Around this time, which coincided with his early cut-outs, Matisse began to speak of his work in terms of the invention of what he called ‘signs’.
He used this term in a general, rather than in a strictly semiotic, sense- that is, what the Rnadom House Dictionary calls ‘a conventional mark, figure, or symbol used as an abbreviation… or to represent a complex notion’, and what Matisse himself described as ‘the briefest possible indication of the character of a thing. The sign’. In his late paintings, Matisse was even more daring in the ways he combined objects to emphasize the affinities that underlay their apparent differences. When looking at his paintings of the late 1930s and 1940s, the viewer is simultaneously asked to accept the objects for what they are— a woman, a table, a vase of flowers, perhaps some fruit, and yards of vividly patterned cloth— and at the same time to understand that, taken together, these things also suggest another kind of reality and signify another kind of space.
This other kind of space is neither strictly two-dimensional nor fully three-dimensional, neither specifically ethereal nor corporeal. It is in effect a kind of ‘third space’, a new reality that is created by the differentials between what is shown and how it is represented. Within this context, decorative motifs mediate between the representation of the object as a real thing and the representation of the object as part of an ensemble of forms that exists in a world apart, and which seems to follow its own rules— rules determined in large measure by the ways in which pictorial energies are guided and modulated by the pulse of decorative patterns.
– Jack Flam, Matisse and the Metaphysics of Decoration in Matisse His Art and His Textiles