There’s an anecdote recounted in this exhibition’s catalogue in which the American artist Walter Pach spends several hours talking about art to Henri Matisse. When Matisse asked the American if he could make an etching of him, Pach replied that he had an appointment and had to leave in five minutes, Matisse put his watch on the table and, within those five minutes, drew Pach’s outline on an etching plate.
The story shows not only how Matisse could study someone in such fine detail over a short period with an intensity captured in this early self-portrait above, but also how he could reflect thoughts, feelings, essence and impressions simply through line.
Though Matisse is most famous for his sumptuous use of colour, his mastery of line was also employed to great effect through more than half a century of print making which he only ever did in black and white.
Matisse Prints at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery showcases more than 60 of these prints, which it boasts as being the largest and most significant collection of Matisse prints held by any commercial gallery in the world. He created these works, nearly all studies of the female form, using a variety of different print methods over half a century.
The self-portrait was made in Drypoint. In 1906, Matisse produced his first lithographs which he exhibited in his second one-person show in Paris. His lines were confident and decisive, so much so that it sparked a fierce rivalry with Picasso who set about trying to outdo Matisse with a series of pen and ink drawings with a single contour line.
Matisse had a printing press in his studio and would draw family and friends. Petit Bois Clair, above, is a rare example of a woodcut, a technique more akin to carving than painting. Lithography gave him the chance to render the detail and textures of patterns he liked. In the 1920s he brought more detail into his prints such as clothes on his models and furniture and rugs but still retaining the sensuous contour line.
In this simple way, he could enhance, for example, the texture of the fabric and of the patterns on the floor and make the female form even more curvaceous. Matisse would draw onto transfer paper placed over the lithographic stone or metal plate to enable more modulation, shading and depth. The prints echo the detail of his paintings. One can almost see the colour.
In another print medium, etching, Matisse limited himself to line. His pared down depictions of his models nevertheless captured their essence. They are delicate yet definitive, casual but precise. One suggestion as to why Matisse took up print making was that he was troubled by the outbreak of the First World War and unable to concentrate on large-scale oil paintings.
After spending much of the 1930s on book projects, including cover designs, in his later years Matisse started using Aquatints, a method that suited the graphic qualities of his later work. He had an unorthodox technique, using it in a painterly way with broad brush strokes and black or single colour inks. By now, he was unable to paint because of illness.
Many of the prints exhibited and on sale here are rare outside major museum collections. They offer a glimpse as to the genius of this 20th century master who could capture beauty, sensuousness and grace with such seeming effortlessness.
Matisse Prints is showing at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke Street St James’s, London SW1 6AG until September 15.
All images are courtesy of the gallery.