Towards the end of my semester in Washington D.C. as a newspaper intern, I went to see some Matisse cutouts in the National Gallery of Art. A friend had mentioned how amazing they were, and I was pretty curious. It was my habit to visit a museum every sunday afternoon.
For some reason I had this idea the phrase “paper cutout” referred to small doll-like figures. I guess I assumed they would be abstract-ish (I had a decent notion of what Matisse did as a painter). But nothing really prepared me for what the cutouts are actually about.
They were being shown in the “tower” at the National Gallery. The thing about the tower, is it’s designed to reveal a real big room all at once. You enter via a medium sized stair-case that twists around so you don’t see any of the room until you are in it. One minute you are in a blank grey stairway and the next you are in the presence of Matisse’s rainbow colored giants. The cutouts are huge and bright. They are maybe twenty feet tall. Some of them taller than that. They cover huge portions of huge walls. I was literally speechless (and very thankful for the padded bench in the center of the room).
I think, at the time, I unfortunately tried to over intellectualize the experience. I tried hard to find symbolism and metaphor in the oversized flowers and anthropomorphic figures. I was a little frustrated that i couldn’t “get it.”
What I did “get” was how totally delightful the cutouts are. There is a wonderfully cartoonish feel to them. The Brightly colored figures of flowers, people and animals seem to wriggle and dance around the room. The sheer immensity of the whole thing transports you utterly into its world.
Matisse made the cutouts after a bout with cancer. They were one final burst of creative energy. He was a bedridden old man, but he created an ultra-vibrant universe on the walls with a pair of scissors. He once said “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.”
It’s too bad I got caught up in meaning that day. That’s an amateurish mistake. I hope to go back sometime. I’ll go sit on that padded bench and let Matisse just sweep me up.