The prototypical craftsman, the exemplary artisan, the shrewd inventor: this was Daedalus. Having contrived for the Cretan Queen Pasiphaë the simulacrum of a cow in which she could conceal herself so that the white bull of the sun would mate with her, he then designed the labyrinth inhabited by her monstrous offspring, the Minotaur. An Athenian, Daedalus longed for home but was forbidden to leave Crete, so, Ovid said, “to new arts his cunning thought applies, / And to improve the work of Nature tries.” Thinking “for sure the air is free,” he fashioned a pair of wings out of wax and feathers. After taking them for a successful test flight, he made a set for his son Icarus. We know the sad result: with youthful impetuousness, Icarus flew too high. As he neared the sun, the wax melted and the wings disintegrated. “Down to the sea he tumbled from on high, / And found his Fate.”
Ever since, Icarus has represented failed ambition. It may be a compliment to call someone a high flier, but the implication is always that a fall is yet to come. Thinking of the story in relation to the arts, it might be considered a cautionary tale about what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”: for any artist, trying to surpass the achievement of a great precursor may lead to letdown and, perhaps, to becoming a master of what Alexander Pope dubbed “bathos,” or “the art of sinking.” Yet Romantic and modern poets have been ever tempted by the fate of Icarus. I’m not thinking about those who have literally drowned themselves, like Hart Crane or (presumably) Weldon Kees, but rather those like Giacomo Leopardi, who saw poetry as the product of thought as it “drowns in immensity,” or Stéphane Mallarmé, for whom a poem might be “some splashing below of water as if to / disperse the empty act.”
Mallarmé was an inspiration for Henri Matisse, who illustrated an edition of his Poésies in 1932. Only later, however, did Matisse represent the theme of Icarus, and in a radical departure from the airy elegance of the etchings he did for Mallarmé’s poems. “It was in the summer of 1943, the darkest point of that whole period,” as Louis Aragon would later write, “that he made an Icarus.”
Summoned from the depths of wartime, this Icarus is not the earliest work in “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” the grand-scale exhibition on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through February 8, but it is a crucial one. Matisse had used the cutout method—painting sheets of paper in gouache, then making cutouts pasted or pinned together—in the 1930s, but only to produce studies of things like stage curtains or book covers. The Fall of Icarus is different because it was made with no specific project in mind, though it inspired Matisse’s book project Jazz; it stands behind not only the book’s eighth plate, Icarus, but also its first one, The Clown. In 1943, Matisse was more inclined to make cutouts because, for an artist in his 70s who was physically challenged, the process was less taxing than oil painting. But it was precisely Matisse’s dissatisfaction with the book that led him to realize that the cutouts could be ends in themselves.
I was lucky enough to have been able to see the exhibition last spring in London, where it was shown at Tate Modern. Yet I felt a little let down by it. Maybe I’d become too convinced in advance that the cutouts are one of those sublime instances in which an artist miraculously succeeds in transforming his art in old age, making “late works which crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor” in “harmony and resolution” (the words are Edward Said’s).Walking away from the Tate, I couldn’t help but feel that Matisse’s extraordinary late-life reinvention had come at a high cost: it had opened up a new imaginative world to him, but only through the loss of what, to the very end of his life, he believed was the source of his art—its relation to experienced reality. The true artist, he maintained, “assimilates the external world within himself,” and so he criticized abstract artists for losing a “criterion of observation.” Even in the nearly pure abstract forms of his cutouts, however, Matisse never abandoned figurative imagery; a gastropod can be made out—albeit just barely—in the 1953 masterpiece he titled The Snail, which many another artist would have been happy to dub Composition With Rectangles. But most of the cutouts are unattached to any model outside the artist’s imagination or memory.