When Henri Matisse Was 83 Years Old, He Couldn’t Go to His Favorite Swimming Pool, So He Created a Swimming Pool as a Work of Art

I will die from the heat, take me home. I will make my own Pool. — Hen­ri Matisse

Rep­re­sent­ing water is an elu­sive propo­si­tion for many artists, espe­cial­ly when it’s not pos­ing placid­ly on a wind­less, moon­lit evening.

In the sum­mer of 1952, Hen­ri Matisse head­ed to a favorite Cannes swim­ming pool with his stu­dio assis­tant (and favored mod­el), Lydia Delec­torskaya.

Short­ly after their arrival, the octo­ge­nar­i­an became over­whelmed by the heat, and the two dou­bled back to his home in Nice, where he instruct­ed Delec­torskaya to pin white paper to the burlap wall treat­ment of his din­ing room, until it ringed the room at head lev­el.

This tab­u­la rasa became the pool that he filled with swim­mers, divers and marine crea­tures he cut from paper his assis­tants had col­ored ultra­ma­rine blue with gouache.

His shapes were both sim­ple and evoca­tive, sug­gest­ing all the exu­ber­ant life­forms splash­ing in a swim­ming pool on a swel­ter­ing summer’s day.

They adorned the walls of his din­ing room until his death, two years lat­er.

His wid­ow super­vised its removal, mak­ing sure that the place­ment of the indi­vid­ual cut outs could be dupli­cat­ed on fresh white paper pinned to new burlap pan­els.

The Muse­um of Mod­ern Art acquired The Swim­ming Pool, Matisse’s first and only self-con­tained, site-spe­cif­ic cut-out in 1975, exhibit­ing it to great acclaim.

Wel­come sum­mer by tak­ing a stroll through the instal­la­tion with mem­ber­ship guest spe­cial­ist Josephine McReynolds, above.

McReynolds, a 2019 grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas, finds in the work a blur­ring of the bound­aries between ear­ly child­hood and old age, draw­ing on our col­lec­tive mem­o­ries of sum­mer to “pro­vide the life force in this pool.”

While we’re at it, we should thank MoMA’s con­ser­va­tors for their efforts to restore and pre­serve The Swim­ming Pool after deter­min­ing it had suf­fered extreme dam­age from the acid­i­ty of the burlap, and expo­sure to light and atmos­pher­ic pol­lu­tion.

Senior con­ser­va­tor Karl Buch­berg esti­mates that it took some 2000 hours just to sep­a­rate the paper ele­ments from the burlap using a scalpel, rotary tool, and, in places, dis­man­tling the burlap strand by strand by pulling on indi­vid­ual threads.

The con­ser­va­tors restored the col­or bal­ance to the best of their abil­i­ties and rein­stalled the work at its intend­ed height, in a con­fig­u­ra­tion that mim­ics the archi­tec­ture of the Matiss­es’ din­ing room.

Read more about the con­ser­va­tion of Matisse’s The Swim­ming Pool here.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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