In 1941, when he was seventy-two years old, Matisse suffered a serious illness that left him virtually an invalid for the rest of his life. Propped up in bed and unable to paint, he concentrated on drawing, first with pen, pencil and charcoal, and then with scissors, cutting out shapes from sheets of coloured paper and pasting them down. Matisse called them decoupages, or 'cut-outs', and they became his preferred method of working during the last ten years of his life.
Matisse's first great achievement in this medium was Jazz, a portfolio of twenty colour plates printed in pochoir after a series of cut-outs that he began working on as early as 1941 (the Australian National Gallery owns a copy of this portfolio). However, it was a decorative commission from the London-based textile printer Zika Ascher that prompted Matisse to recognise in this technique the means for a mural-scale art form that came to constitute the climax of his career.
Ascher first approached Matisse for a textile design early in 1946. Matisse did not immediately refuse but rather asked that Ascher visit again the next time he was in Paris. When Ascher returned he found Matisse sitting on his bed in the middle of a large room in his Boulevard Montparnasse apartment, paper and scissors in hand directing his assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, who was pinning the cut-out shapes directly onto the walls of the room.1 From dado to cornice, two adjacent walls were covered with white silhouettes of fish, birds, jellyfish, coral, the life of sea and sky from a distant Pacific world that Matisse had visited many years before in 1930. 'It's as though my memory had suddenly taken the place of the outside world', he told the photographer Brassai, who also visited him at this time. 'Sixteen years after my trip to Tahiti, my memories are finally coming back to me. There, swimming everyday in the lagoon, I took such intense pleasure in contemplating the submarine world'.2
Zika Ascher was given the task of translating these huge compositions of flimsy paper cut-outs pinned on the walls into the more durable form of screenprinted wall-hangings. First the right cloth had to be found. Matisse was worried that the first samples sent to him by Ascher were too fine and would lose their substance. In letters to Ascher of 13 and 24 October 1946 he stressed that a 'good, stiff cloth' was essential, and enclosed samples of linen from the fabric supplier Planeix from the Brittany town of Uzel.3
Another area of concern was the artist's wish to duplicate for the background the exact colour of his apartment wall-covering, a light beige that reminded Matisse of 'the golden light of the Pacific'. Noticing Ascher surreptitiously looking for a loose scrap of wall-covering to take away, Matisse insisted that they call in a picture restorer to copy the colour. Twice Ascher returned to find Matisse infuriated by a dozen or more colour cards of minutely differing shades of beige, none of which satisfied his eye. Ascher was eventually sent two approximations and instructed to dye the linen in a shade between the two.4
The final stage involved screenprinting the paper cut-out shapes in opaque white onto the linen support. Matisse and Ascher thought first of attempting a photographic enlargement for the printing, as referred to in the artist's letter of 13 October. This process was not satisfactory, however, and Ascher suggested instead tracing the full compositional layouts and sending the subsequently unpinned maquette elements to England to verify the detailing. Eventually this was the procedure followed, though not without Matisse expressing misgivings that 'if it were to be traced, there would be some interpretation on the part of the tracer'.5
Advice and practical assistance in the printing was sought by Ascher from the Belfast Silk and Rayon Company. Their chemist, Gisa Gewing, developed a new pigment dye especially for the panels and they were printed at the firm's Belfast printworks in 1948 with Zika Ascher overseeing production. Oceania, the sky and Oceania, the sea were printed in an edition of thirty examples each. They were then sent to Matisse in Nice for checking and signing.
Matisse was delighted by the result and kept half of the total edition for himself, returning the balance signed and numbered, to Ascher.6 Shortly afterwards, Matisse was urging Jean Cassou to include both panels in his exhibition at the Musée National d'art Museum, Paris, in 1949, and in the winter of 1949-50 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, arranged a series of venues for their exhibition throughout the United States.
In a statement published in the magazine Labyrinthe in December 1946 Matisse wrote eloquently of the inspiration behind these works:
This panel, [Oceania, the sea] printed on linen — white for the motifs and beige for the background — forms together with a second panel, [Oceania, the sky] a wall tapestry composed during reveries which come fifteen years after a voyage to Oceania.
From the first, the enchantments of the sky there, the fish, and the coral in the lagoons, plunged me into the inaction of total ecstasy. The local tones of things hadn't changed, but their effect in the light of the Pacific gave me the same feeling as I had when I looked into a large golden chalice.
With my eyes wide open I absorbed everything as a sponge absorbs liquid. It is only now that these wonders have returned me, with tenderness and clarity, and have permitted me, with protracted pleasure, to execute these two panels.7
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.166.