Matisse’s Jazz is a limited-edition art book containing prints of colourful cut-paper collages, accompanied by the artist’s written thoughts. The portfolio, characterised by vibrant colours, poetic texts, and circus and theater themes, marks Matisse’s transition to a new form of medium.
Diagnosed with abdominal cancer in 1941, Matisse underwent surgery that left him chair and bedbound. Limited in mobility, he could no longer paint or sculpt. Instead, he cut forms from colored paper that he arranged as collages, and decoupage which became known as the “cut-outs”.
The designs were initially intended as covers for the Verve magazine, published by art publisher Tériade. In 1947, Tériade issued the compositions in an artist’s portfolio. The book included 20 coloured prints, as well as Matisse’s handwritten notes expressing his thoughts throughout the making-process. Tériade gave it the title Jazz, which Matisse liked because it suggested a connection between art and musical improvisation.
The circus, the title originally suggested for the book, provided inspiration for the majority of the motifs. “These images, with their lively and violent tones, derive from crystallizations of memories of circuses, folktales, and voyages,” Matisse explains in the accompanying text. The figure of the circus artist, usually depicted alone, is often seen as a metaphor for the artist himself.
The first prints illustrating the circus do not seem to have an immediate connection to the succeeding works. However, these compositions are viewed as metaphors of life. The overall themes in Jazz derive from biographical elements, such as Matisse’s recollection of his travels to Tahiti in the three “Lagoon” sheets (XVII–XIX), as well as broader aspects including love (V, VI), death (X), and fate (XVI).
It was the insomnia which greatly informed the look of Jazz. The daylight colour range of his paintings gave way to the artificial light and synthetic colour of the cut-outs. Nocturnal creative activity became his salvation from the anxiety of poor sleep. It is not surprising that several of the images in Jazz are nighttime scenes, figures enveloped in remote darkness, like the deep blue night sky. In fact, only the Lagoon images can assuredly be viewed as daylight scenes. “These images in vivid and violent tones have resulted from crystallizations of memories of the circus, popular tales or travel.”
The themes set forth in Jazz can be separated into four categories: the world of the French music hall and circus, mythology and legends, symbolism for the War between France and Germany, and memories from his life and travels. Rather than painting from life the artist was, as older artists often do, depending on his memory for inspiration and imagery. In a letter to Marquet, Matisse wrote, “I’m growing old, I delight in the past.” The three lagoons depicted in Jazz are decades old recollections of his trip to Tahiti and the vision of aquatic life he saw there through the hull of a glass bottom boat. He says of the Lagoons, “Aren’t you one of the seven wonders of the Paradise of painters?”
It also seems obvious that other themes revealed in the Jazz imagery related to his emotional sentiments of this period. For many of these themes, Jazz was the first time Matisse had conjured them into pictorial space. With others, such as the image of Icarus, the artist returns to a meaningful theme within his repertory.
The depiction of Icarus falling through a field of deep blue with yellow starbursts all around him can also be read as a visual metaphor for the resistance fighters’ courageous attempts to navigate the skies between the Nazi artillery shelling. The victor/victim duality of war is symbolized in the complementary but opposing dangers expressed in two related prints; self-inflicted danger in the case of the sword swallower and victimization at the hands of another in the depiction of the knife thrower and assistant. The image of the wolf was given a red eye and a menacing mouth as a representation of the Gestapo.
These biographical and symbolic aspects of the “Jazz” piece (including the written thoughts, which are obviosuly quite personal) make this work very relevant to the project I am currently working on. As such, I took inspiration from its style, composition, colours and text.