The Art Books of Henri Matisse

Walker Art Gallery
15th October 2011 – 15th April 2012

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

This gentle exhibition is what is sometimes needed: not so extensive as to be overwhelming, yet demanding enough in its intensity of purpose, focusing as it does on the aspect of his art Matisse was most proud of: his art book illustrations.

The book began its life as a treasured artefact, as a beautiful object per se. In those hand-written Bibles, jewel-like in their illustration, the medium and the message were part of the same act of faith. The invention of the printing press switched the emphasis from individuality to standardisation, from elite scarcity to accessible quantity but the desire to preserve the idea of content and medium complementing one another has endured, especially in an age when the book as artefact is under threat from screened words. Reflecting the sustained interest in the book as a vital part of the message, this exhibition also offers books by Ed Ruscha, Derek Boshier and Gilbert & George from the Walker permanent exhibition.

The Matisse exhibition contains 63 framed original illustrations with text from four books: Poesies de Stephane Mallarme (1932), Pasiphae Chant de Minos (Les Cretois) by Henri de Montherlant (1944), Jazz (1947) and Poemes de Charles d’Orleans (1950). It covers Matisse’s prowess as a linear artist as well as his skill as a colourist; his compositional certainty as well as and his innovative venture into the cut-out technique.

Regarding linear beauty the mind focuses on Poesies de Stephane Mallarme and on Pasiphae Chant de Minos (Les Cretois) by Henri de Montherlant. In illustrating these works Matisse perceived of the double page with text and illustration as a whole, seeking to achieve a harmonious balance of the blank areas of the page, the lines of text on it and the drawn illustrations at its side. To Matisse it was just like painting: “I do not distinguish between the construction of a book and that of a painting and I always proceed from the simple to the complex.” (1946) “I can compare my two pages to two objects taken up by a juggler…the light one and the dark one…the art of the juggler makes a harmonious whole in the eyes of the spectator,” (1946).

In terms of being a supreme colourist Matisse developed a method of working hitherto unseen, using pre-coloured gouache cut-outs. He was ill and found difficulty in working conventionally but invention is the necessity of creativity and the technique, far from being a compromise, it took him to the resolution he sought:

“I am currently focusing on material more matt and more immediate, and this leads me to seek a new means of expression. Paper cut-outs allow me to draw in colour. For me it is a question of simplification. Instead of drawing the outline and establishing colour within it, I draw directly in the colour, which is more exact for not being transposed. This simplification guarantees precision; as I reconcile, two means now become one…It is not a beginning, it is an endpoint.”

What Matisse had been looking for: a synthesis of his drawing, painting, writing and sculpture was now achieved. With reference to Jazz, which contains images taken from the circus, from cabaret and from his travels, Matisse spoke of the directness of the technique: “cutting directly into colour reminds me of a sculptor’s carving into stone. This book was conceived in that spirit” (1947). The textual content, written in Matisse’s own hand, is there in a “purely visual” role, an idea that was to influence later artists such as Cy Twombley.

The Jazz works are breathtaking in their colourist joy and linear sureness; in their direct imagery and in compositional balance, yet this is not the whole story. The content of Jazz is not divorced from the troubled times that produced it. Black recurs throughout as does the jagged motif of explosion or flame as seen in The Clown (1943 - above right) and there are some uncomfortable images such as the white wolf’s head with its disturbing red eye and predatory jaw in The Wolf (1944) or Icarus (1943 - top) who flew too close to the sun and came to a bad end, or the disturbing black figures in The Cowboy (1943-46) which evoke the idea of confinement – torture even. The Knife-Thrower (1943) at first glance almost abstract in its decorative emphasis becomes more disturbing when further examined. The blue-grey figure on the right, its arms up as if in surrender, is completely open to the diagonal knife shape in the purple figure on the left.

It is worth noting here that Matisse’s daughter was arrested and tortured by the Germans.

This is an important exhibition for obvious reasons. With Picasso, Matisse is the giant of twentieth century art whose influence still reverberates. We are all familiar with these exquisitely executed linear drawings and iconic cut-outs popularised in art books, posters, T-shirts and even crockery but seeing his revolutionary technical advances, seeing the artworks in their actuality of colour and size is a privilege and an opportunity not to be missed.

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