The Conservation of Henri Matisse’s The Swimming Pool

The centerpiece of the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, Matisse’s remarkable room-size cut-out The Swimming Pool returns to the MoMA galleries for the first time in more than 20 years. In this video, MoMA’s Department of Conservation shares a behind-the-scenes look at the process of conserving this beloved artwork, and in the text below conservator Laura Neufeld provides background on the project.

On a hot summer day in 1952 Henri Matisse visited a favorite swimming pool in France, but upon finding the heat too extreme, he returned home determined to make his own pool. To create the large site-specific cut-out The Swimming Pool, Matisse’s studio assistants pinned a band of white paper to the burlap covered walls of his dining room. The forms of divers, swimmers, and sea creatures were cut from ultramarine blue painted paper and loosely pinned to the wall creating an immersive scene that wrapped around the room. After Matisse’s death in 1955 the blue forms were removed from the walls and sent to Paris where they were professionally mounted. During mounting the composition was divided into nine panels, and the cut blue forms were pasted onto new white paper and burlap. Despite the fact that burlap is an acidic material that would degrade over time, it was used to honor Matisse’s original conception of the artwork. When MoMA acquired The Swimming Pool in 1975, the white paper and blue forms were adhered overall to the burlap, which was stretched like a painting around stretcher bars. By 1993 the burlap had severely darkened and acids from the material had caused staining in the papers, making this popular work no longer suitable for display at the Museum.

In 2008 a research and conservation project began to better understand the construction of The Swimming Pool and to improve its physical condition. The main goals of the conservation treatment were to return the proper color balance to the artwork by replacing the darkened burlap and to install the panels at the proper height and configuration as they were in Matisse’s dining room. To remove the degraded burlap from the back of the white paper and blue forms, Senior Paper Conservator Karl Buchberg abraded the burlap with a rotary tool and scrapped the fibers off with a scalpel. When the paper was too weak to sustain this action, he meticulously removed the burlap strand-by-strand. The white paper was then lightly cleaned using vinyl erasers to remove dirt that had accumulated on the surface. Scratches and abrasions in the blue paint were retouched with colored pencils to lessen the appearance of damage. New burlap was selected by matching the color and weave with samples of the original burlap from Matisse’s apartment. To prevent further damage, the white paper and blue forms were not pasted to the new burlap. Instead they were pinned using conservation grade stainless-steel pins inserted through original pinholes in the blue forms. This method not only returns some dimension and liveliness to the cut forms, but also serves a practical function—when not on view, the papers will be stored in a custom-built crate separate from the burlap.

With conservation complete, viewers can once again be immersed in this important artwork. Come take a dip in The Swimming Pool, on view in the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (get your tickets today).