From the moment it appeared in 1947, Matisse’s Jazz has been widely considered the most beautiful and perhaps the most significant artist’s book of the twentieth century. It consists of 20 brilliantly colored stencils re-creating collages that the artist had made from cut out pieces of painted paper. In the first version, these plates were interspersed with sheets of text—Matisse’s poetic reflections on the images—in his own cursive brushwork. The plates and the text were then folded in two, left unbound, and published in a run of 250 copies. In a supplemental printing of 100 copies, the plates alone were issued as regular prints in a portfolio. The National Gallery of Art previously possessed only this later version. The Mellon bequest brings a proof copy of the definitive work—the composite of vibrant image and allusive text that Matisse intended.
Jazz inaugurated the final stage in Matisse’s long and carefully deliberated research. It was his first major work to use cut-outs—what he called “painting with scissors.” Individually titled, the subjects of the plates refer to mythology and circus performance as well as simple landscape features. The bold pattern and seeming happenstance of the book’s compositions recall collages of the first generation of modern art, but are purged of everyday and incidental elements, returning their man-made order to some natural state. The forms, from stylized figuration to curvilinear geometry, distill the intriguing shapes and complicated matter of surrealism to a similarly pure essence. Throughout, while reference to the music of the title is never explicit, the feeling of recurrent theme, irresistible rhythm, and improvisation pervades as much as in the bars of post-War Paris. Most of Matisse’s work from his remaining years extended and elaborated upon the style expressed in Jazz.
Matisse’s discovery of this style had begun in 1941, when he was struck and left weakened by cancer. Surviving, taking on a young assistant and mistress, Lydia Delectoskaya, and embracing the cut-out, with its recollection of his family’s tradition of cloth work, Matisse felt that he had entered “a second life.” That this second life, including the creation of the collages themselves, unfolded during the middle years of the Second World War must have seemed triumphant and all the more exuberant. That exuberance is still palpable. Some seventy years later, to look at Jazz is to take sheer delight in the senses and to feel a lightness of being. It is no wonder that the book became a touchstone of modern design at its most vibrant and optimistic, or that the image of Icarus against the firmament remains an emblem of the human condition.