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Matisse’s “Swimming Pool” Goes on View for the First Time in Two Decades

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). The Swimming Pool (La Piscine), late summer 1952. Maquette for ceramic (realized 1999 and 2005). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper. Overall 73 x 647” (185.4 x 1653.3 cm). Installed as nine panels in two parts on burlap-covered walls 136” (345.4 cm) high. Frieze installed at a height of 65” (165 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Bernard F. Gimbel Fund, 1975 © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Henri Matisse, “The Swimming Pool (La Piscine)” (detail) (late summer 1952), gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper, overall 73″ x 647”, installed as nine panels in two parts on burlap-covered walls 136” high (all images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art) (click to enlarge)

When Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs opened this past Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the artist’s only site-specific cut-out piece went on public view for the first time in over 20 years.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). The Swimming Pool (La Piscine), late summer 1952. Maquette for ceramic (realized 1999 and 2005). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper. Overall 73 x 647” (185.4 x 1653.3 cm). Installed as nine panels in two parts on burlap-covered walls 136” (345.4 cm) high. Frieze installed at a height of 65” (165 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Bernard F. Gimbel Fund, 1975 © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Henri Matisse, “The Swimming Pool (La Piscine)” (detail) (late summer 1952), gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper, overall 73″ x 647”, installed as nine panels in two parts on burlap-covered walls 136” high (click to enlarge)

“The Swimming Pool (La Piscine)” (1952) was inspired by Matisse’s trip to a favorite pool in Cannes on an especially scorching summer day. Upon returning to his Nice home, he announced: “I will make myself my own pool.” After his assistant ringed his burlap-lined dining room in a band of white paper (the artist was in a wheelchair by this time), Matisse dissected paper painted blue into the fragmented silhouettes of swimmers, divers, and stars. The figures were pinned onto the wall until his death in 1954. (MoMA has a photograph of the work in his dining room; unfortunately the sweet zebra chair isn’t also on view.)

Acquired by MoMA in 1975, “The Swimming Pool” was taken off public view in 1993 due to deterioration from the acidity of the burlap, light exposure, and atmospheric pollution. Its restoration has been rather long in coming from the museum, and now MoMA has a detailed photo essay on the five-year conservation process. MoMA Director Glenn Lowry says in the video below:

The research that we did on “The Swimming Pool” informed how we thought about all of Matisse’s cut-outs, and that’s what makes this exhibition different than any other exhibition about Matisse’s work before, because this exhibition looks at the way in which Matisse lived with these works of art, how he animated his life by manipulating the paper forms that he cut out, how he understood these works as organic.

Original pieces of burlap were examined to make sure the installation was done right, and even the original pin holes were used to place the nine panels on the wall, giving them the dimension they lacked when they were glued onto the burlap after leaving Matisse’s home. Importantly, this will also make the piece easier to conserve in the future, when again the swimmers come down from their striking, suspended state.

Henri Matisse’s “The Swimming Pool (La Piscine)” (1952) is on view through February 8 in Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown West, Manhattan). 

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