Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts

A new exhibition at The Morgan, NYC explores Matisse's love (and meticulousness) for book design

In contrast to MoMA’s recently concluded exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, The Morgan Library & Museum’s new “Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts” fills just one room and hones in on the French artist’s lesser-known passion for books. He loved the collaborative production between everyone involved (while maintaining that the artist should not be subservient to the author, but express kindred spirit and solidarity), and Matisse’s meticulous approach to book design (as he oft struggled with technical challenges that affected accurate reproduction) showed his reverence for the small scale medium. On view are rejected cover designs for Baudelaire’s “Les fleurs du mal,” a preliminary study of one his etchings in Joyce’s 1934 edition of “Ulysses,” gouache cut-outs for Tériade’s Parisian art magazine Verve, and many more books, sketches and letters in between. The highlight, of course, is Matisse’s limited edition, experimental art book “Jazz,” created with pochoir stenciling technique and with the text handwritten by the artist who was 74 years old at the time.

“Matisse loved book production because it was a way for him to communicate directly with customers, clients, critics—he didn’t have to go through dealers. People could buy the books,” says John Bidwell, Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings at the Morgan, at the exhibition’s preview. Pointing to three albums of Matisse’s drawings, Bidwell says, “He is making the case, ‘My drawings are just as an important form of artistic expression as my paintings.’ Paintings, were, in his day, extremely difficult to reproduce in color; he hated the four-color halftone process. It looked terrible; all those dots. But drawings could be reproduced by printmaking processes with amazing fidelity.” In fact, there’s a print, an actual photomechanical reproduction, on view that was sold to an American art collector as an “original.” When it was proudly presented in person to Matisse, the artist immediately recognized it was a forgery—and annotated it as such, signing his name and date. “And I argue, that makes it even more valuable than the drawing,” Bidwell laughs.

“Matisse had the great fortune to live at a time when book production was at its height—it was the great heyday of letterpress printing,” concludes Bidwell. “I think now that we’re in the digital era, and books are no longer the dominant form of visual communication, it’s useful for us to remember that great artists like Matisse thought the book was the best way of artistic expression for combining interests in art and literature.” Albeit small, the exhibition will have even the Kindle addicts pining for pages in a hardback, and maybe even inspire you to take a crack at making a zine.

Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts” opens today and runs through 18 January 2016—and the adjoining gallery features another worthy exhibition on Matisse’s contemporary, Ernest Hemingway. The Morgan Library & Museum is located at 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York, NY 10016; admission is free on Friday nights.