Culture Fix: Jazz, by Henri Matisse

As part of our series of perfect lockdown pick-me-up, our critic celebrates a collection so bright the artist feared it might turn him blind

Henri Matisse at work in Nice, 1927
Henri Matisse at work in Nice, 1927 Credit: AFP

My go-to artist, if I’m feeling down? Easy: Henri Matisse. All that glorious colour. And suave simplicity. You can rely on Matisse to provide the perfect pick-me-up.

Which is why I’m sad to miss Matisse, like a novel, an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, marking the 150th anniversary of his birth. Technically, the anniversary fell last year – but since Matisse was born, in a weaver’s cottage in northern France, on New Year’s Eve 1869, we can forgive this sleight of hand.

My “Culture Fix”, then, is one of the show’s highlights: Jazz, Matisse’s scintillating “livre d’artiste”, or artist’s book, published, in 1947, in an edition of 250 numbered copies. A lavish new study, Louise Rogers Lalaurie’s Matisse: The Books, addresses it afresh, along with his other forays into this genre. 

The imagery in Jazz is so bright and fierce that the artist feared it might turn him blind: “Send me a white cane,” he wrote to his publisher, Tériade, in 1944, having completed nearly all the 20 cut-paper compositions that, reproduced by stencil printing, irradiate the portfolio’s 146 pages.

Mostly, despite Matisse’s title, these feature the big top (clowns, trapeze artists, a sword-swallower and gold-buttoned ringmaster), crystallising “memories”, as he put it, in an accompanying text, presented in his sinuous black script.

Icarus, plate VIII from 'Jazz' by Henri Matisse Credit: Bridgeman Images

One plate, a silhouette of Icarus, with a red dot for a heart, tumbling to his death past yellow starbursts through an azure abyss, is among Matisse’s most popular creations.  During a second lockdown, though, Jazz acquires additional resonance – and offers solace: Because Matisse worked on it during the darkest days of the Second World War, while holed up (sound familiar?) in a rented villa in the hilltop town of Vence, near Nice. 

Still convalescing following an operation in 1941, the artist, by now in his 70s, was bedbound, and unable to paint. Yet, he didn’t let this tame the ferocious creativity within. Rather, against the odds, he pioneered an entirely new, radical technique: the cut-out.

Exulting in the possibilities of collaging gouache-washed paper shapes, he compared his newly discovered medium, in Jazz, to “drawing with scissors”. Towards the end of the book, he reflected, too, on happiness: “There are always flowers for those who want to see them,” he wrote. Remember that, as the leaves wither and nights draw in.