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Icarus Description

Icarus, 1943-1944
Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
13" x 17"
Cut and paste
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York 
Matisse's Icarus is a neo-Impressionist take on a subject favored by European painters since the Renaissance: Icarus's plunge from the sky into the sea. In reality a mixed-media work rather than a painting, Matisse painted an effervescent blue background on which he placed cut-out images of Icarus and the surrounding stars.

Here, Icarus is depicted with a prominent, brilliant red heart. This symbolizes his passion, supplanting the hybris of the original myth as the cause of his disastrous fall. The abstracted act of falling also further emphasizes the symbolism of the myth: rather than depict a literal fall, Matisse alludes to a languid, despairing plunge, closer to the tragic defeat that Icarus's fall represents. With techniques such as these, Matisse grounds the myth of Icarus more in the everyday. Indeed, Icarus's passion and corpse-like posture powerfully evoke the folly of the ambitious artist and his inevitable failure to attain his lofty goals.

Mattise's execution of the work is crucial to its strength. He painted the blue sky background with wide brush strokes, using tones of light to medium blue. The result is an airy, light, ethereal backdrop on which the brilliant light of the stars and the stark blackness of Icarus's figure can be placed. The objects stand against the blue with a stark contrast that is truly remarkable. The catastrophic nature of the fall is underscored by this contrast and the simple construction: there is nothing to cover or mute the tragedy of the moment. Though Matisse also painted the similar The Fall of Icarus around the same time, this remains the more famous and more powerful image. 

Icarus (1943): This is an example of the paper cut-out technique, and was included as an illustration in Matisse’s book Jazz. Here Matisse wanted to capture the feelings of Icarus, a character from Greek mythology who wanted to fly to the sun. When Icarus got too close to the sun his wings (which he had made with wax) melted and he fell into the ocean.

In “Notes of a Painter,” Matisse reflected that his goal as an artist was to uncover and record with balance and purity the “essential character” of things beneath their external appearance. Icarus is one of the most famous figures in Jazz. The cutout interprets the symbolic journey of Daedalus’ son and depicts the fall of the mythological adventurer from the Azorean skies amidst “either stars or bursts of artillery fire” (perhaps reflecting the artist’s consternation in the aftermath of World War II). The pure form of the cutout, and the color that constitutes rather than clothes the form, captures the essence of human exploration.

Icarus’ stretched-out arms negotiating flight, the fiery heart cloaked in the vibrant black of its aspirations, the bright chunks of sun that proved the man’s demise freeze in a moment of exhilaration. About to end, the euphoric moment turns somber. The head is tilted away from the sun’s splendor toward the pedestrian view below. The gliding figure, closing its celestial dance and filled with exalted vertigo, is laden with the certainty of the fall.

In 1943, while convalescing from a serious operation, Henri Matisse began work on a set of collages to illustrate an, as yet, untitled and undecided text. This suite of twenty images, translated into "prints" by the stenciling of gouache paint, became known as Jazz---considered one of his most ambitious and important series of work.

Matisse was in his seventies and in poor health when he began this project; he could no longer draw or paint easily with a pencil or brush. He used scissors to cut out simple forms from brightly colored paper painted to his specifications with gouache, then arranged them on another sheet of gouache-painted paper. Assistants took these assemblages and prepared them for printing. It was a popular practice at the time for noted artists to create limited edition books. The original intention was for Matisse to illustrate poems written by a French author. As Matisse began, he used a large fluid brush to write notes to himself on construction paper about his thoughts as he created the images. The simple visual appearance of the words pleased Matisse, and he suggested using his roughly painted words in juxtaposition with the images, rather than the original poems. The publisher agreed.

As the project evolved the title changed to Jazz, which had no specific relation to the varied images of performers, Tahitian bays, and well-known legends. For Matisse jazz was viewed as "chromatic and rhythmic improvisation" and later described by the artist as "Jazz is rhythm and meaning." As a title for the suite, Jazz evoked for Matisse the idea of a structure of rhythm and repetition broken by the unexpected action of improvisations. The artist wrote to a friend in late 1947, "There are wonderful things in real jazz, the talent for improvisation, the liveliness, the being at one with the audience."

As a way of providing a syncopation and then breaking it with the unexpected, Matisse designed the book so that each full-page image is preceded by five pages of text and each half-page image by three pages of text. As part of the Jazz text Matisse writes of this format, "I'd like to introduce my color prints under the most favorable of conditions. For this reason I must separate them by intervals of a different character. I decided that handwriting was best suited for this purpose. The exceptional size of the writing seems necessary to me in order to be in a decorative relationship with the character of the color prints. These pages, therefore will serve only to accompany my colors, just as asters help in the composition of a bouquet of more important flowers. Their role is purely visual."

In her excellent essay on Jazz, Riva Castleman, (Curator of Prints, Museum of Modern Art) wrote "With Jazz you hold an artist's spirit in your hands. Each page reveals deeply felt ideas, years of dedication to art and its craft, innate sensitivity to visual stimuli and their perfect organization for the most exhilarating, most satisfying result. Few artists have added to their pictorial work words that have been equally important in form and meaning. The precise equilibrium of these elements in Jazz is Matisse's unique achievement. The dark rhythms, roiling counterpoint, happy staccatos, and jolting dissonances of this Jazz will sound forever. Matisse has taught the eye to hear."

The connection of these varied images to the idea of Jazz is rooted in the very nature of abstraction. In jazz music, a musician can take a simple, familiar, even conventional melody and with a few changes twist it into a barely recognizable tune. The performer can control with just a few notes the extent of the abstraction of the original tune and his audience's ability to recognize it as familiar. From the elegance of Count Basie and Duke Ellington to the dizzying compositions of Eubie Blake or Scott Joplin, the breadth of jazz allows a diversity of expression which is matched in the visual arts by artists such as Matisse, Miro, Picasso and more recently Motherwell, Diebenkorn and Elizabeth Murray, each of whom were greatly influenced by Matisse. For an artist like Matisse, the ability to suggest the natural world in all its diversity through the simple act of cutting shapes from colored paper became the ultimate act of creation by his knowing where to start and when to stop.

In Jazz, Matisse’s cutout forms are mingled with meditations on random topics, elaborately scrolled and interspersed throughout the composition. In this syncopated design (perhaps the visual counterpart of jazz music, which the artist defined as “rhythm and meaning”), figures are chromatic and rhythmic improvisations distilled to pure form. Spare and geometric, they are filled with undulating movement and circular rhythm. Even though their range is deliberately reduced, the colors are exuberant and provocative, and the harmonious compositions are filled with almost palpable light.

When asked about this picture, Henri Matisse said it was actually inspired by resistance fighters in World War Two. Matisse began creating the Jazz collages during the war while living in occupied France. When France collapsed, former French military pilots went to England and flew with the British Air Force. Jazz wasn't published until well after the war ended.

 There are other art critics who claim this work is of a trapeze acrobat flying under the blue tent and bright lights of the circus. The cut-out is part of a book entitled Jazz written an illustrated by Henri Matisse. In the introduction to the book Matisse explains these are images of the circus. See the video  for more information.82nd & Fifth: "Reading Matisse" by Rebecca Rabinow


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