In 1903, two years before his emergence as the leader of Fauvism, Henri Matisse made a modest self-portrait depicting himself as an etcher. Based on this small black-and-white print, one might never have imagined Matisse becoming the most radical colorist of his generation. Yet the etching foreshadowed another dimension of his illustrious career, less widely appreciated but equally original. Over the following five decades, working sporadically at the etching plate and lithograph stone, Matisse produced an oeuvre of more than a thousand extraordinary prints and plates for livres d’artiste.
MODERNISM is presenting a museum-quality selection of thirty-one prints produced by Matisse between 1913 and 1947, focusing on his nude and draped representations of women in the 1920s, a period during which he almost single-handedly made lithography modern. Printed by the artist in small editions usually not exceeding fifty examples, these works on paper display Matisse’s genius for line and composition in their purest form— dazzling the eyes with nothing more than black ink on white paper—while simultaneously reaffirming MODERNISM’s commitment to major exhibitions of work by modern masters including Edvard Munch, Kazimir Malevich, Pablo Picasso, Alexandra Exter, Alexander Bogomazov, Le Corbusier among others.
For all his acclaim as a colorist, Matisse considered the line to be fundamental to his art, working toward his great canvases by drawing from life. Printmaking provided him with a medium in which the directness and intimacy of those drawings could be transformed into finished works as autonomous as the great paintings. His prints proved also to be an ideal space for formal experimentation, and the perfection of the aesthetic qualities he most valued. With no margin for error, plate and stone challenged the artist to live up to the standard he articulated in Notes of a Painter: “The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share.”
Works in “Nudes and Odalisques” range from the deceptively simple to the spectacularly complex. The former category includes etchings of almost impossibly few lines, verging on abstraction, such as Jeune fille rêvant près d’un bocal de poisons (1929), showing a young woman gazing past a bowl of fish. The latter category includes lithographs of such subtle shading that the subjects emerge from the page, such as Le renard blanc (1929), depicting a young woman cloaked in a luxurious white fox coat.
Matisse’s passion for the exotic is well represented in voluptuous odalisques such as La jeune hindoue (1929). The eroticism is no less intense in the spare Nu couché sur sol fleuri (1929), a work that also illustrates Matisse’s ability to take a figure such as the arabesque as a graphic element unifying the curves of the female body, the contours of bourgeois French furniture, and the patterns of period textiles, all brought to life by the subtlest variations in the ways his stylus touches the drawing surface.
“One must always search for the desire of the line,” Matisse told the great collector Sarah Stein in 1908. The lithographs and etchings in “Nudes and Odalisques” deliver the bounty of his search – and are bound to stir up desire in connoisseurs and collectors today.