Near the end of his life, Henri Matisse’s preferred attire was evening wear, by which I mean pajamas. They were the ideal uniform for the invalid, insomniac night worker and waking dreamer he had become in the decade before his death at age 84 in 1954. And it is the dreamer and worker we meet in “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” a marvelous, victory-lap show that arrives from London, where it drew more than 500,000 viewers at the Tate Modern last summer, and opens in a larger form at the Museum of Modern Art on Sunday.
Why is late Matisse pulling such crowds? Partly because of a popular image of the elderly artist, derived from photographs and long in circulation, as a serene, bespectacled pasha propped up in a bed in sunny Nice surrounded by doves and flowers. And the cutouts themselves, so photogenic, have an exceptionally direct appeal: color, line, beauty without reservation.
But the reality, of the life and the work, was far more complicated. In the years around 1940, Matisse must have felt he was living a nightmare. In 1939, he and his wife of more than four decades legally parted ways, at her instigation. Two years later, he was found to have abdominal cancer and underwent a grueling operation. During World War II, he fled Paris, only to have danger follow him. In 1943, he had to abandon his apartment in Nice when the city was threatened with bombardment and rent temporary quarters in Vence several miles away.
It so happened that his new Vence home had a pretty, prophetic name: Villa le Rêve, Dream House. And remarkable art came into being under its roof, though never easily. The cultural critic Edward W. Said, in his book on “late style” in art, wrote: “Each of us can readily supply evidence of how it is that late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty, unresolved contradiction?” I would say that Matisse had at least one foot in the second category.
Surgery had left him debilitated, basically chair and bed bound. Painting and sculpture had become physical challenges and, I think, emotionally, too freighted with make-it-new demands. At the same time, sheer relief at having survived mortal crises prompted a rush of creativity. His solution, before he even recognized it was such, was almost child-simple. He picked up more manageable materials and tools: sheets of paper paint-washed by assistants, sturdy scissors, and plain tailor pins. What he made from them was a hybrid of chromatic brilliance and dimensional complexity, work that was not quite painting, not quite sculpture and — this was the really radical part — not necessarily permanent.
Cut-paper art, decoupage, was not new to Matisse.