The Art Books of Henri Matisse

Jazz - a moment we felt ourselves to be so free

It’s been on at the Walker since last October, but last week I finally got round to seeing the exhibition of art books by Henri Matisse that comprises 63 original illustrations with text from four of Matisse’s most significant art books, including  Jazz (1947), perhaps the most celebrated artist’s books in the history of modern art. In Nice four years ago we were fortunate enough to see a temporary exhibition of Jazz, a complete collection of  the one hundred prints that make up the book.

The exhibition at the Walker features just a small selection from five Matisse art books: Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé (1932), Baudelaire’s Le fleurs du mal, Henri de Montherlants Pasiphaé-Chant de Minos (les Crétois) (1944), Jazz (1947), and Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans (1950). All of the images on display are outstanding.  There are delicate line drawings, the flowing white-on-black  curves of linocuts, and the vivid, colourful cut-out stencils of Jazz.

Artists have been producing finely made books for centuries. The illustration or interpretation of works of literature by artists became particularly popular in France in the early 20th century. This coincided with an expanded market for visual art, especially amongst the educated upper middle class. Livres d’artistes (artists’ books) were characterised by large, sumptuous formats with lavish, original illustrations and were printed in limited editions. Some were bound volumes, others were loose-leaf portfolios. The books sold on the reputations of the artists and writers involved and were often the initiative of opportunistic publishers. As well as Matisse, other artists who produced books included Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst. They were always conceived as original artworks, where the artist exercised a high degree of control. Matisse, for example, managed all aspects of production from selecting the paper to the typeface.

Trained as a lawyer, the turning point of Henri Matisse’s life came at the surprisingly late age of 20, according to the exhibition commentary, when his mother gave him his first paint box:

From the moment that I held the box of colours in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.
- Matisse, 1941

Matisse evolved a style that used brilliant, unnatural colours and bold brushstrokes. In his thirties he led the artists’ group branded the Fauves (the wild beasts) owing to their radical use of paint and colour. The art books, though, were created in the last two decades of his life.  Over a 25-year period (between 1930 and 1954) he alternated painting with the creation of books in limited editions that make up a body of work with a character all its own.

At the beginning of the exhibition is displayed the one painting by Matisse in the Walker collection.  Painted early in his career, around 1898, The Viaduct at Arcueil depicts a scene in the Paris suburb where Matisse regularly painted landscapes during 1898 and 1900.

In creating his art books, Matisse worked with various techniques, employing lithography, linoleum cuts, etching and pochoir, always seeking a simplicity of line and form that is close to calligraphy.  In the first room is a display of materials and tools relating to each technique.  In the case of Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé, Matisse’s line drawings were printed from a piece of etched copper plate like this one. In Poésies  Matisse responded to the poet’s stated emphasis on the importance of the white space around the poem by etching  ‘an even, very thin line, without hatching, so that the printed page is left almost as white as it was before printing’.

Linoleum (lino) is easy to cut, and was perfect for Matisse’s curving and flowing lines.  This technique was used in making Pasiphaé-Chant de Minos.

With Jazz, the printing reproduces the paper cut-outs that Matisse gave to the printer, using the technique known as pochoir,  French for ‘stencil’.  The stencils used to print Jazz were cut from thin metal sheets.  Each colour had its own stencil, with a wooden registration block ensuring accurate alignment.  By directly brushing the same gouache paints through the stencils that Matisse had used on the cut-outs , the printers approximated the rich colours and layers in his originals.

Matisse began work on his first art book, Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé, following a trip to Tahiti in 1930. In contrast to his pictorial work, drenched with tropical light and colours, Matisse sought out the essence in etchings of fine, regular strokes with no shading, complementing the text displayed on the facing page. The sensuousness of feminine figures, windows and flowers reflect his experience of Tahiti, combined with recurrent images from Mallarmé’s poetry, such as fawns, swans, hair and fans.

This is Sea Breeze’ (‘Brise Marine’) from Poésies, illustrating Mallarme’s poem that speaks of the poet suffering from a weariness of spirit, disappointed hopes and writer’s block.  The poet hopes for escape to an exotic land. Matisse would have identified with the sentiments, having travelled to Tahiti in 1930 in search of rest, inspiration and tropical light when he, too, struggling with the commission from the American collector Albert C Barnes to decorate the central hall of his newly-built museum at Merion in Pennsylvania (the work that was to become The Dance).

Both the flesh and the spirit weary me;
I am no longer
in love and I have read all my books.
I long to get away,
to flee from this world to where the birds are wild with
joy to be flying across unknown seas and skies.
Nothing
shall hold me back from my heart’s desire to plunge deep
into the sea and to vanish into the night;
neither the old
gardens I see around me, nor the unbroken circle of light
from my lamp, falling on the blank sheet of paper and its
forbidding whiteness, nor my wife suckling her child.
I shall
abandon everything and board a steamer with swaying masts
setting off for some exotic land.
For such is my weariness,
overwhelmed by disappointed hopes,
that I still cherish the
illusion that one can really escape, that handkerchiefs can
wave in a truly final farewell.
Even though these masts
may perhaps run into storms
so that my dreams of escape
will lead only to the shipwreck of my hopes,
instead of to the
welcoming island I visualise,
my heart still finds it hard to
resist the idea of escape
and the appeal of sailors’ songs.

Matisse had been commissioned to produce the book by a Swiss publisher, Albert Skira, who chose the remarkably unpromising moment of the start of a global slump to launch two luxury art books (the other was an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, illustrated by Picasso).  Matisse’s thin, flowing lines leave the paper, in Matisse’s own words, ‘almost as white as it was before painting’.  ‘La Coiffure’ (above) depicts Herodias, Queen of the Galileans, the woman who schemed to have John the Baptist executed.

The next book to be displayed, Pasiphae Song of Minos (The Cretans) is the French author Henri de Montherlant’s
re-telling of the Greek myth of the god Poseidon who cursed King Minos of Crete for refusing to sacrifice a bull.
Poseidon placed Minos’s wife Pasiphae under a spell that drove her mad with desire for the animal. Consequently, she gave birth to the half-bull, half-man Minotaur.

Montherlant proposed the collaborative project to Matisse in 1943, having found someone prepared to publish an illustrated edition despite the wartime restrictions.  Matisse’s designs respond not to the story’s tragedy but to the themes of love, desire and feminine beauty.

Matisse had been working on another art book displayed in this exhibition, the Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans (which hadn’t found a publisher).  For that he had used ordinary children’s crayons to illustrate Orleans’ poems.  For the Montherland project he experimented with another childish medium, using the linocut to draw in dazzling white lines on a ground as black as the night sky.

Each double-page spread was treated as a single unit, intended to be unified by the viewer’s eye.  Preparing these linocuts, Matisse gouged into the soft linoleum, ‘drawing’ in reverse, white on black.  The process captured the subtle movements of his hand.

One of the most striking images in the exhibition is ‘L’angoisse qui s’amasse en frappant sous ta gorge’ (‘The fear which grows and sticks in your throat’, above) in which Pasiphae is shown with her head thrown back in a silent shriek.  Matisse’s friend, the writer Louis Aragon, described this image as ‘a single white stroke against the background, like a jagged flash of lightning’.  Aragon felt the image had a resonance beyond anything in Montherlant’s poetry:

Perhaps in reality it was other sufferings, taking place beyond the walls of his house, that turned this ancient story … into a cry, like an echo of things that no-one talked about in Matisse’s presence.

Matisse was ill during the period that he worked on these images.  He found it hard to see properly by daylight, and he worked more and more at night or by day withe the shutters closed.  Intent on matching the spirit and ambience of the classic tale, Matisse took as the model for his images ancient Greek black ground vase painting.

For each scene, Matisse selected a favorite phrase from Montherlant’s Pasiphaé and interpreted it in several different ways. True to his style, the images respond not to the tale’s tragedy but to universal themes of passion, feminine beauty and love. For the 1944 publication, only one image per scene was printed and additional linoleum blocks were stored for a separate edition that Matisse hoped to publish later.

Pasiphaé: But suddenly the sun, shaking its mane.

What became the iconic image of Jazz, Icarus  with his glowing red heart, had its origins in the same period.  ‘It was in the summer of 1943, the darkest point of that whole period, that he made an Icarus’, wrote Aragon.  Matisse was preparing to leave Cimiez, his home in Nice, to retreat inland to Vence as the war intensified.  In her biography, Matisse The Master, Hilary Spurling writes:

This Fall of Icarus … led directly to one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary printed books, the triumphant cut-paper inventions of Jazz, which Matisse worked on all through his first winter at Vence.

Fascinated by Matisse’s Icarus, the publisher Tériade proposed he create a book ‘on Matisse colour’, a ‘manuscript of modern painting’ that would revive the splendour of medieval illumination.  What with the war, Matisse’s poor health and painting commitments, it was seven years before the book became a reality. The result was spectacular: images mainly inspired by the circus painted with gouache then cut out and combined to create collages of exuberant beauty. On the facing page, the text in Matisse’s own calligraphy, expresses the painter’s observations on life.

Matisse started working on Jazz in 1943, inspired by his experiments ‘drawing’ with scissors and sheets of
pre-coloured paper. He worked day and night, covering his walls with the designs from which the final 20 plates were chosen. The intense colours and the rate at which he worked worsened his eyesight. The imagery came from his memories of the circus, folklore and travel.

The title ‘Jazz’ does not relate to the content of the images, but to the manner of their presentation.  Matisse explained:

True jazz has a number of excellent qualities: the gift of improvisation, of life, of harmony with the listening audience.

It’s Matisse’s technique that reflects the energy of music and dance. When asked where the idea for Jazz came from, Matisse said he looked to the rhythm of music and dance.  He added:

It’s not enough to place colours, however beautiful, one beside the other; colours must also react to one another. Otherwise you have cacophony.  Jazz is rhythm and meaning.

The book approaches naive, spontaneous folk-art, drawing its inspiration from folk tales, circus performances and travel.  The images of circus life are usually angular, while the lagoon images are flowing and rounded.

The lagoon compositions recall Matisse’s trip to Tahiti in 1930.  He had travelled widely on the island, swam and used a
glass-bottomed viewing box to see beneath the water. Tahiti enchanted him and had a major influence on his use of colour and form, as seen in other work in this period, such as Polynesia, The Sea and Polynesia, The Sky.

One of the images displayed in the exhibition probably has darker origins. It has been suggested that this nightmarish image. ‘Le Loup’, symbolises the German secret police, the Gestapo.  Whilst Matisse was working on Jazz in 1944 his daughter Marguerite, who acted a s a courier for the Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in Rennes.  She was brutally tortured, but survived.

The exhibition also includes images from Le fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire, illustrated by Matisse in 1947.  Instead of attempting to illustrate the texts he chose directly, Matisse drew 33 portraits, including one of himself, one of Baudelaire, three of young men, and 29 of women.

Typical is the two-page spread above, an excerpt from ‘The Midnight Enquiry’ .  This translation is by Roy Cambell:

The clocks strike midnight one by one
Ironically to remind us,
And ask what profit we have won
Out of the day we’ve left behind us.
The Thirteenth, Friday, as it chances!
A fatal date; when all is said,
In spite of all we know, we’ve led
The most heretical of dances…

Matisse: Portrait of Baudelaire

Another of the poems in the collection is, aptly, ‘Plaint of Icarus’:

Lovers of prostitutes, in crowds,
Are sated and content and cheery,
But as for me, my arms are weary
Because I have embraced the clouds.
Thanks to the stars – O peerless ones! -
That flame deep in the boundless sky,
My burned-out eyes can now descry
Only the memories of suns.

In vain I sought to trace and fit
Space in its mid and final stance
I know not under what hot glance
My wings are crumbling bit by bit.
The love of beauty sealed my doom,
Charred, I have not been granted this:
To give my name to the abyss
That is to serve me as a tomb.

The final selection pf pages in the Walker exhibition is from Poèmes, by Charles d’Orléans, published in 1950. Matisse had developed an interest in the ballads and songs of  the medieval troubadour, Charles d’Orléans (1394-1465) who specialised in songs of courtly love and separation.  Matisse made a selection of the poems and wrote them out in black pencil, surrounding them with colour friezes. He created the author’s portrait (above) from a number of images of other members of his family, (there being no extant image of d’Orléans ) and composed 48 lithographs that feature fleur-de-lis designs and handwritten transcriptions of the verses copied by Matisse using coloured crayons with the same spontaneity and fluidity that he demonstrated with scissors in his cutouts for Jazz.

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