Henri Matisse’s book Jazz marks a radical new departure in the artist's œuvre. Its maquettes are amongst the first essays in a medium entirely of his own devising, the papiers découpés, which finally led him to abandon painting in favour of this new and inventive mode. Of limited mobility and mostly bed-bound, he found it increasingly difficult to work in traditional media such as painting and sculpture. Instead, he began to cut shapes into sheets of coloured paper and arranged them as collages; these became known as the 'cut-outs'. It was with these works that he finally saw the two defining elements of his art coalesce: line and colour.
Matisse first used a paper cut-out design in an early issue of the Parisian art journal, VERVE, published by Tériade. However, when Tériade put forward the idea of creating an entire book using paper cut-out designs, Matisse initially refused. After some further experimentation with this technique, he finally accepted the proposal and at the age of 74, he embarked on the creation of Jazz – a glorious celebration of life, a riot of pure colours and forms. What followed was a period of feverish creative activity. Matisse toiled over the series for a year, between 1943 and 1944, with his assistants helping by preparing the coloured sheets, arranging the collages, and printing the works in the stencil or pochoir technique. In this process, a print with the outlines of the design was first produced, and then a series of stencils cut and used to apply areas of colour to the page by hand.
Jazz is the only book created by Matisse as both the artist and the author. The artist’s own poems – his thoughts addressing his art, as well as wider issues of life – accompany his designs. It is rendered in a lively, round manuscript form, deliberately large to fulfil an important aesthetic role. The title originally suggested for the book was Cirque, which summed up the theatrical and performance themes which had inspired the majority of the images in the book. As Matisse wrote: 'These violent and vivid stamped images came from the crystallization of memories of the circus, of folk tales or of travels. I did these writings to soothe the simultaneous reaction of my chromatic and rhythmic improvisations, pages that formed a 'background of sound' that support, surround and thus protect their own uniqueness.' (D. Fourcade, ed., Henri Matisse - Écrits et propos sur l'art, Paris, 1972). However, it was the combination of Matisse’s looping script, improvised themes and compositional variations that prompted Tériade to suggest the alternative title Jazz, which he felt better reflected the bold forms and the dynamism of the pages, akin to the movement of a jazz orchestra.
When the book was published in 1947 it met with an immediate and unprecedented success: ‘Of all of Matisse’s books, Jazz is without a doubt his most important: it triggered a revolution in both the artist’s œuvre and in the history of contemporary art.’ (M. Anthonioz, Hommage Tériade, Paris, 1973, p. 125). Matisse insisted on printing Jazz using the same Linel gouache paints he had used to colour his paper maquettes. It is these intensely glowing colours – a precursor of what was to come in the vibrant works of the great Pop Artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein - beautifully preserved in the present example, and the poetic, yet nearly abstract imagery, which make Jazz one of the most influential print series of the 20th century.