“One day the artist Henri Matisse cut a small bird from a piece of white paper. It was a simple shape but he liked the way it looked and didn’t want to throw it out. So he pinned it on the wall of his apartment to cover up a stain.”
Thus begins Matisse’s Garden, the story of an endlessly curious artist who used scissors and painted paper to make something utterly new. Written by Samantha Friedman, an assistant curator at MoMA and co-organizer of the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, and featuring colorful cut-paper illustrations by Italian designer Cristina Amodeo, it’s an immersive introduction to Matisse’s vibrant cut-outs. It showcases eight artworks by Matisse, including three oversized reproductions on foldout pages.
This Sunday, November 2, at 12:00 p.m., author Samantha Friedman will read from the book and MoMA educators will teach you how to make your own Matisse-inspired cut-outs. To learn more about what inspired Samantha and the illustrator in the making of this book, read on below.
Why did you start working on Matisse’s Garden?
Samantha Friedman: Having spent years researching Matisse’s cut-outs for the exhibition, I was excited to tell the story of these incredible works in a different way. Beyond their art historical importance, there’s a kind of magic to the cut-outs that lends itself to a children’s book format.
Cristina Amodeo: I’ve always loved Matisse’s work and found the idea of working on a children’s book about him so exciting because it would give me the opportunity to rediscover the quality of his work and the innovation behind his art.
How did Matisse’s artwork inspire your writing/illustrations?
SF: One of Matisse’s greatest achievements, in all of his work but especially in the cut-outs, is his ability to reduce form to its essentials: a wave is described with a single undulating line, an acrobat executing a backbend becomes a fluid arc. So I tried to take that lesson from him, to make the language as uncluttered as possible, to try to find just the right words to convey an idea.
CA: I carefully researched, read about, and studied Matisse’s life and artistic journey before I began working on the sketches and storyboard. I tried to give my own interpretation of Samantha’s text while respecting a formal balance between my own aesthetic and the artist’s. I was inevitably inspired by the visual power of his works and, in turn, tried to create strong and simple scenes. And my illustrations are filled with direct and indirect references to Matisse’s work, which go beyond the cut-outs to include his paintings on canvas and old black-and-white photographs of his studio and trips he’d taken.
Do you have any favorite details in the book?
SF: I love how Cristina incorporated references to Matisse’s art and life into the illustrations. The studio assistants painting the papers echo the composition of the artist’s early painting Dance (I), and the still life scene features real objects from his studio. These details allow the book to operate on several different levels, for multiple audiences.
CA: My favorite is the first spread because that’s where it all started. After creating the first version of that spread, I tried to find the right balance in the colors that I would continue using in the following pages. To quote Matisse and the book: “What counts most with colors are relationships.” I absolutely agree with this and treasure it especially in what I consider the most important phase of my work: selecting the color palette. For me, colors are the starting point; if the colors don’t work together, the harmony of the image will always be impaired despite the balance of the composition. And this is what I love about Matisse’s Garden, it’s a book about form and color, but mostly about forms created by color.
What were some of the surprises or challenges in introducing Matisse’s work to children?
SF: You realize that concepts that have come to seem straightforward—abstraction vs. figuration, or the idea of positive and negative shapes—are actually very complex. Explaining them clearly is a challenge, but a good one, in that it forces you to truly understand them yourself.
CA: The magic of Matisse’s art derives from his capacity to create a world that is both fantastic—as in, full of fantasy—and fascinating, through the simple use of a pair of scissors and glue. In a way, Matisse’s cut-outs are sculpture and painting together. This is what I think appeals to kids, the idea of “sculpting” paper and transforming it into something new, giving life to emotions, and discovering the wonders in imperfect cuts. It’s about discovering the power of imprecision, and the spontaneity and the gestures when they become expressions of a magical world.