Expressionism concerns itself with subjectivity and the emotional experiences of subjects rather than their physical appearances. The art style does not necessarily lead to self-expression, though that is its most common form (and probably the most popular). In the case of Henri Matisse, art took on the specific role of expressing oneself. As a form of heightened Impressionism, the artist now employs him or herself in portraying his or her own metaphysical qualities, like giving an impression of oneself. The subject is the artist; the art is open unto itself, metacritical. When Matisse arrived at a new technique to build his style off of, paper cutouts, he indicated it as a fulfillment of his endeavors as an artist. "Finally," he said, "I have found the most direct way to express myself—the paper cutout."
This is one of his more famous cutout artworks, from 1947, titled Icarus. The artist has cut out pieces of colored paper and pasted them onto a surface, which was then printed. This is what makes the edges so sharp and the jet-ink colors so stark. We see a black silhouette against a deep blue sky with yellow flashes all around. Given the artwork's title, after the mythological character who flew too close to the sun, we can suppose that the figure in this work is flying or floating in the air, and that the yellow spots around him are stars. These stars are quite expressively fashioned, like Van Gogh's in Starry Night, each one unique and seemingly full of organic life and energy. Icarus's arms look more like birds' wings, which appropriately references the story of the Ancient Greek character, and his heavy legs, disproportionately large to the rest of his body, appear to be weighing him down. The black figure remains otherwise totally anonymous and undistinguished—but Matisse has placed a tiny, red dot inside the silhouette's chest area, indicating a heart. Perhaps that small circle of color alone, no matter how small, makes him more vibrant and alive than all the other flashing stars combined.
Referencing Ancient Greek mythology and invoking complex ideas of the struggle of humanity to soar above earthly restraints, this work of art becomes increasingly elusive the further one goes into studying it; but the artist has first and foremost created a simple image, of mere paper cutouts, to more directly convey the most bare and universally communicable messages to the viewer. We see a human form, black, against a colorful background. The human has no color, but inside him is a heart that has the richest color of the whole canvas. This is about self-expression and a quasi-Romantic return to the emotional reverence of the nobly naturalistic heart of mankind. Through simple forms more complicated and deeper emotions can be conveyed without getting lost in too much subject matter, too many colors and shapes and all other manner of painting elements. This work pre-dates Minimalism.
Matisse's later works of paper cutout art was what the artist most identified himself with, stating that it was the culmination of his artistic career. Therefore, we can't talk about Matisse without bringing up paper cutouts; however, those came much later, and we're getting out of our chronology here. We must come back to the Expressionist painters at the early 20th century.