Matisse, Bearden, Wangechi Mutu

Henri Matisse, “The Flowing Hair,” 1952 gouache on cutout paper

Matisse did it playfully. It was only later that he got obsessed.

It started like this. One day in 1941, Matisse was visiting his friend, Tériade, publisher of an art magazine. The office shelves were filled with samples of printers’ inks in vivid colors.   Matisse started cutting little shapes.  Tériade thought they’d make a good cover for the magazine, Verve.

It was a hit.  Then Teriade suggested a book. But Matisse was busy painting.  It was only when he became ill and couldn’t paint that Matisse decided to while away his recovery by making a book of cutouts and text called Jazz.

Henri Matisse, pages from “Jazz,” 1947

The book got noticed, but Matisse went back to painting.  He still didn’t take the cut outs seriously.   As the artist grew older, though, he found it increasingly difficult to paint.  As Matisse became physically weaker, the cutouts got bigger and bigger. Soon they filled whole walls of his apartment. And museums. Late in life Matisse realized that the cutouts were the essence of all his art.

Henri Matisse, “The Parakeet and the Siren” 1952 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam)

Around this time, African-American artist Romare Bearden, was sitting at an outside table at the Dôme cafe on the West Bank in Paris, where he’d gone on the G.I. Bill.   He was wondering if maybe he should give up painting.  He hadn’t yet started the collages for which he’d become famous.

Suddenly, the cafe waiters started to applaud wildly. Bearden looked around, expecting to see a French movie star strolling by.  Instead, it was the elderly Matisse, being helped along by an assistant.  Matisse was himself startled, then pleased as the whole cafe crowd joined the applause.  This Parisian moment inspired Bearden to believe art mattered.

Romare Bearden, “Evening, 9:10, 461 Lenox Avenue.”
Courtesy of Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College,

Collaging——Bearden did it privately,  at first, a few years later, cutting images of the Civil Rights movement out of newspapers, making collages.  He had a few of the 8×11″ images blown up photographically to 6×8 feet.   The results were stacked behind some paintings when his gallerist stopped by and said, “What’s back there?”

Just something Bearden was fooling around with.  They probably wouldn’t be of any interest.  The content was probably too strong.  The dealer persisted, and when he saw them, he got excited. He asked Bearden to make some more and exhibited the collages in 1964 as “Projections.”

Romare Bearden, ” Patchwork Quilt,” cloth and paper, 1970. (Courtesy, MOMA)

They were a sensation, and the over-50 artist was suddenly a success. Like Matisse’s cutouts, Bearden’s collages used a lot of black.  Bearden’s black, in the era of “Black is Beautiful,” became more than Matisse’s black.  In Bearden, black was  alternately painful and lush and sometimes both together.

Romare Bearden, “Purple Eden,” 1987 (Photo: Carlos Lippai)

Bearden’s later collages used more painting. His subject matter was enormous in scope.  City and landscape.  Figure and pattern. Parents and children.  Sex and art.  Church and community. Myth and ritual. Politics and jazz.  Bearden is my guy, and in an upcoming series of posts, I’ll explore different facets of his work.  And the fact that he had many disciples.

Wangechi Mutu / TITLE

Wangechi Mutu, “Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies”, 2005.
Ink, acrylic, collage, and contact paper on Mylar. (Photo: Joshua White)

One is Wangechi Mutu.  Mutu does it with ambivalence and sex appeal.  And a hint of Matisse.  Her figures, usually African or African-American women, are seductive and glamorous from a casual distance.

Looked at close-up, they reveal disfigurements–a missing limb, such as women suffer in war zones, or a crimped mouth, such as they might undergo for cosmetic reasons.

Wangechi Mutu / TITLE

Wangechi Mutu, “Yo Mama,” 2003 (Photo: David Allison)
Ink, mica flakes, pressure-sensitive synthetic polymer sheeting, cut-and-pasted printed paper, painted paper, and synthetic polymer paint on paper

Yet the effect is not merely to betray the glamor as a lie, but to explore profound complexities in the realities of black women’s lives.  And all women’s.

Of Bearden’s work she has said, “There is a process of translation and image redemption, but also of intentional discomfort. I see this in Bearden’s ability to speak from many different places, to embrace American discord with ease.”

This is beyond Matisse. But it could be one way of describing collage in general:  “to embrace discord with ease.”

Image credits: 1) Matisse  2) Matisse   3)  Matisse   4) Bearden  5) Bearden

6) Bearden   7) Mutu   8) Mutu 


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