The Walker’s new exhibition [...] The Art Books of Henri Matisse

'The Art Books of Henri Matisse'

Art Yesterday I attended the press launch for The Walker’s new exhibition and the experience was literally, and to use a description they’ve been far too tasteful to put in the publicity materials, like walking into the pages of a book. The Art Books of Henri Matisse displays sixty three illustrations on leaves which were originally part of four volumes published between 1932 and 1950 during at the peak of the artist’s career. In a bit of a coup, they’re a loan from Bank of America Merill Lynch’s art collection as part of a kind of community outreach programme which has seen this exhibition tour and other major shows across the world. Here’s another one in Paris.

We begin with a short primer which includes the nugget that he only began painting at the age of twenty when his mother gave him a paint box. The wikipedia elaborates on this with the detail that he was convalescing after an attack of appendicitis and that it felt like “a kind of paradise”. Even though he was disappointing his father, he pressed ahead with becoming an artist and if the late photograph featured, by Cartier-Bresson of Matisse working at home, his room filled with doves flying loose is anything to go by, the lifestyle consumed him. He sits with his fist around the body of one of the poor birds, calmly sketching away.

A Matisse landscape from the Walker’s collection is also included, an impressionistic, a nondescript thing which demonstrates why he only really found fame at the turn of the last century when he began to follow fauvist ideas. These books are part of the onrush of work which developed from that as, like many artists of the period, he took advantage of printing technology to disseminate his material to a middle class audience greedy to demonstrate their cultural credentials but unable to afford his canvases. With the scarcity of paper and small print runs, these were apparently still much sought after and it’s the mission of the curatorial collaborators to convince us why.

Opposite the biography is a short display explaining the four main techniques Matisse employed in his work with examples of four printing plates: Linoleum (lino) is easy to cut and shape and offers nice clean lines, pochoir (stencil) which he used to create bold abstract shapes, etching on copper and lithograph, the results of which gave impression of crayon drawings. There’s also a display cabinet containing the tools which were required in these processes all of which were clearly very tactile but whose nature also must have informed Matisse’s artistic choices. Perhaps what makes him a “great” artist was his decision engine.

The bulk of the display is the four books themselves. Originally produced as loose leaves, they’re easily frameable but inevitably the gallery environment changes them and our experience of what Matisse was trying to achieve. These are not the complete books, so the sense of creative or narrative flow the artist would have built into them is lost, as are the juxtaposition of images from page to page, the symbolic repetition of colour. You’re also unable to contemplate them in quite the same way, especially if like me, you’re the kind of person who’s easily distracted from concentrating on anything by your fellow humans with their walking around and breathing.

 The Private View.

That accepted, it’s impossible not to enjoy the prints as individual objects, even Posesis de Stephane Mallarme from 1932, the most “book”-like of the four publications, in which Matisse’s creations are visually most separate from the text, each appearing on opposite pages. The press notes explain that Matisse was in Tahiti (see, the lifestyle) when his Swiss publisher Albert Skirta asked him to create etchings for this publication. Over the next year and half, and with his eye most interested in women and nature, he produced dozens of suggested drawings of which twenty-seven were eventually chosen.

Translating Mallarme’s poetry was a consideration at the planning stage for the show but it was ultimately decided that since the text is deliberately obscure, meta-physical, an English version would be too much of an interpretation and couldn’t ever reflect the sense. Interestingly, that’s generally what Matisse is attempting visually, translating the text through the prism of his own imagination. There are caricatures, of Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelare, but mainly we see the beginnings of some of the motifs which would reappear throughout his career, especially the abstract, cluttered group of naked females.

Next in the room, travelling in a clockwise direction, is Pasiphae, Chant de Minos (Les Cretois) from 1944, a joint project with the French author Henry de Montherlant in which Matisse illustrated a contemporary retelling of the origins of the Minotaur myth. Even without an inability to understand the text, the highlights of the narrative punch through in the drawings influenced by Greek vase paintings, King Minos defying Poseidon and refusing to sacrifice the white bull, his wife being put under a spell and to fall in love with the animal, their deed and the half man, half beast who was the product.

In the eight years since the Mallarme, his artistic confidence has also grown taking full advantage of being as much part of the publication process as the author by over seeing such details as producing lithographed designs for the opening capital letters. Some of the illustrations are initially difficult to distinguish forcing us to look ever closer until we realise that it’s a female form.  Pasiphae in-flagrante? Such was his poise that he was even capable of reducing a human form to a single line, as he did with one image of Minos, then imbuing it with great emotion, the king screaming, having realised what his wife has done.

Le Cheval, l'ecuyere, et le Clown (The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown)
© Succession H. Matisse / DACS 2011

Jazz (1947) show his ability and philosophy move another step on, as illustration and text become equal partners and though he was even less interested in having the subject matter match, aesthetically the effect was and is perfect. There’s no particular narrative to speak of, just a set of images experimenting with colour and stencilling, each a work of art which could be complete in and of itself more clearly than many of the other sheets in the exhibition which must be what makes them so immediately accessible. It includes one of Matisse’s most reproduced images, Icarus, floating in a royal blue night sky filled with golden stars, a red circle representing his destination.

This is a collection often as straightforward as cave paintings yet also infinitely complex because of the chosen colours, because of the shapes, which despite seeming haphazard and random have to have been deliberately designed due to the printing process.  A controlled hullabaloo. Plus after a series of images in the other books which have to be titled after part of the accompanying text because they lack their own, there’s something relatively comforting about returning to a world were titles less enigmatically reflect their content.  The Wolf.  Pierot’s Funeral.

Frontispiece From "Poemes de Charles D'orleans"
© Succession H. Matisse / DACS 2011

Produced concurrently with both of these was Poemes de Charles d’Orleans (1950) whose publication was saw the end of a nine year odyssey which began while he was bed-bound in occupied France. He was an admirer of d’Orleans's poetry and during three arduous years he created 54 full-colour lithographs to accompany the 15th-century text, which he also reproduced in his own hand, in a similar technique to Jazz though it's clear that for various reasons, Matisse wanted to venerate the text rather than distract from it, returning to the simpler shapes of his Stephane Mallarme work.

The result is nothing short of magnificent, drawing inspiration from illuminated manuscripts yet making them totally contemporary and they're just as fresh sixty years after publication. There’s a repetitive use of a green fleur-de-lys motif which evokes tapestries of the earlier period and 15th century portraits translated into line drawings, which again initially seem primitive and defy the laws of what a less forgiving teacher might consider well proportioned but could actually be different eras of art history touching.  Many of those old pictures were equally inconsistent about such things.

The exhibition ends with examples of artist books from the Walker’s collection, from photographer Edward Ruscha, Gilbert and George, Tom Philips and Jess Nutall. Tactile objects necessary held behind glass, they’re an excellent example of the difficulty of showing artist books and how much has been gained in taking the Matisse works out of their usual environment. You might even wonder what it would be like to display other books in this way, all of Pride and Prejudice or a Booker prize winner spread across a series of rooms forcing us to walk from one read page to the next, dozens of people reading the same book together.

Until 15th April 2012.  More details here.

[The Independent has a gallery of images from the exhibition].

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