One morning in the summer of 1952, Matisse told his studio assistant and secretary Lydia Delectorskaya that “he wanted to see divers,” so they set out to a favorite pool in Cannes. Suffering under the “blazing sun,” they returned home, where Matisse declared, “I will make myself my own pool.” He asked Delectorskaya to ring the walls of his dining room at the Hôtel Régina in Nice with a band of white paper, positioned just above the level of his head, breaking only at the windows and door at opposite ends of the room. The room itself was lined with tan burlap, a popular wall covering of the time. Matisse then cut his own divers, swimmers, and sea creatures out of paper painted in an ultramarine blue. The blue forms were pinned on the white paper, which helped define the aquatic ballet of bodies, splashing water, and light.
The result was Matisse’s first and only self-contained, site-specific cut-out. With its reduction of forms, its dynamic deployment of positives and negatives, and its lateral expansion across the walls, The Swimming Pool was the culmination of Matisse’s work in cut paper up until that point. Matisse saw in paper’s pliability a perfect representation of the fluidity of water, making The Swimming Pool a perfect melding of subject and means.
After Matisse’s death in 1954 the work was traced, unpinned from the walls, and sent to the Parisian studio of Lucien Lefebvre-Foinet for mounting. Decisions about the specifics of the mounting were made by the artist’s widow, Amélie Matisse, and his daughter, Marguerite Matisse Duthuit. The first major decision was the choice of fabric onto which the work was to be mounted. Madame Matisse knew that burlap was a material poorly suited to the long-term stability of a work of art on paper, but she also realized that it was the only material faithful to the original conception of the room and the work. New burlap was purchased and used for the mounting, the white paper frieze was replaced with new white paper, and the work was mounted as nine separate panels; four from one side of the room and five from the other, creating a work fifty-four feet in length.
The Museum of Modern Art acquired this room-sized cut-out in 1975, and it was included in the landmark 1977 exhibition Henri Matisse Paper Cut-Outs at the National Gallery of Art, the St. Louis Art Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was subsequently installed in the Museum’s galleries and became a visitor favorite. MoMA's 1992 exhibition Henri Matisse: A Retrospective provided a point of reference from which to assess the condition of the work and its installation design. Starting in 2008, a conservation and installation protocol with three main goals evolved.
Color balance: Condition issues were already noted when The Swimming Pool was acquired. The burlap mounting was discolored. Burlap is an inherently acidic fabric, and its darkening and loss of strength over time is inevitable. This shift in color from an original tan to an orange-brown altered the color balance of the work. The first goal was to replace the burlap to return to the original color balance of white paper, blue cut-outs, and tan burlap. A sample of the burlap as it was when the work was mounted in 1955 had been sent to MoMA in 1975 by a descendant of the original mounter. Stored in the dark away from light and atmospheric pollutants, it still retained its original tan color. New burlap was sourced and dyed to match this original sample.
Installation height: Period photographs of the room where The Swimming Pool was created show the height at which Matisse had originally created the work. Subsequent installations at MoMA had placed the work significantly lower than the optimal original height, mainly because of ceiling height restrictions. The installation for this exhibition re-creates the original height.
Room architecture: Previous installations at MoMA have never approximated the original architecture of the room in which the work was created; there has always been an entrance at one side and an exit opposite, creating the effect of a corridor. This new installation allows the visitor to enter as Matisse did. A graphic rendering of the room's window faces the entrance. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling in burlap, as was the original room.
The white frieze and the burlap were not original to Matisse’s dining room; they were furnished by the mounters in Paris after the artist’s death. Only the blue cut shapes are from the hand of Matisse. It would, therefore, have been possible, in order to achieve the goal of restoring the original color balance, to replace both of them. The decision was made to replace only the burlap and to retain the white paper.
The decision was made to remove the existing burlap (which was discolored and brittle) and source new burlap, but not to adhere the new burlap to the cut-outs. The acidity of the old burlap was a major cause of damage to the cut-outs. The new burlap, although lighter in color and more flexible, is still acidic. The white frieze and cut-out shapes were pinned to new burlap-covered panels, mimicking the way the cut-outs were installed in Matisse’s studios and reintroducing a dimensional liveliness that the work originally exhibited.
The decision not to replace the white paper frieze, which admittedly is both yellowed and stained, was based on the belief that new paper placed behind the blue cut forms would have caused a jarring relationship between the two. The blue shapes are now over sixty years old. The blue pigment has altered (this will be discussed later) and the paper has also aged over time, so the white and blue remain in a harmonious relationship.
Each of the panels was digitally imaged. These images will be the benchmark to judge any subsequent treatment or change.
The panels were treated at MoMA just after their acquisition in 1975. This treatment focused on reducing unsightly stains in the white frieze and consisted of stain reduction using organic solvents and bleach. Some of this staining has returned over the intervening thirty-five years. Burlap removal was proposed but never undertaken due to time constraints.
Each panel was placed face down, so that the delicate surface was not touching the surface of the table, and removed from its stretcher. Then the process of removing the burlap began. The adhesive attaching the paper to the burlap was determined to be methyl cellulose, a water-soluble adhesive that is considered stable. Tests using small amounts of moisture to release the burlap were not successful. It was decided that a fully manual removal would be the safest. For some panels the threads of the burlap were pulled off, one by one, essentially unweaving the burlap fabric. Where this technique tended to delaminate small sections of paper, an electric rotary tool was used on the surface of the burlap to weaken the woven structure, and the remaining burlap was then scraped off using a blunt knife. No attempt was made to remove the remaining adhesive as it did not seem that it was causing any damage.
The panel was then turned face up on the table and the white paper was surface cleaned using white vinyl erasers. The blue painted surfaces were deemed too delicate to be surface cleaned.
Stain removal on the white paper frieze was tested using several different methods. Applications of moisture using cotton swabs, then blotting with absorbent blotters, was ineffective in lessening the stains. Applications with organic solvents such as ethanol or acetone were similarly unsuccessful. In the end, the white paper was not treated for stain removal.
The holes created by the tacks that were used to attach the work to the stretchers were mended using Japanese long-fibered paper and wheat starch paste. At each short side of the panels, the margins were reinforced with Japanese-paper strips.
New MDF (medium density fiberboard) panels were fabricated and surfaced with cork to provide a soft surface. Burlap was then adhered to each panel. Using the original pinholes created by Matisse’s assistants, new stainless steel pins were tapped through the cut-out forms. The newly attached Japanese-paper tabs were then attached to the back of the MDF panels.
After the exhibition closes, the cut-outs will be unpinned and released from the burlap-covered MDF panels and returned to the custom-designed cases for safekeeping.