BY VAL CASTRONOVO
Think Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and think colorful, Fauvist paintings, elegant sculptures and drawings, and those wild, exuberant cutouts recently on display at the Museum of Modern Art (remember “The Swimming Pool,” which ringed an entire room?). But book illustrations? Well, not so much, though we got a whiff of the genre at MoMA and now have a chance to take a deep dive at the Morgan, thanks largely to collectors Michael and Frances Baylson, who donated their extensive holdings to the museum in 2010.
Michael Baylson, a federal district court judge in Pennsylvania, first saw Mattisse’s “Dance” at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, outside Philadelphia, in 1960 when he was an undergraduate at the Wharton School. The experience was nothing short of transformative and led to a lifelong obsession with the artist and his book works, which were less familiar and more affordable than his paintings and sculptures. In an essay in the show’s catalog, written alongside that of his equally driven wife, a reproductive endocrinologist, Baylson describes his dogged hunt for rare books in antiquarian and used bookstores across the globe. A business trip to Tokyo or London or Paris inevitably led to a search for a prized volume — dubbed “desiderata” (meaning wanted) — after-hours in specialty bookshops.
Consider these works an exercise in downsizing, literally. Matisse took a serious interest in book art in the latter part of his career when he was in his 60s. Many of his greatest works were produced when he was in his 70s, confined to an easy chair or bed after a serious illness. Books appealed mainly because they allowed him to reach a wider audience, but the smaller “canvas” also suited an older artist beset with physical limitations. And he saw himself as embracing the late 19th century French tradition of “livres d’artistes” (artists’ books), following in the footsteps of such esteemed artist-illustrators as Aristide Maillol, Édouard Manet, Pierre Bonnard and Pablo Picasso, among others.
As John Bidwell, the show’s curator, writes in the catalog, Matisse had a “deep appreciation for the written word ... a highly refined literary sensibility attuned to a wide range of poetry and prose that encompassed canonical works of French literature as well as experimental verse of the avant-garde.”
The items on view here represent some 30 book projects undertaken by the artist — out of a total of nearly 50, beginning in 1912. But he did not tackle a major book until 1932, when he illustrated a collection of poems by French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898).
Not surprisingly, Matisse eschewed a literal interpretation of texts and aimed to create, in his words, a “rapport with the literary character of the work,” with his art functioning decoratively and running “on a parallel track.” He sought “a harmonious balance,” Bidwell writes, between the printed word and the image on the page. As the artist wrote in a famous essay, “How I Made My Books”: “I do not distinguish between the construction of a book and that of a painting,” telegraphing his laborious method, involving countless preliminary studies and endless experimentation and variations.
Colin Bailey, the Morgan’s director, notes in the catalog’s foreword that Matisse was hands-on, involving himself in virtually every aspect of book production: “A master printmaker, he directly participated in type selection, page layout, lettering, ornament, and cover design to ensure a seamless harmony between his illustrations and the printed page,” adding that Matisse would even occasionally “take command of the manufacturing operations, which he supervised with characteristic vigilance and zeal.”
The exhibit begins and ends with illustrations for works by, and about, Matisse confidante André Rouveyre, a French writer and artist famous for his caricatures in satirical magazines. Matisse’s portrait of his friend for the frontispiece of a 1912 monograph kicks off the show and impresses with its sardonic expression and lopsided eyes.
Favorite works by the Baylsons include the sensuous, reddish brown line drawings that Matisse prepared to accompany works by 16th century French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard. Illustrated pages from “Florilège des Amours de Ronsard” (1948), an anthology of love poems, are on view here.
But the show’s centerpiece is unquestionably the vibrant plates from “Jazz” (1947), a treatise on color and Matisse’s most famous illustrated book. Originally titled “Circus,” it is adorned with “pochoir” (stenciled) images based on paper cutouts, with handwritten, calligraphic text in black meant to convey the spontaneity of a jazz composition.
In 1908, Matisse wrote an essay that encapsulated his artistic philosophy: “What I am after, above all, is expression.” As Michael Baylson explains, the statement was a defense of his early, eyebrow-raising paintings, but it applies equally to his cutting-edge book designs decades later.