One of the most influential painters of the 20th century, Henri Matisse made his mark on virtually all the major art movements of his time
as he created an innovative oeuvre that spanned six decades and defined some of the major modern art trends. That he was, however, in addition to be a painter, a printmaker and book illustrator as well is not always widely known. The stunning exhibition, The Art Books of Henri Matisse,
which recently opened at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, sheds light on this aspect of the French master’s career. Curated by Andrew Eschelbacher, the museum’s
Assistant Curator of European Art and funded in part by the NEA and Bank of America Art in Communities Fund, it runs from October 7-December 31, 2016 and offers an unique
opportunity to get to know another aspect of this remarkable artist.
Henri Matisse decided to pursue art at the age of twenty-one, having previously studied law. In 1891 he moved to Paris and began his
studies in the academic tradition, experimenting with a variety of styles from Neo-Classicism to Realism to Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. His early work counted Manet and
C├ęzanne among its inspirations, but a trip to the south of France introduced him to the distinctive bright light of Provence, and soon after he also discovered the work of
Seurat and D├ęrain. By 1905 Matisse’s own work with its sinuous line and bold colors earned him the name of a Fauve.
His later periods also encompassed more experimentation. He focused on art and decoration from 1908-1913, creating murals, interiors, and a
series of bold Moroccan pictures. He then moved on to the Cubist influenced abstractions and austere portraits. From 1917-1930, when he lived and worked in Nice, he created a
great many nudes in the odalisque manner. After a trip to America in 1929, he began his series of paper cutouts and by the 1930s and 1940s he was devoting his efforts to the graphic arts - book illustrations, linocuts, lithographs. It is these poetic and highly original works that the current exhibition showcases to dramatic effect.
The exhibition displays prints and cutouts in a variety of media from four books which Matisse illuminated – for truly, the
artist’s contribution is so much more than mere illustration. He is the designer of the page, the print face and sometimes even the calligrapher as well as the
creator of images seamlessly wedded to the French text.
The display opens rather dramatically with Matisse’s 1944 black and white linocuts for French Symbolist poet, Henri de
Montherlant’s Pasipha├ę and Le Chant de Minos, parts of the larger dramatic work, Les Cr├ętois, published by Martin Fabiani. Montherlant’s
dramatic poem uses the myths of the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne, and tells the story of Pasipha├ę who falls in love with Poseidon’s white bull. Montherlant’s
version is filled with erotic overtones, pagan beliefs, and an anti-establishment rebellion. Matisse responded to the bold, Archaic themes and the strong linear style of the
black and red figure vase paintings of Antiquity, and he elected to design the entire book to be a series of white line on black background linoleum cuts with text and
decorative motifs embellished in the Greek terra cotta red. The effect is striking, elegant, disarmingly simple, and yet sensuous and fluid. Matisse’s mastery
of the arabesque line makes these drawings exquisitely graceful and pulsatingy erotic.
The frontispiece of Chant de Minos features a mask like portrait of a young woman with flowing locks and elaborate necklace.
Her features recall some of Matisse’s earlier portraits or those of Picasso, and the economy of the line and slight curve of the eyes and lips creates an air of mystery.
But another print, with line even more economical, manages to suggest abandon, undulating sensuality, and freedom, despite
the ratio of black to white. Coupled with the text, L’angoisse qui s’amasse en frappant sous la gorge, the visual image reinforces
the triplet rhythms and internal rime of the poetic line in that powerful way that Matisse as an illuminator, understood his task
to be embodying the text the image and together fusing them to make music.
Other striking images from this series include several depictions of the Minotaur including two joyful ones underscored with the
description semblable ├á un chef de guerre de dix-sept ans (looking like a young warrior of 17 years old) and another of the bull prancing tout joyeux de sa jeune force (happy with his
young strength). A third image of the bull rearing completes this iconography and captures the duality of attraction and danger contained in the mythic creature.
The next sequence features Matisse’s colorful cut paper illustration for the 1947 book Jazz, published by ├ëeriade.
The bright hues, fluid, dancer-like shapes and essential two dimensionality of the works link these works with Matisse’s
Fauvist period and with the abstractions of Juan Gris and Alexander Calder. Matisse’s technique for creating these works
on paper involved painting the paper, cutting out the shapes and layering them into the design, then using a stencil process called pochoir or hand coloring to transfer the designs for printing.
Among the memorable images in these galleries are Icarus where the androgynous, black cut out figure of the youth
appears to dance across the heavens while starbursts join in the motion with the only spot of stasis the red circle that denotes the ill-fated son of Daedelus’ heart.
Another is of Horse, Rider and Clown in which a fuchsia horse prances across the page; the clown and rider are unseen, though
suggested by floating shapes in black and yellow and a flowered saddle cloth. Like a mobile, the composition is deconstructed,
but remains vibrant due to the feeling of dancing atoms in a magnetic pull.
Another plate, Toboggan, uses the same principle of geometric borders with a figure hurtling through space in a curve of
motion. Interesting to observe in this plate is Matisse’s own looping calligraphy in which he writes I have made these pages
of writing to strengthen the sense of simultaneous reactions. Two others arrest the visitor: Pierrot’s Funeral, where the coach
and horses take center stage, and the Knife Thrower where the motion of the blades hurtling through the air dominates the
print illustrations. As with the entire collection, Matisse places a focus on improvisation and the resulting sensations it can produce in the viewer.
The remaining two books are etched illustrations of French poets Stephane Mallarm├ę and Charles D’Orl├ęans. By nature of
the medium, these economical illustrations showcase Matisse’s dazzling draughtsmanship as well as the same qualities of linear
fluidity and kinetic movement seen in the other two media. The poems of Mallarm├ę were created in 1932. Responding to the
elusiveness of the 19th century French Symbolist, Matisse deliberately used fine, thin line so as no to overpower the transparency and delicacy of the verse.
For his illustrations of 15th century poet Charles D’Orl├ęans in the 1950 ├ëeriade edition Matisse created the plates as lightly
colored lithographs. He again used relatively fine lines and limited his colors to black, blue,and hints of red, then
incorporated his own calligraphy of the text as part of the total design. The overall effect is often a little softer, though the
portraits and faces which people the book have strong silhouettes and their style, such as the Renaissance nobleman
on the frontispiece, suggests a Pre-Raphaelite influence. Others, however, such as the image of the more contemporary young
woman opposite a page of decorative fleur-de-lis seem, more casual and intimate than many of Matisse’s other graphics.
A decade before he died in 1956 Matisse wrote and published a practical treatise entitled How I Made My Books. In terse prose
that parallels the economy of many of the graphic works, Matisse described the technical processes he used to produce
his works on paper, differentiating the sensations each medium gave him as an artist and the effect he hoped it had on the viewer
. Describing his linocuts, he concluded his essay with these words: I have often thought of this simple medium as
comparable to a violin with its bow: a surface, a gouge – four taut strings and a swatch of hair.
The description itself reveals the way in which Matisse, the visual artist, thought of his craft. For him, drawing and painting,
etching and carving were inseparable from music and movement. The line became the extension of the artist’s entire body,
gliding onto the page where it morphed into a vibrant, kinetic form of its own, whose dance echoed the timeless rhythms of life.