Henri Matisse was a bibliophile. He read poetry every morning, a practice he likened to filling his lungs with oxygen. He enjoyed novels and the classics, which he read in their original Greek and Latin. The 20th-century master painter merged his avocation and his vocation in a dozen projects known as livres d’artiste.
These books, published and promoted by prominent publishers, were luxurious limited editions in which the images were original prints by well-known artists. Matisse made his first such book, the 1932 “Stéphane Mallarmé’s Poésies,” at the behest of renowned publisher Albert Skira. That book and “Florilége des Amours de Ronsard” (1947), a selection of love poems by France’s first lyric poet, are the focal point of “Henri Matisse: A Celebration of French Poets and Poetry” at Oglethorpe University Museum of Art.
Matisse once said he treated a book just like a painting — as a coherent whole. As the mock-ups included in the show demonstrate, he was involved in the relationship between image and text on the page as well as ink color and paper choice.
The images Matisse created grew out of a personal engagement with the poems. In fact, the Ronsard book was his idea, and he spent a long time selecting the poems. They also grew out of his life’s work. The imagery in these etchings and lithographs will be familiar — fruit, flowers and, of course, nudes, all of them ripe. The women have those almond eyes, aquiline noses and pliant (compliant?) curvy bodies — the epitome of the feminist term “the male gaze.”
Matisse was not interested in literal depiction. Discerning his thought process is one of the more interesting aspects of the show, though one is sometimes stymied because only bits of the poems are translated into English. (The labels do help.) He changed his approach from image to image, sometimes working in metaphor, sometimes in visual associations. He might make reference to art and mythology. The collectors of this kind of book would presumably note and enjoy his allusions to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” the rape of Europa or Roman portraiture.
It’s a testament to the powers of distillation that these line drawings, mostly silhouettes with limited interior detail, are so sensuous and evocative. The entwined bodies depicted in catalog #13 have no heads, and it’s hard to tell whose limbs are whose. But it is as erotic as anything by that satyr Picasso.
“Jazz,” a book that paired images done in the manner of Matisse’s cut-outs with his own writing, is justly considered the greatest of the dozen books he created. This exhibit and the two books it features, however, offer their own rewards.