At the end of his life, bedridden and in failing health, Matisse began creating works known as papiers découpés, or cutouts: painted sheets of paper cut into various sizes and shapes and arranged into vibrant compositions. He used this method, which he described as “drawing with scissors,” to create Memory of Oceania, one of the largest of these works.
The roughly nine-foot-square cutout was inspired by memories of his 1930 trip to Tahiti and may have been based, in part, on a photograph of a schooner that Matisse took from his window while there. The result is suggestive rather than specific. At right a green rectangle, fuchsia band, black curve, and blue crescent appear to describe the boat, its mast and mooring line, and the curtain of the window. More ambiguous are the shapes at upper left, which perhaps represent a blonde woman seen from the back, the sharp vertical form delineating her spine and the surrounding blue and white curves depicting the contours of her body. The composition is at once geometric and fluid, and the juxtaposition of contrasting colors against the white ground creates a sense of energy and luminance that suffuses the whole work.
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Memory of Oceania is based on a photograph that Matisse took of a schooner from his window in Tahiti in 1930. At the right, the green rectangle, fuchsia band, black curve, and blue crescent appear to derive from the boat, the boat's mast and mooring line, and the curtain of the window. More uncertain is the meaning (if any) of the shapes at the upper left. They may describe a blond woman seen from the back—the sharp vertical line being her spine and the surrounding blue–on–white and white–on–blue curves the contours of her body.
Gallery label from 2006.