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Matisse, The illustrated book, “Jazz”

Met curator Rebecca Rabinow on disquiet in Henri Matisse’s The illustrated book, “Jazz," 1947.

View this work on metmuseum.org

Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Video transcript

I remember so clearly when I discovered Matisse’s Jazz. I was just awestruck. It was one of those moments in your life where you realize that something has changed. The Museum owns a portfolio of the twenty prints that were used as book illustrations. Matisse created Jazz using pieces of paper that he had painted, and then he cut into shapes and arranged them. Initially its working title was “Cirque,” or “Circus.” The illustrations feature clowns, trapeze artists, and performing animals. In “Horse, Rider, and Clown,” the equestrian is represented by the black and white designs at the upper right corner, while the clown is shown with black and green at lower left. And the ringmaster’s presence is indicated only by that yellow sinuous line which is his whip. At the same time, there’s an undercurrent of disquiet. Jazz was, after all, created during the horrible years of World War II. Matisse repeatedly refers to the themes of lurking danger, captivity, and death. The plate titled, “Nightmare of the White Elephant,” shows a circus elephant performing a trick, standing on a ball or a stool. But Matisse described the image as a captive elephant who dreams of his long-lost childhood in the jungle. His anguish is symbolized by the red flames that pierce him like arrows. If you think about this book, it was created during the war when people were being ripped from their families and imprisoned. Jazz’s images can be read on many levels. “Monsieur Loyal,” which is French slang for “ringmaster,” shows the profile of General de Gaulle. It’s curious that when that plate is turned upside-down, the face morphs into that of a sword swallower, with a gaping mouth. There’s a plate titled “Icarus.” In French, “icarisme” refers to a trapeze act, and so ostensibly this plate shows a trapeze artist performing amid the bright lights inside the circus tent. Yet it could also show the tragic figure of Icarus plunging into the sea, or perhaps even a figure with a bullet hole. Matisse gives us funerals and swords and knife throwers. There are these gorgeous, sublime images, but there’s also a sense of worry. My appreciation of any work of art grows when I understand its place in history, in politics, in the artist’s life. There are many times that what you see at first glance is only a fraction of what the image has to offer, and I can think of no better example than Jazz.