Matisse’s Garden by Samantha Friedman, illustrated by Cristina Amodeo: an exploration of the artist’s final years dedicated to printmaking, paper cut-outs and “construction by means of colour”

Samantha Friedman, Matisse’s Garden. Illustrations by Cristina Amodeo. With reproductions of artworks by Henri Matisse

Published 2014 by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 48p


One of the things that I hope I will manage to do in the near future is to visit The Museum of Modern Art in New York; I have no doubt I will be mesmerized by its collections. Until then, still dreaming, I will use their website as an important source when choosing art books for me and Ema.

I had a busy week now that I had started working in a special needs school and I often come home emotionally overwhelmed but reading stays on the list when deciding priorities. I thought Matisse’s Garden would be challenging for Ema but it turned out I was wrong; we had a fascinating evening reading the story, talking about Matisse and his cut-outs and trying to decipher some of the symbols we came across.

The writer, Samantha Friedman, an assistant curator at MOMA, was also part of the team that organized the exhibition Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs at the museum. Her book, remarkably illustrated by Cristina Amodeo is an exploration of the artist’s final years when he dedicated his life to printmaking and paper cut-outs. Ill and in a wheelchair, Matisse used simple materials to create vibrant, colourful designs.

One day the artist Henri Matisse cut a small bird from a piece of white paper. It was a simple shape, but he liked the way it looked and didn’t want to throw it out. So he pinned it on the wall of his apartment to cover up a stain. The bird seemed lonely by itself. So Matisse cut out more shapes, which joined the bird on the wall.

Copyright: Cristina Amodeo

There is so much meaning and beauty in the simplicity of his technique. A blue, undulating line becomes a wave, abstract shapes grow into playful leaves, simple, yellow squares are arranged like a swarm of bees and all the leftovers are given substance and included in the compositions.

As he cut shapes after shapes, Matisse was absorbed by his own memories; recalling his trip to Tahiti, the artist created shapes that looked like the seaweed and the fish he had seen there. He felt like “he was flying”.

Copyright: Cristina Amodeo
Copyright: Cristina Amodeo

When he saw how the colour brought his shapes to life, he asked his assistants to paint sheets of paper in a range of shades, from vermillion to lemon to violet. Instead of using only white paper, he decided he would make his shapes by cutting directly into colour… “What counts most with colours are relationships”, Matisse thought.

His cut-outs helped Matisse cope with his illness and assisted him turning his own room into a garden where he could be happy. An activity that was initially a playful distraction became a new form of art, an experiment that turned Henri Matisse into a master of cut-outs.

HenriMatisse, Zulma. Early 1950. StatensMuseumForKunst,Copenhagen
Henri Matisse, Zulma. Early 1950. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Complement Matisse’s Garden with Jazz, Matisse’s collection of vibrant cut-outs and The Iridescence of Birds, a beautiful picture book on Matisse’s childhood and the way it influenced his art.


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