By the 1930s, some of the critical acclaim that accompanied the early career of Henri Matisse waned, and the artist, who helped revolutionize art at the turn of the century, turned to a new form of expression.
Matisse, who died in 1954, began creating artist books, which were limited-edition publications that included original artwork. This fall, the Portland Museum of Art exhibits “The Art Books of Henri Matisse” featuring four books that he illustrated in the 1930s and 1940s. The exhibition includes lithographs, etchings, prints and linocuts from books that Matisse created and illustrated in collaboration with writers of the day.
Artist books became popular around the turn of the 20th century, said PMA assistant curator Andrew Eschelbacher. “Almost every major modernist did artist books,” he said. “But Matisse hadn’t done it before 1930. One of the reasons it became appealing to him is because he stepped away from easel painting in 1929. The critical tide had turned against him and he started looking for new outlets.”
The new medium allowed him to create something fresh and put his art before a different audience, Eschelbacher said.
For the museum, “The Art Books of Henri Matisse” offers a different perspective on a well-known artist. The Matisse exhibition also relates directly to the Tim Rollins and K.O.S. show on view on the museum’s third floor. In that exhibition, Rollins and his artists use texts and musical scores as a starting point for their paintings. In addition, “Of Whales in Paint: Rockwell Kent’s Moby-Dick” features Kent’s book illustrations.
“This is a great opportunity for us as a museum to think about the image and text and how they relate,” he said. “There is a real interest in the union of image and text, and it dates back millenia.”
And right now, it’s having a moment. In addition to the shows in Portland, in greater Boston, the Houghton Library at Harvard, Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum are showing “Beyond Words,” which includes ancient texts. And while it’s not directly related with words and texts, Pablo Picasso’s “Vollard Suite,” a portion of which is on view at Colby College in Waterville, features artwork commissioned by a publisher, who arranged a limited printing.
Collectively, the exhibitions highlight an important undercurrent in popular art, Eschelbacher said.
“The Art Books of Henri Matisse” demonstrates how the artist used the book medium to extend his draftsmanship and combine his love of words and illustration. They reflect his desire to experiment and challenge himself, Eschelbacher said.
The viewer can sense Matisse engaging in the text, choosing certain lines to illustrate. His lines exhibit “paradoxical boldness in his search for simplicity. The marks are so bold and so powerful.”
The exhibition features four books: “Pasiphae – Song of Minos (The Cretins),” “The Poetry of Stephane Mallarme,” “Poems of Charles d’Orleans” and “Jazz.”
Some of the illustrations are simple line drawings — crisp, clear linocuts — and others are colorful paper collages.
“Jazz,” published in 1947, is the boldest of the four books. Printed in 1947, it includes images of circus performers and animals. Matisse made the images by arranging cut-up pieces of paper that he later used as stencils for the book. Matisse employed the decoupage technique quite a bit in his final years — he died in 1954 — but “Jazz” was his first public expression of the technique.
This exhibition asks viewers to slow down, Eschelbacher said. Most people probably think they know Matisse. This exhibition shows a side of him that’s rarely seen, he said.
“This gives us the opportunity to look closely,” he said. “They ask you to take some time and rediscover Matisse in a new way.”
WHEN: On view through Dec. 31; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday
ADMISSION: $15 adults, $13 seniors, $10 students with ID, free 14 and younger; free after 4 p.m. every Friday
INFO: 775-6148, portlandmuseum.org