State of the Art

‘The Art Books of Henri Matisse’ reveals genius in old age – not decline

“The Horse, the Rider and the Clown” can be seen in “The Art Books of Henri Matisse,” an exhibit at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
“The Horse, the Rider and the Clown” can be seen in “The Art Books of Henri Matisse,” an exhibit at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse said one of my favorite things about art: “There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose. Because before he can do so, he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.”

You’ll find that quotation in the last section of “The Art Books of Henri Matisse: Works from the Bank of America Collection” at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. That exhibit, which also offers excellent capsule descriptions of Matisse’s life and work, runs through Sept. 7.

It comes after rooms of pieces that show some of what Matisse was doing in the last 20 years of his life, when physical problems prevented him from painting and sculpting. (The exhibit doesn’t deal with his extraordinary final masterpiece: At 77, he designed architecture, stained glass windows, interior furnishings, murals and vestments for priests at the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence.)

Matisse was in his early 60s when he spent two years illustrating “The Poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé,” an edition published in 1932. He often worked against Mallarmé’s dense, perfumed, intentionally obscure poems, using simple lines that remain indistinct. The sailor in “Sea Breeze,” who isn’t sketched below his knees, seems to sink into the deck. “The Tomb of Edgar Poe” gets an image of a sad man with his mustache askew in a grimace, a dissolute version of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

Matisse’s work becomes even less complicated (though still evocative) in “Pasiphae: Song of Minos.” Here a single unbroken line creates a silhouette of an anguished face, while a tangle of curves suggests interlocked bodies of lovers. The portrait of a complacent aristocrat on the frontispiece of “Poems of Charles of Orleans” has more detail yet is scarcely more suggestive.

Matisse’s 1947 book masterpiece “Jazz” gets and deserves the most attention here. He cut sheets of paper, pre-painted with gouache by assistants, into shapes of different colors and sizes, arranging them in whimsical patterns. These illustrations suggest (and maybe gently mock) the work of his greatest contemporary, Pablo Picasso.

In “The Cowboy,” a centaur-like man on a horse tosses a lasso over – what? A pregnant woman? A Rorschach-like image of himself? “Mr. Loyal” depicts a man whose huge nose has the typical French bump in the center, poised above pursed lips and a sharp chin; I thought at once of Charles de Gaulle, who led the French Resistance during World War II.

The title refers not to music but to the idea of improvisations on themes, which jazz players do so well. Some of these pieces are quite abstract; others represent the items in their titles (“The Horse, the Rider and the Clown”) without clearly “explaining” themselves.

Matisse wrote texts himself on pages adjoining the illustrations, and some reveal a strange sense of humor. “Icarus” depicts a figure in free fall, the doomed youth from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun with wings of wax. Next to it, Matisse wrote, “Ought not one to encourage young people who have just finished their studies to take a long trip on an airplane.” (That’s not phrased as a question, so who knows what he means?)

By this point, the 77-year-old artist had passed through flirtations with impressionism and cubism, a period of fauvism and a 40-year string of masterpieces only he could have made. These books show him working in a manner that was still distinctly his, but with a greater sense of playfulness.

The exhibit abuts a room full of art books made by people influenced by Matisse and Picasso in that line: Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, Georges Braque and the still underrated Alfred Manessier, whose lithographs for “Les Cantiques Spirituels de Saint Jean de la Croix” look like stained glass panels full of whirling, fragmented images.

At the end, you land in an area where you can flop onto beanbag chairs, contemplating the wall of quotes by the artist. I can think of no better way to close than to share one more: “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” Until he died at 84 on Nov. 3, 1954, Henri Matisse always did.

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