Published  09/01/2014

Matisse: The Essence of Line, Selected Prints: 1900-1950

Matisse: The Essence of Line, Selected Prints: 1900-1950

Marlborough Fine Art, London
4 December 2013 – 11 January 2014

Galería Marlborough, Madrid
February – March 2014


The draughtsmanship of Henri Matisse is celebrated by Marlborough Fine Art’s Matisse: The Essence of Line, Selected Prints: 1900-1950, a superb and scholarly appraisal of his work in a range of print media.

More than 50 prints and livres d’artistes are on show at the Marlborough Fine Art exhibition, now in London. The show was curated and prepared in Marlborough’s New York Gallery, where more than 80 works were originally shown, including rare and important impressions in excellent condition from the estate of the artist’s grandson, Pierre-Noël Matisse. From London, the show will travel to Madrid for February-March 2014. At the New York venue, it was greatly enhanced by works from the department of prints and drawings at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Exceptional works from private collectors were also included. The catalogue makes an important contribution to scholarship of Matisse; the list of acknowledgements reads more like a major museum publication. The show is an important collaboration, and a beautiful exhibition.

Recent scholarship on drawing takes a more inclusive approach when it comes to materials, so that certain prints capture the directness of transmission of drawing. Many artists point out that when working directly on to a copper or zinc plate using drypoint, for example, the act of transmission is that of a drawing. In lithography, where the drawn line on stone is transferred in the printing process, the immediacy of the drawn line is retained.

Part one of this show traces Matisse’s drypoints and etchings (1914-35); part two covers lithographs (1906-29); and part three looks at linocuts and aquatints (1938-52). Matisse produced more than 800 prints over the 50-year period and a number of exquisite livres d’artistes. His prodigious output might indicate a sustained commitment to the craft of each technique; in fact, he worked in concentrated bursts throughout his career. His printmaking runs parallel in mood and style to his painting, where the relationship with the model was central and so, too, was the characterisation of each family member or friend. His lithographs are perhaps his finest in a graphic medium; the dedication and productivity reveal the energy and passion for both line and picture-making. The skill and the beauty of the images is a marvellous experience after so much lamentable work in the name of conceptual art over the past decade. The final section is visually exciting, even if one his familiar with Matisse’s work – the vibrancy and movement created by figures inspired by dance and poetry is exceptional. The smallness of scale of Matisse’s prints (compared to the large La Danse paintings) contributes greatly to these images of great dynamism. Even in his later life when he was confined to bed, Matisse worked with his cutout techniques for his book Jazz (1947), and a series of radical aquatints.

In his approach to drawing, Matisse aimed to clarify line; printmaking was an extension of that aim. Numerous artists refer to the making of drypoint as a drawing that requires special effort, for the line cannot be erased or adjusted. Drypoint can, therefore, be considered an unforgiving method, although it also gives a particularly satisfying quality of line, where deeply gouged lines possess an expressive jagged quality. In the case of Matisse, the drypoint or etched line provides a freedom to create the portrayal of the figure in space with a great economy of means. In 1914, he remarked: “I am not conscious of whether, while I am executing [my drypoints] my thought evolves. I look at the object and I transmit my impression with a continuous line.”

The processes of printmaking enable the artist to step back at each stage that a proof is pulled to consider the next stage, or make a further, separate attempt at the same subject. Because the etched plate is the mirror image of the drawing, the process enables the practitioner to learn a great deal on an intuitive level in relation to how images can be manipulated and placed within the picture plane. The fact that Matisse worked in intensive bursts, with printmaking done between his main activity of painting, perhaps indicates the role that printmaking played as both experimental and instructive.

Lithography for Matisse provided the opportunity to create more detailed images, where the model is portrayed within richly patterned interiors, with foliage from plants and furniture. This requires a wide range of mark-making – rubbings, overlays and Matisse’s shorthand marks – to delineate the variety of information presented. Wallpapers, costumes and rugs enrich each work. In his 1908 book Notes of a Painter, he stated: “Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share.”

Matisse’s costume and set designs for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky’s Le chant du rossignol in 1920 required of the artist an unerring ability to create the movement of the figure in space. La Danse 1935-36, an etching and aquatint, displays his remarkable achievement. He also evoked the world of ballet in 1927 when he produced a portfolio of lithographs, Dix Danseuses, included in the Marlborough exhibition. His love of popular entertainment, dance, the circus, storytelling and travel are all expressed in the illustrations for Jazz. The 20 plates were made using his cutout techniques and they effectively became “coloured drawings using scissors”. The text, which accompanied his vibrant and life-enhancing images, was, according to the artist, chosen “to calm the simultaneous oppositions of my chromatic and rhythmic improvisations, to provide a kind of ‘resonant background,’ which carries them and thus protects their distinctiveness”.

One of Matisse’s most important commissions was to provide the illustrations for Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé, published in 1932. After reading the poems, Matisse responded by creating full-page etchings. In terms of design, he believed his images provided a pictorial equivalent to Mallarmé’s words: “The problem was to balance each pair of facing pages – the one with the etching white, the other with the typography relatively black. I achieved this by modifying my arabesques in such a way that the spectator’s attention would be interested as much by the entire page as by the promise of reading the text.” In Dance and Poetry, her essay for the exhibition catalogue, art historian Marilyn McCully observes: ‘For each of the pure white pages, Matisse employed the finest of etched lines for the images, in order to reinforce the ideas conveyed by the poet’s words. The reader is thus invited to consider the quality of the line, including its own rhythms and poetic associations, in concert with the accompanying text.”

The apparent simplicity of many of Matisse’s etchings and linocuts in particular accord with the artist’s desire to retain the spontaneity of the childlike view of the world. In his 1953 essay Looking at Life with the Eyes of a Child, he wrote: “The effort needed to see things without distortion takes something very like courage; and this courage is essential to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he saw it for the first time: he has to look at life as he did when he was a child and, if he loses that faculty, he cannot express himself in an original, that is, personal way.” 

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