September 21, 2005

Matisse's Jazz

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Matisse has invited us to come and play on the Johnson Museum’s first floor. With a bold exuberance, a sparkling grin and a refreshing parade of color, he has extended his arm and welcomed us into his spirited world of “Jazz.” The walls seem to dance, and with an effortless geniality, they encourage you to dance along. You can hear the music of the party that Matisse has created in the twenty displayed stenciled prints. You can see the jazz and you can feel it. Originally, the work showcased in “Jazz” was published in 1947 as part of a book by the same title, comprised of Matisse’s painted cutouts and an essay on art. After an incapacitating cancer operation, his artistic practices were limited to the painted cutouts that he crafted with scissors from his bed. With help, he created wall sized pieces, which were then scaled down with stencils for the publication of Jazz. The Johnson Museum exhibits one of the portfolio copies released without the text of the book.

For this collection, the title “Jazz” could not be more appropriate. The works vividly meet the confident resilience that characterizes jazz music, and offer the impressions of improvisation, sturdy chaos, and a well bound miscellany. Matisse’s three Lagoon plates, for example, are very much in motion, dancing with a smooth unpredictability. It is this infusion of motion into the literal immobility of the art that characterizes the exhibit as a whole. The collection yields a heightened, glorified sense of existence. It travels through various channels of action and language, jazzing our senses and amplifying our consciousness.

With the idea of jazz also comes the idea of distortion. In the excitement of the work lie the wonderful alterations and interpretations of a different reality. In “The Cowboy”, we see a struggle, perhaps a game of tug-a-war. But who is playing we do not know. Are the two indistinct creatures men? Animals? Man and animal? We can appreciate the ambiguities of these distortions, because in his distortions, Matisse simplifies. In “Monsieur Loyal,” it can be assumed from the title that the figure is a man’s face or profile. It is the ambiguous yet simple representation of a man that makes the piece so delightful to view.

Additionally pleasing is the cool clarity that Matisse achieves through the precision of his scissors cuts. The clown in “The Clown” is set amidst a unadorned dark black and blue backdrop; it stands curiously alone – acknowledged, but not dramatized. The defined lines are refreshing, for while Matisse’s pieces are exciting, they are never overcrowded or overwhelming. The boldness of his work is in fact exemplified by the simplicity. In “The Heart,” a heart is layered upon three blocks of color. With a pale blue backdrop, it is minimal and fresh.

While the exhibit clearly succeeds aesthetically, it also includes some plates that house mythological allusions and substantial questions. “Icarus,” depicts what would most commonly be interpreted as the fall of Icarus. However, through his strategic placing of the figure, and the ambiguity with which he shapes it, Matisse creates an image that can represent both flight and fall. Also interesting is “Destiny.” Amid many physically based titles ranging from “The Wolf” to “The Sword Swallower,” the presence of “Destiny” is unique. The piece shows an indistinguishable figure surrounded by a boxed structure, suggesting a sense of entrapment. Is this how Matisse understood his own destiny? Considering his physical limitations at the time of Jazz’s creation, it seems an accurate representation of his condition.

I would suggest that Jazz reflects more upon Matisse’s own life than is assumed. The collection displays pieces like “The Horse, the Rider and the Clown” and “The Codomas,” which flourish with color and design, while also showing quite simple plates like “Forms,” and the aforementioned “The Heart.” It is the grouping of the wild, busy and exciting pieces with the cool simple ones that makes the exhibit so aesthetically comfortable. In the unity of all these works, there is a balance between chaos and serenity, busyness and tranquility. I believe that the contrast within this balance defined Matisse’s perspective at the time that he created these works. Physically and outwardly, he lied in bed with the forced tranquility of his handicapped state, while inwardly, he was bustling, dancing and creating with a grand vivacity. To have created such a masterpiece out of his devastating physical limitations is a triumph worthy of great celebration. This is the triumph of “Jazz.”

Archived article by Ilana Papir
Sun Contributor