Pure, luminous colors were the hallmark of Henri Matisse's paintings, never more so than in the decoupages or cutouts of his late period. Photographs of his studio in Vence, France, about 1947 show a wall covered in these paper cutouts.
It was in the same year that his book "Jazz" was published, four years after he started work on it. The images in it were printed by means of a stenciling technique called pochoir. But they had originated as paper cutouts, and it is in the text of "Jazz" that Matisse describes his cutouts as "drawing with scissors," a process "of cutting into color" that reminded him "of a sculptor's carving into stone."
"Jazz" was issued as a portfolio of 20 separate exhibitable plates and also as a bound book with Matisse's written text. In both cases, the editions were small. "Jazz" is a work of great joie de vivre, apparently improvisatory though instinctively calculated, having the precision that resulted from years of drawing. Matisse practiced drawing as a musician practices, endlessly refining form and touch.
"Jazz" is a flying trapeze of flowing shapes set free from the laws of gravity. Its images are a witty interplay of positive and negative and of brilliant, contrasting colors. Everything seems deliberately musical in its deployment, an effect of jubilant motion and unexpected counter rhythms. The folk popularity of the circus - a clown, a horse, a sword swallower, a knife thrower - are a main theme of "Jazz," but one plate is called "Destiny" and another "The Heart." Others are called "The Toboggan," "The Swimmer in the Aquarium," and "Lagoon." The element of playfulness is strong, though Matisse's seriousness as an artist is never in doubt.
If "Jazz," and the cutouts in general, approach the liberated abstraction of music, still Matisse never strays far from the sense of an objective world. Painter and art historian Sir Lawrence Gowing described the cutouts as "cutting into a primordial substance, the basic chromatic substance of painting.... With each stroke, the cutting revealed the character both of the material, the pristine substance of color, and also of an image, a subject."
In "Jazz," Matisse's subjects are more like verbs than nouns, however. They express the feeling of leaping, flying, swimming, falling. They cut straight to the viewer's experience rather than merely depicting someone else's.
The Baltimore Museum of Art is currently showing "Jazz," through Aug. 27, as the second exhibition in its two-part "Modern Master Series."