40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Henri Matisse’s Swimming Pool

on December 7, 2014

The Swimming Pool in Matisse’s dining room at the Hôtel Régina, Nice, 1953. Photo: Hélène Adant. © Centre Pompidou – MnamCci – Bibliothèque Kandinsky. From MoMA website.

At Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, the exhibition on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), sublime modern art translates into pure pool joyousness. One of Matisse’s most significant and popular cut-outs, and the focus of a major art conservation effort that sparked the show, The Swimming Pool is on display for the first time in 20 years. Swim, don’t walk, to see it.

Following his surgery for cancer in 1941, the French artist and master of modern art Henri Matisse (1869-1954) turned to colorfully painted, cut paper as his primary artistic medium. Using a process he called “painting with scissors,” he cut out plant, animal, human, and abstract forms in a variety sizes, arranging them in compositions featuring vibrant color contrasts and a pared-down, decorative approach. The exhibition includes over 100 works of art and provides new insight into this important area of his art work.

The Swimming Pool (late summer 1952) was inspired by Matisse’s visit to–as noted in the exhibition’s description–a “favorite pool” in Cannes, France, where he went to study divers. According to the exhibition catalog, this appears to be the pool at the Palm Beach Hotel in Cannes, a MoMA librarian and swimming fan has helpfully determined.

Unable to endure the summer heat, he returned home and announced: “I will make my own pool.” In his dining room at the Hôtel Régina in Nice he had his assistant place a band of white paper, about 70 cm wide, at eye level, along the tan burlap walls of the room. Over the next several weeks, he cut out swimmers, divers, sea creatures, and other shapes from paper painted ultramarine blue, arranging these forms within and outside the paper’s boundaries. The diving, swimming, flipping, and turning water-colored forms against the white background create an interplay of positive and negative space making swimmer and water interchangeable. The dynamic relationships between the graceful forms cut and placed by Matisse (with the help of his assistant) evoke the essence of waterborne movement in a swimming pool on a bright summer day.

Acquired by the museum in 1975, and first displayed in 1977, the monumental, 50-foot-long work has been re-installed in a special room in the museum, allowing the viewer to experience it as the artist did in his dining room in Nice. Entering the sanctuary of The Swimming Pool and taking in the surrounding scene of bodies moving in water that plays out along the four walls is both meditative and exhilarating. The environment and the subject matter re-create in the imagination the experience of swimming in an actual pool.

When Matisse said “I will make my own pool,” he spoke for anyone who decides for him- or herself to do something creative, meaningful, or challenging. Every swimmer will relate to this, I think.

Information on timed tickets (required), admission, and museum hours are available on MoMA’s website. The exhibition runs until February 8, 2015.

Thanks to devoted reader and pool enthusiast Zoe for this contribution. –Hannah

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