In line with Tate Modern’s agenda, I continue my explorations on the key ways of reading a work of art and comment here on Blue Nude (I) by Matisse, a “cut-out” from 1952.
I begin by quoting the master himself, in a letter to Pierre Bonnard in 1940, twelve years before the creation of this piece: “I found a way of drawing which, based on preliminary work, has a spontaneity that allows me to fully release my feelings (…) but a colourist’s drawing is not a painting. I would need to create its equivalent in colour, which is something I cannot attain”.
It is a sobering moment of despondence that sums up the well-known conflict between line and colour. Whereas colour itself is limitless (colour blue, colour red, etc.), its use implies boundaries and the creation of a shape that circumscribes and even confines it. Conversely, a shape is filled with a colour (including black and white) and the immediate and emotional impact of that colour may conflict with the very strength or meaning of the drawing.

Let us focus our attention on the counter shape (the negative space around the main figure) and observe the composition more objectively without being hypnotised by the image of the woman. I recommend you squint slightly, which will allow you to get rid of the details and better see the contrasts. You can follow the uninterrupted path of this carefully outlined white surface that surrounds the blue and at the same time penetrates into it. The white is not only a background but also a line (inside the figure,) and an active shape, (for instance between the arm and body of the woman).
The main shape, painted in blue, takes up slightly more than half of the surface. It is made of six or seven blocks of blue that, with one exception, do not touch one another but are visually linked by the same colour. These surfaces do have a texture made up by the streaks left by the gouache application. Creating subtle horizontal lines within the blue, these streaks introduce an element of rhythm. In sum, there is more than just the colour and the evocation of a silhouette to connect the separate areas of blue: a sense of unity comes from this gentle rhythm.
The (blue) figure and the (white) background are not only connected by their surfaces being entangled in one another but also by the appearance of a few white marks in the blue (scissor lines, edges of the cut-outs inside the main shape, friction areas).
As a result of the contours being sharply defined, the line, and therefore the drawing, is paramount in this piece of art.
Matisse liked to use pure colour, squeezed directly from the tube. “When painting, colours get their power and expressiveness only if unadulterated, when their state and purity are not altered or diminished by mixtures that conflict with their nature”. He would not use colour in a symbolic or descriptive way but for its expressive and emotional power. In this painting, only two colours contrast and complement each other in a very sober manner.

Here the conflict between line and colour seems to be resolved. For this series of works, the artist cuts directly into sheets of paper previously painted with solid pure colours. “Colour should not only fill the shape, it should be the substance of it”, Matisse used to say about his cut-outs. What is left of representation is a mere sign, sufficient though highly pared-downed; its beauty and visual efficiency are only possible because of a passionate and rigorous practice of drawing. The composition itself is an interpenetration of shapes and colours involved in a seductive dance that symbolises the resolution of a conflict: we are here in the kingdom of harmony, simplicity and unity.

©2014 Eleonore Pironneau
Translation by Caroline Imbert and Haru Yamada

1 This title is borrowed from Matisse, Letter to André Rouveyre, 6th October 1941
Bibliography: Henri Matisse, Ecrits et Propos sur l’Art, Collection Savoir

Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel © Succession HenriMatisse/DACS 2013

Tous droits reservés. Aucune partie de ce document et de son contenu ne peut etre reproduite, copiée, modifiée ou adaptée sans le consentement de son auteur. Ce texte a été déposé à la SACD. Photo Robert Bayer, Basel © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

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