Review: The Art Books of Henri Matisse

This year the Walker has benefitted a great deal by the willingness of private collectors to share
their acquisitions publicly for a limited time. Earlier this year, the display of part of the Schorr Collection complemented the Walker’s permanent display of medieval and Renaissance European art.

Now Bank of America (which has a UK base in Cheshire) has chosen to share works from their corporate collection as part of its ‘Art in Our Communities’ outreach programme. On display are over sixty original illustrations from books designed and illustrated by Henri Matisse. The exhibition is a rare glimpse into one of the lesser known art forms practiced by one of the last century’s most revered artists.

Matisse saw no distinctions between painting, sculpture and books as art forms; he approached each with equal commitment and attention to detail, overseeing all aspects of book production including choice of typeface, paper and printing methods. The introductory gallery helpfully provides examples of the tools and methods used in the creation of art books with clear explanations of each item and how it was used.

The main gallery shows lithographs from four different art books Matisse produced between 1930 and 1947. They illustrate a variety of styles which reflect Matisse’s own changes in artistic practice over his lengthy career.

His first commission, an illustrated volume of selected poems of Stéphane Mallarmé used simple line drawings to accompany the text, leaving much of the page uncovered and letting the viewer’s imagination fill in details only hinted at. Some of the images were influenced by Matisse’s trip to Tahiti, following in the footsteps of Paul Gauguin in search of inspiration.

The undoubted highlight of the exhibition is Jazz, possibly Matisse’s most famous book, published in 1947. He started work on it in 1943 while living in occupied southern France. The paper cutout technique he started to develop in the early 30’s came in to its own here. Matisse’s eyesight began to fail and the forms he used became larger, the colours he chose became more bold and vibrant.

What’s remarkable about all the works on display is that, decades after they were first printed, they still appear fresh and have an enduring appeal.

While this exhibition is more contained and on a smaller scale than other recent shows like Magritte, it’s still an excellent chance to view another aspect of a 20th century master’s art.

The Art Books of Henri Matisse runs until April 15, 2012