Monday, February 2, 2015

Matisse's cutouts and teaching art

 It's no secret to readers of this blog that I am a Matisse fan.  Truthfully, my favorite Matisse works are his portraits and models and room interiors and still life paintings, ablaze with vibrant, intense, and bold colors, especially those with rich patterns and lively compositions, and frequently with my personal fave, red.
But I also love the playfulness and vibrancy of his cutouts, so I made sure to get to NYC to see the exhibit of the cutout work at MoMA.   The sword swallower below is from the book Jazz
I own a copy of Jazz, but the flattened colors of the reproduced images do not properly represent the vibrant painted paper used in the actual cutouts.  I learned that he painted his paper for the cutouts using gouache, and oftentimes in the cutouts you could see subtleties of variation in the values of the colors that are not in evidence in reproduction.  These subtleties make the works so much more interesting to see.
A year ago, on a trip to the Whitney, we spent some time viewing Calder's Circus (above), and I couldn't help when I looked at many of the Jazz circus-inspired images on the wall, thinking how well the two works of art, would partner together in an exhibit, perhaps with the circus in the center of the gallery, and the Jazz work surrounding it on the walls.  They both have the joy and playfulness to perfectly complement each other.  And both of them show a looseness of expression, and are reminders that we shouldn't take ourselves or artwork too seriously.  We should experience joy both in the making and the viewing, I think!  And I love that one is made from random recycled materials, and the other is made from cutout scraps of paper.  A perfect pairing, don't you think?
 My limited photos do not do justice to the cutout show.  This wall, above, was a pop of vibrancy when you walked through the doorway of the gallery.  So lively and colorful!  Again, so joyous! I think this exhibition was absolutely the BEST art exhibit for teaching art.  There were so many lessons to take back to the classroom.  While I apologize that I don't have the appropriate images here to illustrate, the images are easily found on the internet.  These are some good teaching points to remember:
  • Matisse didn't pre-draw all his cutout shapes, though for large scale pieces such as The Swimming Pool or the work he did designing a church, much pre-planning was essential.  So pre-planning really depends on what you are  doing!  Sometimes it's good to give scissors and paper to kids and let them see what happens, without too much direct instruction.
  • When Matisse cut out paper, he frequently made use of the negative space shapes as well as the positive shapes.  In this Matisse-based lesson I did with 1st graders and blogged about 4 years ago here, the students used both the positive and negative shapes in their lively cutout collages.  Just click on any one of the links in this paragraph and you'll see what my 1st graders did in this Matisse lesson.
  • Matisse, with the help of an assistant, did not glue his collages together without moving things around, a lot.  When you look closely at the pieces in the show, you can see all the pinholes, from the pieces being moved around so many times.  (There were even pieces on display that still had pins or tacks in them!).  When I do collages with my students, I often give them a zipper baggie for their pieces, and do not allow them to glue them together until they had been arranged and rearranged several times.  Here's a link to a post with some surreal collages done by my 4th graders, where we used the baggie method of collecting collage materials.  It's important to remind kids that the first answer isn't always the best one.  Moving things around, even pinning them and asking for critique, is a great way to improve your composition and overall design.
  •  Think about all the elements and principles you can talk about when teaching about Matisse's cutouts!  Color, of course, and believe it or not, Value!  Line!  Shape!  Repetition! Rhythm!  Movement!  Balance (symmetrical and asymmetrical)!  Should I go on?  Matisse's cutouts may well be the most 'teachable' artwork I've ever encountered. 
 And for the kid who says "I can't draw", is there anyone who can't cut out some wavy lines and wiggly shapes with a scissors?  Matisse's cutouts do not intimidate kids who are less than confident in their abilities. 
And for the kid who says "this is stupid; what is this for, anyhow?" you can tell them that some of  Matisse's designs, similar in scope to the piece above (garden with parrot and mermaid; mermaid is not visible in this photo), were designed for patios.  He designed stained glass and walls for a church, as well as clothing, and more. Some of his pieces were designs for rugs.  In other words, his designs became part of functional interior/exterior design and clothing design.  And I'd be happy to have any of them on my patio or in my home or worn on my body!

And for anyone with a physical disability that keeps them from doing things one particular way, Matisse is a role model.  When his health prevented him from painting any more, he came up with a new way to create art.  And in the end, he thought it was the purest and best artwork of his career!  What a motivation this could be to anyone who says "I can't!"

8 comments:

  1. Hi Phyl Great idea as ever. I have been using some of your ideas for a couple of months now, thank you so much. The Art room can be a lonely place for the solitary art teacher in a school, great to read your stuff. Love this idea am going to use it with my 5 and 6 year old to improve scissor skills. Rachel

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    1. Rachel, I felt that way through most of my teaching career. The blog world really opened up a community of peers I never would have had otherwise. I wish it had happened earlier than at the end of my career! Glad that you find my goofy blog useful. Dig back through the archives - there's 5 years of stuff!

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  2. You nailed it! Love all the important points you mentioned!

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  3. I love the photo of you viewing the cut-out wall. Wish I were close enough to see it "live!!"

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    1. Christie, that's not me in the pic! It's just some random woman in my way. I couldn't be picky. Pictures were not allowed, but I snuck a few by quickly pulling my phone out of my purse when my tall husband was between me and the guard, and then shoving it back in. So the photos are random and poorly composed, poorly focused. That wall was gorgeous; I wish I had a better pic.

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  4. Great post! Just taught two Matisse lessons in first grade. Next time we will paint the paper with tempera cakes before collating.

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    1. Ooh have you blogged about them? I'll have to check! I'm assuming that you collaged, not collated, and that was just a crazy iPad autocorrect, right?

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