedural conditions are completely different. The shape of the figure springs from the action of the scissors, which give it the motion of organic life. This tool, you see, does not modulate; it does not brush onto, but cuts into - a point that should be emphasized, for it makes the criteria of observation completely different. The new tool gives the artist who knows how to use it greater authority in dealing with shapes. The product is different. My cutouts, I would hope, retain the sovereignty of the line that characterizes my drawing. My hand’s great experience has had free play in handling the tool. But not all the benefits of this new technique ought to be ascribed to my old drawing habits. My paper cutouts also owe something to a technical procedure that comes from statuary. Have you read the book Jazz? Reread the preface. In it I wrote something like this: that cutting directly in color, directly with scissors, reminds me of the direct cut of the sculptor.
“The mediating line between pure color and myself as its creator is traced in the wake of the tool, in the instantaneousness of the cutting.
“… scissors can be as sensitive to line as pencil, pen, or charcoal - maybe even more sensitive. To me, sensitivity often lies in the instantaneousness of the gesture; a freshness always carefully protected from what might elegantly sink into routine…
“… I create only with concern to draw closer to the absolute, with greater abstraction. I pursue the essential wherever it leads. Previously I presented the object in the complexity of its space. Today all I see in it is the auspicious sign, the bare minimum necessary to its existence in that form and in the context in which I place it.
“… Hell, you know, is so close to Heaven, and Heaven so close to Hell. I sometimes try hard to believe that spring and summer, the beautiful seasons that I love so dearly, and the light that floods them, radiate and shine on the imaginary Elysian Fields that I enjoy conjuring up in my dreams, not for reassurance, but for fun. If people knew what Matisse, supposedly the painter of happiness, had gone through, the anguish and tragedy he had to overcome to manage to capture that light which has never left him, if people knew all that, they would also realize that this happiness, this light, this dispassionate wisdom which seems to be mine, are sometimes well-deserved, given the severity of my trials.” Verdet 1978, pp. 130-132.
7. From Répertoire: 6; Schneider 1984, p. 660.
8. For a detailed discussion of this, see Flam, “Jazz,” in St. Louis and Detroit 1977, pp. 37-47.
9. Matisse had been saying this at least since 1930, when he told an American interviewer that “a painter ought to have his tongue cut out.” (“Study Art in America,” The Literary Digest, 18 October 1930.)
10. One draft of the introduction, written in Répertoire: 6, entitled “Little Triflings [Petits Riens]” reads as follows:
“So why take the trouble to write them out?
“Because my colored pages must be padded, as though they were cushioned by pages of hand-written text of a certain format. This is what my publisher asked me for. But what about typography? No, the sample we did of it was not too successful.
“So why these little triflings? Because a weighty text would not go with my color schemes which do not make any claims for themselves other than that of using the fine colors of the trade, without spoiling their purity. What joy it is, just to look inside the packet of a kilo’s worth of blue pigment, a packet of yellow, of green or red ochre, of black even. Well that is what I wanted to see transferred to paper, associated with simple things. Diverse memories. Most fitting for colors of such modest aims would be some children’s tale or the writings of an artist, his thoughts, philosophical ideas even… People are very tolerant of hobbies [‘violons d’Ingres’] especially when they leave something to be desired. It’s consolation for the envious and makes for a good laugh with friends. That is why I have filled the pages separating my color plates with things of no importance – which may or may not be read - but which will be seen, and that is all I want. Like a kind of packing between my colors - like wood shavings.
“The publisher is a very gifted man, who has a great influence on artists, especially when his passionate love for a book is so great that it becomes part of his life.
“That is why I’m inclined to think, without being fully convinced, that the writing I have drawn out will be taken as it should be taken.” As cited in Schneider 1984, p. 710, n. 31.
11. Matisse had made just such a revealing voyage in 1937, from London to Paris, which he described to his friend Simon Bussy: “We went up to an altitude of 3,000 meters and cruised at 240 km an hour. The plane was motionless and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. What is annoying about planes is that you seem to be going along at 10 km an hour. We left Croydon at 10:30 a.m. and at 12:30 I was having lunch at home - in fine fettle.” Letter of 12 July 1937, as cited in Schneider 1984, p. 660.
12. Regarding the lack of the expected question mark: here as elsewhere in this handwritten text, punctuation is made to accommodate the spacing of the text on the page.
13. This section is a condensed version of two of the themes that appear in “Exactitude is Not Truth,” Text 40, in Matisse on Art.
14. So did Matisse; he also passed this advice on to his students in 1908 (see “Sarah Stein’s Notes,” Text 4, in Matisse on Art).
15. A variation on this in Rѐpertoire: 6 reads as follows: “I am guided like a medium pure and simple. If my pride gets in the way, my work does not go very well and after a few oaths I come round and give in to it again and things improve since my mind is set at rest by my own powerlessness when I feel the divine pilot is not with me.” Schneider 1984, p. 710, n. 35.
16. This passage is inspired by Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Jesus Christ, which Matisse kept at his bedside at this time and frequently meditated on. In Rѐpertoire: 6 he quoted à Kempis: “The soul needs two things to raise it above earthly things: simplicity and purity.” This is followed by another quote, taken from “Page X, Baumann’s preface”: “The inner conflict will only stop when our trial on this earth has reached its end.” Schneider 1984, p. 709, n. 6.
17. In a draft in Rѐpertoire: 6 Matisse wrote: “The life of a painter is so terribly hard in the beginning, and even throughout, so hard that one often wonders what kind of divine aid enables him to continue along his way in the midst of public and even critical incomprehension.
“A great mental discipline is required. A painter I know actually set the troubles of an artist’s life in an order of importance, and the lack of money was not at the top of the list. Illness counted, but above all, the list ended up with distaste for work, considered to be the greatest disaster.” Schneider, p. 710, n. 36.
18. Matisse noted in Rѐpertoire: 6: “God has put the antidote near the poison. Always look for the antidote.” Schneider 1984, p. 710, n. 34.
19. Cf. Matisse’s recollection of the lagoons in Tahiti in “Oceania,” Text 36, in Matisse on Art; and “Interview with André Verdet,” Text 50, in Matisse on Art. Three of the plates in Jazz (XVII-XIX) are titled “Lagoon.”
20. Cf. Matisse to Aragon (Text 29, in Matisse on Art): “Perhaps after all I believe, without knowing it, in a future life… in some paradise where I shall paint frescoes…”
21. Angѐle Lamotte, Tériade’s collaborator on Verve, had died early in 1945.
From the book: Matisse on Art - revised edition, edited by Jack Flam, University of California Press, 2015, pp. 169-174. Notes: pp. 292-294
The text is published with permission from the editor Jack Flam.
Original text: © Succession H. Matisse 2019
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