Livres d’artiste should (theoretically) be the most available of art, being more common than artist’s prints and cheaper than a drawing or painting, at the time of the book’s publication. Paradoxically, artists’ books are actually art works that are the least accessible and most difficult to understand. The high price of the books, their rarity and difficulty of access make artists’ books some of the least familiar of art works. Individual drawing, prints and paintings are exhibited and reproduced frequently; artists’ books are displayed partially, usually without accompanying text. It is rarely possible to exhibit a whole book and it is almost impossible to handle an expensive artists’ book. This is especially true for the books of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). With some Matisse volumes selling for over $500,000, there is virtually no chance for anyone other than a rich collector or a privileged researcher to handle such books.
In Matisse: The Books, Louise Rogers Lalaurie outlines the contents of each Matisse’s eight artist books, designed and published over a period of 18 years. The following books are described, analysed and reproduced (in part): Stéphane Mallarmé, Poésies, 1930/1932; Dessins, Thèmes et Variations, 1942/1943; Pierre de Ronsard, Florilège des Amours, 1942/1948; Charles d’Orléans, Poèmes, 1943/1950; Henri de Montherlant, Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos, 1943/1944; Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, 1947; Marianna Alcaforado, Lettres Portugaises, 1946; and Jazz, 1947.
The books were published by gallerists and art publishers, such as Albert Skira, Martin Fabiani and Tériade, always designed to be sumptuous productions offered to art collectors and bibliophiles. Matisse was very closely involved in the production of the books, offering guidance and criticism to master printer Roger Lacourière (for Jazz, Edmond Vairel, Draeger Frères and Angèle Lamotte) and publishers. The delays between Matisse finalising the designs and art and the publication dates were due to the exacting technical demands of working with high-specification printing, sourcing suitable materials and the difficulties of production during wartime. (Only two of his books was printed during the Occupation of France.) In each chapter, Rogers Lalaurie describes the book, discusses the contents and selection of text, explains the personal significance of the text to Matisse and leads us through the production process. The covers and selections of pages of each book are illustrated.
Stéphane Mallarmé, Poésies (created 1930, published 1932)was illustrated with flowing arabesque lines in etching (black ink). It is redolent of the Nice period of languid nudes and women in elegant clothing. Matisse’s recent Tahitian journey and the design for the Barnes mural La Danse appear in two designs. His Baudelaire is drawn close up – forceful and intense; Poe is withdrawn, melancholic. The text is reproduced in part, allowing us to appreciate the care put into the whole production. “Unlike Picasso, Matisse was determined to avoid any hint of a frame, even using copper plates larger than the page size in the final book, so that no indented plate mark would be left on the paper during printing.” The success of the book aesthetically must have encouraged artist and publishers to return to the field.
Regarding Poésies, an error of authorial approach is evident. Once again, I caution authors against imposing their current sensibility on speech of the past. Translating Matisse’s word nègre as “a Black man” (rather than the historically accurate “negro”) makes the artist writing in the 1940s sound like a progressive prig; misrepresenting the speaker does both the speaker and readers a disservice. If the word was good enough for Ralph Ellison (a black author, writing in the 1940s and 1950s), it is good enough for a translation of Matisse’s contemporaneous comments. Authors and publishers, trust readers to have the worldly sense not to view historical subjects as racist on the basis of the language of their times.
Dessins, Thèmes et Variations (created 1942, published 1943) is a selection of linocut, lithograph and photo-lithographic reproductions from Matisse’s art and is something of an exception in the artist books in that consists of material that was essentially pre-existing re-made for the purposes of inclusion in the book. It was made as defiance against the Nazi Occupation of France and the Vichy regime, containing Modernist art, decadent themes and a text by Louis Aragon, prominent Communist intellectual. Themes are the reclining woman (Lydia Delectorskaya, his assistant), portraits and still-lifes; the drawings in charcoal, pencil and ink-line, were photographed and reproduced through lithography. This is more of a portfolio summarising Matisse’s artistic position in 1942 than it is a genuine livre d’artiste, especially considering the pre-existence of illustrations as standalone works. The definition of an original artist’s print is that it should come into existence through the making of the print and not be a reproduction or transcription of an existing art work.
Pierre de Ronsard, Florilège des Amours (created 1942, published 1948) was published with 126 lithographs, in an edition of 360 copies. The drawings are elegant and pleasing and some – especially p. 187, “je veux…”, a woman’s profile woman as the closing image – are gracefully beautiful. Flowers and leaves dance around the typed text. The elegance of the text and images do not undercut the seriousness of author and artist.
Charles d’Orléans, Poèmes (created 1943, published 1950) marks a departure. Matisse handwrote the texts of Charles d’Orléans’s poems, which he had selected. The poems were printed on unbound folded sheets with drawings in lithography, some with drawn cartouches around texts. The designs include heraldic fleurs-de-lys. The print format on single sheets suits poems of 12 to 17 lines. The book was made in 1943 but not printed until 1950, using multi-colour lithography. Matisse apparently identified with Charles, who had been given up for dead upon a battlefield before being recovered from the bodies. Matisse had a brush with death in 1941 when he survived an operation for cancer. Charles subjects of exile and ostracization also struck a chord for the artist, who had been condemned by Nazi occupiers, Vichy collaborators and French traditionalists.
Henri de Montherlant, Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos, (created 1943, published 1944) was a play and a prefatory text by the author. The linocuts present the simplicity of Matisse’s designs within blocks of black. The illustrations were in black, as were the bandeaux; the lettrines (initial capitals) were in scarlet. The author – a patriot and war-hero of the Great War – came to Matisse’s studio to sit for portraits. It was the only time Matisse engaged with an existing text by a living author for the production of a livre d’artiste.
Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, (created 1944-6, printed 1947) is the only book by Matisse that misses the mark. It is a failure of tone, as Alfred H. Barr noted. Matisse lacks the intensity, the power and the ability to produce material that is scabrous, sordid, dirty and ugly. The degradation of the Spleen section is completely outside Matisse’s range. Matisse selected only less rebarbative and pungent poems, providing each with a portrait (29 female, four male) and some abstract tailpieces. By selecting in order to match his outlook and capacity as an illustrator, Matisse effectively seems to misrepresent Baudelaire’s scope and intentions for Les Fleurs du Mal, deliberately avoiding the more difficult verse.
Marianna Alcaforado, Lettres Portugaises (created 1945, published 1946) is a set of letters ascribed to a Portuguese nun, written to her distant lover, a French diplomat. These passionate letters have been considered to be an epistolatory novel, so well do they present a narrative of desire, loss and grief. Matisse’s lithographs (printed in dark purple) are portraits of the nun (a 14-year-old local girl modelled) and designs of leaves and fruits work effectively. The natural forms add drama and punctuate the gradual changes in emotional register of the portraits.
Jazz (created 1943-6, published 1947) is unique among Matisse’s livres d’artiste in that is composed entirely of his words and images. Matisse’s handwritten text outlines his outlook, technique and aesthetics. The striking 20 colour planar prints – made by the pochoir (stencil) method – mirrored Matisse’s advances with the cut-out method, which consisted of colouring sheets of paper or card with gouache and cutting them with scissors, “drawing with scissors”, as Matisse put it. The motifs broadly relate to dance, music and performance (circus, trapeze acrobat, knife-thrower, sword-swallower, cowboy, swimmer, lion) but include natural forms of leaves, ripples, explosions and those that seem to be of sculpted women. The edition was 250 bound copies and 100 loose copies, the latter which were ideal for framed wall display. Matisse was initially disappointed by the print quality of the illustrations but eventually was reconciled to the book once he heard of its positive reception. Jazz remains the most famous and distinctive of Matisse’s books and its illustrations have become famous, commonly reproduced in books and as posters. Fittingly, it was his final book.
Full-page illustrations (including page edges), double-page spreads and cover images give readers a sense of handling and reading the books. The text is informative and explains the significance of the texts. The design and production quality of Matisse: The Books is high, with the best examples of the artist’s books being used to furnish illustrations. This book is highly recommended for fans of Matisse and livres d’artiste. For mere mortals, other than getting access to facsimile editions (themselves not cheap) Matisse: The Books is the closest we can come to handling Matisse’s books.
It would be a great service to enthusiasts of classic Modernism and artists’ books if Thames & Hudson were to publish Picasso: The Books, probably as a multi-volume work.
Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Matisse: The Books, Thames & Hudson, 2020, cloth hardback, 320pp, 237 illus., £65, ISBN 9780500021682
© 2021 Alexander Adams
To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art