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The Morgan Library & Museum’s current exhibition Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts, of Henri Matisse’s illustrated books donated to the museum by collectors Michael and Frances Baylson, demonstrates the artist’s well-deserved reputation of having produced some of the most prominent livres d’artistes while also exploring his missteps and failures in book production, emphasizing his devotion to process and revision.
The exhibition places finished book spreads next to maquettes (courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s extensive archive) and working proofs with the artist’s handwritten notes and edits. Small but dense, the exhibition is framed in six sections: “Early Work,” “First Artist’s Books,” “The Function of Illustration,” “Creative Differences,” “Classics,” and “Jazz and Verve.” The show builds a linear narrative from Matisse’s early work as a commissioned illustrator to his more sophisticated role as book designer, when he ultimately took control of everything from the illustrations to the spread layout and typeface.
The first case displays Pierre Reverdy’s Les jockeys camouflés (1918), for which Matisse contributed several illustrations, with a didactic below titled “A Typographical Disaster.” Although this refers to Reverdy’s own displeasure with the first printing of this book, the caption highlights the difficulties of finding the right balance between printer, publisher, and illustrator — a difficulty Matisse also encountered. As Morgan curator John Bidwell explains in his essay for the catalogue, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that book production is a collaborative enterprise, a group effort organized by publishers in association with artists, authors, agents, editors, printers, binders, booksellers, and many others engaged in allied trades.” Graphic Passion highlights the trial-and-error nature of these collaborations, specifically Matisse’s willingness to prolong a project for months, sometimes years, until the correct balance was achieved.
The first book with a literary text for which Matisse controlled the design was Stéphane Mallarmé’s Poésies (1932). Both the maquette and the final version are exhibited. The maquette shows rough sketches of potential imagery, as well as cut lines of text pasted in strips as the artist experimented with various combinations of text and image. Also displayed are three stages of “Le guignon,” an illustration spread from Poésies, each with slight variations, further demonstrating Matisse’s nearly obsessive attention to detail. Jay McKean Fisher, the deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Baltimore Museum of Art, underscores the importance of showing Matisse’s maquettes and proofs alongside the finished product in his essay for the catalogue subtitled “I will be vindicated by my maquette,” quoted from a letter Matisse wrote about the Mallarmé maquette, which, according to Fisher, the artist considered a “presentation maquette,” or a complete mockup of the entire book intended for display.
The maquette illuminates Matisse’s thought process during book production and demonstrates his interest in all elements of the book, not just the illustrations, as he adjusts line breaks and font styles for the spreads. In “How I Made My Books” (1946), a translation of which is included in the appendix of the catalogue, Matisse expresses his desire for “harmony for the book as a whole.” Bidwell explains the artist’s process: “He could ask for revisions in a back-and-forth exchange of proofs and could use the proofs to make a pasteup dummy, a maquette, which enabled him to envisage the overall appearance of the book and assess the effect of two-page openings in the proper sequence.”
Discussing Poésies, Matisse writes in “How I Made My Books,” “How can I balance the black illustrating page against the comparatively white page of type? By composing with the arabesque of my drawing, but also by bringing the engraved page and the facing text page together so that they form a unit. Thus the engraved part and the printed part will strike the eye of the beholder at the same moment.” The Morgan’s presentation underscores this process, titling a didactic about the Poésies “Balancing Act.” The descriptions accompanying the proofs and sketches for “Le guignon,” which Fisher examines in detail in the catalogue, highlight Matisse’s unhappiness with the etchings. But Matisse recognized that this unhappiness produced a wealth of archival material worth displaying as much as the final products.
The exhibition concludes with, and based on its placement in the center of the doorway also opens with, Jazz (1947), one of his most successful examples of harmony between the reproduced cutouts on the cover and the text and image combinations on the internal spreads. Yet even with his most famous book, the exhibition highlights Matisse’s disappointment with the method used to reproduce the cutouts, which was not as accurate as he would have liked.
In several instances, Graphic Passion displays these working materials alongside Matisse’s finished books for the first time, setting down the foundation for new scholarship and demonstrating Matisse’s devotion to each element of book making. In addition to the essays previously quoted, the Morgan’s exhibition catalogue also offers detailed entries on 47 of Matisse’s illustrated books. The entries reproduce frontispieces and proofs (if available), but also detail the books’ page size, pagination and inclusion of unnumbered or blank leaves, techniques and printing studios used for illustrations, typography including printers and presses (with illustrations of trail fonts used if available), paper type, and edition run. The usefulness of this primary research cannot be overstated. The acquisition, exhibition, and research of this thorough collection of bookworks will continue to expand the already vast scholarship on Matisse as an illustrator and certainly further his reputation as one of the greatest modern book artists.
Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Ave, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 18.