What Matisse’s Cut Outs Teach Us About Wholehearted Living

Matisse The Parakeet and The Mermaid

The Parakeet and The Mermaid by Henri Matisse

I recently visited the Tate Modern to see Matisse: The Cut Outs. As an illustrator working in paper I was really excited to see an entire exhibition devoted to the paper cut artwork of one of the 20th century’s most innovative artists. Of course, the works themselves were stunning; bright, bold and brimming with colour, it was a delight to see so many of Matisse’s cut outs together in one place. However, rather than the pieces themselves, the thing that struck me the most as I explored the exhibition was Matisse’s ability to live with his whole heart, to express himself authentically and fully by facing and surmounting the obstacles that challenged him. Since I began reading the books of Brene Brown earlier this year, a celebrated researcher/storyteller who explores the topics of vulnerability, shame and wholehearted living, I’ve been trying to cultivate authenticity and wholeheartedness in my own life and artistic work. With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at how Matisse’s approach to his life and work fits with the first three of Brene Brown’s Guideposts For Wholehearted Living (taken from her book Daring Greatly) and to explore how these indispensable guidelines can be specifically applied to visual artists.

Matisse and the Guideposts for Wholehearted Living

1. Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think

For many years Henri Matisse had used cut out paper shapes as a tool to plan the arrangement of the objects that would feature in his still life paintings. These collages were never seen as an end in themselves, they were merely a part of the artistic process, a preliminary step on the journey towards artistic greatness. Matisse was the first artist to fully embrace this type of paper collage as a means of creating finished artworks and despite being ridiculed by some, who supposed that his cut outs were merely the folly of an old man, he went on to achieve great success and recognition for his revolutionary approach to colour and shape.

Lesson: Don’t be dissuaded from trying something just because it hasn’t been done before or you’re worried about how people will react to it – you might just start a revolution!

2. Cultivating Self Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism

What’s great about seeing Matisse’s cut outs in real life is the fact that it’s possible to see the tiny creases, marks and pin holes in the paper shapes that hint at the artist’s process and the decision making that went into the creation of the final work of art. It’s these small imperfections that breathe life into each of the pieces transforming them from mere pictures into considered and unique works of art. It’s easy to be very critical of any marks or imperfections that are visible in your own work, but, by being self critical and trying to avoid letting the imperfections show, you risk limiting the amount of freedom and experimentation that you allow yourself during the creative process. More often than not these limitations stop you being able to create work that is the fullest expression of yourself and your ideas – the search for perfection can put you at risk of creating work that is homogenous and ordinary.

Lesson: Allow yourself to be less than perfect and learn to appreciate the value of the story that your work’s imperfections tell.

3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness

In his later years Matisse became too frail to leave his home and his movement was limited to the extent that it affected his ability to physically make his own work. Rather than succumb to these obstacles he found ways to move forward in spite of them, taking ownership of the situation and re-establishing his power. He had studio assistants that helped with the physical creation of his work and, when his physical enjoyment of movement and the outdoors became limited, he found ways to bring these elements into his work so that he could continue to enjoy them. The Parakeet and the Mermaid became Matisse’s “garden”, replete with organic imagery inspired by the outdoors, and in Acrobats he was able to express through his art the flexibility and motion that now eluded him physically.

Lesson: Don’t lose your power! With a creative approach it’s possible to bounce back from almost anything and flourish.

So there you have it, three valuable lessons about taking a wholehearted approach to creating art that I took from Matisse: The Cut Outs. Hopefully my response to this fantastic exhibition has been helpful, you can see the exhibition at the Tate Modern in London until 7th September 2014.





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