Description of the Unit – Students will explore the famous cut-outs that Henri Matisse innovated in the 1940’s, as well as Rex Ray’s inventive contemporary collages. Throughout their exploration students will note the use of color, line, shape, texture and positive and negative space in the creation of a dynamic yet balanced composition.
Activity statement – Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was an original, innovate artist who had a lifelong fascination with color and shape. I say innovative, because throughout his artistic career he was constantly exploring new media and techniques. One of these techniques is known as the cut-out. The following quote is from the MoMA (New York) website for a Matisse retrospective exhibit, and best summarizes the spirit of Matisse’s pursuit of the cut-out: “In the late 1940s, Henri Matisse turned almost exclusively to cut paper as his primary medium, and scissors as his chief implement, introducing a radically new operation that came to be called a cut-out. Matisse would cut painted sheets into forms of varying shapes and sizes—from the vegetal to the abstract—which he then arranged into lively compositions, striking for their play with color and contrast, their exploitation of decorative strategies, and their economy of means. Initially, these compositions were of modest size but, over time, their scale grew along with Matisse’s ambitions for them, expanding into mural or room-size works. A brilliant final chapter in Matisse’s long career, the cut-outs reflect both a renewed commitment to form and color and an inventiveness directed to the status of the work of art, whether as a unique object, environment, ornament, or a hybrid of all of these.”(moma.org)
Rex Ray (1956-2015) shared Matisse’s inventive, experimental energy, in this case applied to new technologies in graphic design, painting and printmaking. In the case of his collage prints, this “involved a complicated process that combined Xerography, handmade woodblock prints, newsprint, and magazine images that he collaged into vibrant color schemes with parabolic forms and abstract patterns,” (https://www.rexraystudio.com/about). I highly encourage anyone interested to visit his website, rexraystudio.com, and become familiar with this exciting artwork from an artist who changed the landscape of contemporary art.
Goals – Students should…
- What a cut-out is
- What balance means when referring to a composition
- How shape determines positive and negative space
- How to recognize contrasting colors
- How to differentiate between positive and negative space
- The difference between an organic vs. geometric shape
Be able to:
- Recognize a Matisse cut-out
- Recognize a Rex Ray collage
- Arrange shapes and colors on a composition in a way that reflects balance
Students will be exploring and discussing Matisse and Ray’s work, looking specifically at use of color, shape and texture. They will compare geometric vs. organic shapes and look for the ways colors contrast with each other in their placement. They will be introduced to the principles of balance and space, discussing the ways in which the shapes have been arranged on the format to create a balanced composition, one which uses positive and negative space in dynamic ways.
Students will be making their own cut-out collages. To do so, they will first paint dozens of sheets of paper in thick acrylic paint, mimicking the featured artists’ approaches, in order to produce similar brush textures. Once dried, the painted paper will belong collectively to the class, to be used in the project despite whether a student painted that particular piece or not. Other pieces to be used in the collage will be scraps of handmade paper, magazine and book pages, (these to add a ‘found’ element as in Ray’s work) and colored construction paper. Students will be encouraged to cut both organic and geometric shapes and be thoughtful as to the ways in which their arrangement makes use of the space, and how they might achieve balance. All heady terms for second grade, and yet I have found that when we explore this with as many visual examples as possible, students really do understand these concepts.
Resources and materials –
- Diverse examples of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs and Rex Ray’s collages
- 12 x 18 multicolored construction paper
- Painted paper (painted by the students themselves)
- Glue brushes
- Jars with water
- Special handmade stationary paper to add a little bit of the “found” collage element to the artwork.
- What shapes do you see?
- What colors are contrasting? What do you think about the colors in these works of art?
- Can you point out the negative space in this composition?
- Do you notice any textures? Where? How is texture represented?
- Is this composition balanced? Why or why not? What do you see on the left side? What is on the right? Is the art balanced vertically as well?
- Does it look like these figures are moving? How do you think Matisse suggests that?
- Do you notice any organic shapes? Which ones?
- Do you notice any geometric shapes? Which ones?
- Do you consider these cut-outs/collages playful or serious? Why?
- Are these cut-outs/collages abstract or representational?
Evaluation – Did students:
- Understand how to use contrasting colors for a dynamic result?
- Use interesting shapes (both organic and geometric) to affect positive and negative space?
- Make a balanced composition?
- Student questions
- Group discussions
- Oral responses to essential questions
- Elaboration and risk-taking
Below are student examples of their Matisse-Ray style cut-out collages. Note that some of these were made while we were in quarantine, a time when I was teaching some students on Zoom. Some students did not have access to all of the materials required, yet were able to come up with interesting designs nonetheless.