Aladdin's Lamp Carved in Paper


IF you think that making paper cutouts is just for little kids, or, if you are a boy, just for girls - think again! Henri Matisse, who was one of the most famous artists of this century, made many striking works of art by cutting shapes in paper with his scissors. He not only made individual works like the one on this page, but he used them for wall murals decorating his own studio. He found that his work with cut paper was good preparation for designing the stained-glass windows in the chapel at Vence, France, which many considered the crowning achievement of his life. Matisse had a very long career and he changed his style of painting many times during it. However, most of his paintings were filled with bright colors giving them the look of sunshine and great joy. As a mature artist he had used painted paper shapes to help him decide which color or which exact shade of color would work best in a portion of his composition.

Toward the end of his life, he was asked to illustrate a book, titled ``Jazz.'' After several unsuccessful attempts with more usual methods, he decided to go with paper cutouts. And so, when painting became too tiring for him, he created cutout paintings like this one, ``The Thousand and One Nights.''

Aladdin's wonderful lamp appears twice; on the extreme left, in a reddish setting which might suggest sunset, and on the right, with a bright yellow background like the dawn. The lettering in French across the right top may be translated like this: ``She saw the coming morning./She fell silent discreetly.''

Each letter is cut out individually. Notice that the first word of each line, Elle, which is ``she'' in French, is formed quite differently on each line. ``She'' is Scheherazade, the narrator of the tales of the Arabian nights. A sultan who had become disgruntled with women in general and wives in particular had been beheading them at the rate of one every morning. Scheherazade bravely offered to become his wife and entertained him with her stories. When the dawn arrived her husband had forgotten about his disaffection. She saved not only her own life but those of other beautiful maidens of the kingdom. The story is sometimes thought to be a folk retelling of the Book of Esther in the Bible, where the young queen braved the king's anger to save her people.

The center panel relates to ``Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.'' Can you see the shape of a jar in which a thief hid? The other two panels may relate to Sinbad's adventures.

To make his cutouts, Matisse first had his assistants paint large sheets of paper with various colors; he carefully supervised. Then, with scissors, his hand moved in swift swoops across the paper. He said, ``Cutting straight into color reminds me of the direct carving of the sculptor,'' comparing it to the use of a chisel and mallet to carve a statue out of stone or wood.

While the cutting was fast, getting the pieces into a composition could take months. He had them fastened to his wall at random. Eventually he would see how they would come together to make an artful work. New pieces would be added before the composition was finished. This one is large, measuring about 4 by 12 feet.

Matisse's parents had wanted him to become a lawyer. After studying law for a while he quit to go to Paris to study painting. He attended the government school, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but found it too old-fashioned. He became the center of a group of young painters whom the art critics called, ``Les Fauves,'' or ``The Wild Beasts,'' because of their wildly colored paintings. But Matisse left fauvism to develop his own style of form and color. His paper cutouts are considered one of his many important contributions to the art of his time.

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