Matisse, French Poetry and the Livre d’artiste (2)

Antoine Nau - Poesies Antillaises

Poesies Antillaises
Matisse, Henri & Nau, John-Antoine.
Paris: Mourlot, 197.
Illustrated with 28 full-page lithographs by Matisse.

In 1945, following the success of the series of lithographs inspired by Reverdy’s poetry under the title Visages, Matisse began working with several exotic models for the illustrations of an ambitious suite of lithographs. Matisse made these lithographs in homage of his dear friend, traveling poet, John-Antoine Nau. The two men formed a bond of friendship because of a love they shared for Martinique, a woman that had brought them together. Matisse composed this suite of lithographs with the matching poems by his friend, much like he had Ronsard or Charles d'Orleans, himself choosing the poems which inspired him.


Portrait of Antoine Nau
by Matisse

Nau’s poetry took its themes from voyages in the Antilles and in particular to Martinique where the facial sculpture of women from the Islands, with their exoticism and richness, was a great inspiration. Matisse first met him with Signac many years before in 1905, and had great admiration for his poetry.

Matisse completed and proofed all the stones for the Poésies Antillaises series in 1945/46. However for some reason the actual edition of the album was never pulled at that time. At the urging of Henri Matisse's heirs, the work finally appeared in 1972, almost 20 years after Matisse' death by the renowned publisher Fernand Mourlot, who scrupulously followed both Henri Matisse's maquette and the final corrected proofs signed by the artist.

Poésies Antillaises is a beautiful example of the extraordinary gift for drawing, the ability to incorporate and to express so much through line reduced to its simplest form, which was one of Matisse's greatest legacies to 20th century art.

Pasiphae - Henri Montherlant

Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos (1944 and 1981)
text by Henri de Montherlant.
Paris: Martin Fabiani, 1944.
200 copies on velin d'Arches filigrané paper, from a total edition of 250.

The most productive period for book illustration for Matisse was from 1946 to 1950. While Matisse is 74, he lived in Nice at Villa le Rêve, which was at the time under the threat of Nazii bombardment, he mustered his creative energies to illustrate Henri Montherlant's Pasiphae and published Themes and Variations. One year later, he illustrated Baudelaire, Les Fleuers du mal. In 1946 he illustrated Lettres d'une religieuse portugaise (Letters to a Portugues Nun) by Mariana Alcoforado and Visages by Pierre Reverdy.  In 1940, the French author Henry de Montherlant posed for a portrait by Matisse and used the sessions to propose a collaboration. Matisse had admired de Montherlant's dramatic new version of the Pasiphaé myth and chose this story for the project.

Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos is a contemporary retelling of the story of Pasiphaë and the Minoan bull was the impetus for one of Matisse's most intensive printmaking experiences. The story raccounts that trouble began on the island of Crete when King Minos refused to sacrifice a handsome white bull to the sea god Poseidon. To punish Minos, Poseidon cursed Pasiphaé, Minos' beautiful wife, with a passion for the bull. Driven mad with desire, Pasiphaé mated with the bull and gave birth to the half-bull, half-human creature known as the Minotaur.

Working with linoleum, a fairly easy material to use, Matisse cut many blocks of each image to achieve the perfect flow of line and relationship of forms. Intent on matching the spirit and ambience of the classic tale, Matisse took as his model ancient Greek blackground vase painting" (Castleman).

For each scene, Matisse selected a favorite phrase from de Montherlant's Pasiphaé and interpreted it in several different ways. True to his style, the images respond not to the tale's tragedy but to universal themes of passion, feminine beauty and love. For the 1944 publication, only one image per scene was printed and the alternate linoleum blocks were stored for a separate edition Matisse hoped to publish later.

Matisse favored linoleum engraving because it captured the subtle movements of his hand. He began with a thick block of linoleum and used a knife or gouge to carve the soft surface. Ink was then applied to the uncarved sections before being pressed to paper. It was left to the Matisse Estate to publish the remaining linoleum blocks in a limited edition of 100. Following Matisse's wishes, they used the ink and paper from the 1944 edition and also authenticated each image with the estate stamp "HM." The 1981 edition features new versions of Matisse's most beautiful and famous images, including the Embrace.

Pages 26-27 di Pasiphae - Chant de Minos by Henri de Montherlant, Paris, Martin Fabiani, 23.7 x 25 cm.



Les Fleurs du mal - Baudelaire

Le fleurs du mal
Charles Baudelaire,
illustrated by Matisse, Henri. Paris: La Bibliothèque Française, 1947. 169, (3) pp. 1 original etching on chine appliqué (frontispiece)
33 full-page photo-lithographs, 38 line-drawn decorations (10 full-page), of which 2 on the covers, and 33 wood-engraved lettrines; all by Matisse.

Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal has been illustrated over the years by a variety of major artists, including Emile Bernard, Charles Despiau, Jacob Epstein, Gustave Rodin, Georges Rouault, and Pierre-Yes Trémois. Each interpreted selected poems more or less faithfully. Matisse took a different approach in the 1947 edition published by La Bibliothèque Française.

Matisse drawing the Hatian mulatta model.

Instead of attempting to evidence the narrative qualities of the texts he chose, Matisse drew 33 portraits, including one of himself, one of Baudelaire, three of young men, and 29 of women. Instead of referencing the readily-available likenesses of women associated with Baudelaire's life, Matisse relied on models - one of them a mulatta - who also figure in his paintings and engravings.

The mulatta model strikes a submissively voluptuous pose in poems such as "Parfum exotique," but seen in profile in "Sed non satiata," she appears sinister and dominant. By her imperial gaze and neat appearance, the most youthful of the female models truly impersonates "La Beauté," while her kittenish but predatory expression perfectly suits "Le Chat." By his pose for "Bénédiction," the young male model expresses stress, whereas his upright position in "L'Homme et la mer" suggests manly strength.

His well-known interest in the expressions and gestures of women, real or imaginary, suffices to explain his approach. In this respect, the Matisse illustrations of Les Fleurs du mal have much in common with his numerous etchings and lithographs of attractive women. Nonetheless, each of the portraits does take meaning into account in a rather special manner by its position, pose, or expression.

Matisse did not indulge in the biographical fallacies of the literary critics of his day who attempted to understand Baudelaire by associating each poem with the woman who may have inspired it. Thus, his gallery of facial portraits provides an accompaniment rather than a immitative rendition of selected poems.

Les Plaintes d'un Icare

Les amants des prostituées
Sont heureux, dispos et repus;
Quant à moi, mes bras sont rompus
Pour avoir étreint des nuées.

C'est grâce aux astres nonpareils,
Qui tout au fond du ciel flamboient,
Que mes yeux consumés ne voient
Que des souvenirs de soleils.

En vain j'ai voulu de l'espace
Trouver la fin et le milieu;
Sous je ne sais quel oeil de feu
Je sens mon aile qui se casse;

Et brûlé par l'amour du beau,
Je n'aurai pas l'honneur sublime
De donner mon nom à l'abîme
Qui me servira de tombeau.

Charles Baudelaire

Plaint of Icarus

Lovers of prostitutes, in crowds,
Are sated and content and cheery,
But as for me, my arms are weary
Because I have embraced the clouds.
Thanks to the stars - O peerless ones! -
That flame deep in the boundless sky,
My burned-out eyes can now descry
Only the memories of suns.

In vain I sought to trace and fit
Space in its mid and final stance
I know not under what hot glance
My wings are crumbling bit by bit.
The love of beauty sealed my doom,
Charred, I have not been granted this:
To give my name to the abyss
That is to serve me as a tomb.

trans. Jacques LeClercq, Flowers of Evil
Mt Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1958

Lettres d'une religieuse portugaise (Letters to a Portugues Nun) - Mariana Alcoforado

Lettres d'une religieuse portugaise
Marianna Alcoforado
Paris: Teriade, 1946. With 15 full-page and 80 smaller lithographs by Matisse.

Soror Mariana Alcoforado (1640-1723) lived in Our Lady of the Conception Convent in Beja. Around 1665 she met the Marquis de Chamilly who arrived in Portugal as part of a French contingent of troops who came to help in the Restoration campaigns. Seduced by the Marquis she wrote him five letters on his return to France.

The letters first published in Paris in 1669 by Lavergne de Guilleragues were followed by successive editions. The intensity of the love, the scandal of the passion confessed by a nun who feels she has been abandoned by an officer, as well as the innovation created by the first epistolary novel certainly contributed to the success the work has seen since its publication. And Soror Mariana became a legendary figure in the world of romance literature.

Matisse plastically recreated the tragic devotion of the nun from Beja. He leads us along the course of this passionate love affair with delicate and at the same time tormented contours of the expressions of the imaginary portrait of Mariana Alcoforada. And he embellishes each page of the young lovesick nun’s words with delicately drawn flowers, fruit and capitularies.

Tériade published this edition with the same sense of aesthetic perfection, quality and technical rigour which he lent to all his publications for which he was so highly considered by artists. Tériade can be rightfylly considered an artist in the midst of artists.All the two hundred and fifty copies were signed by the Matisse.

Page from Lettres portugaises (Portuguese Letters)
Tériade, Paris. Mourlot Freres, Pari.

Visages - Pierre Reverdy

Pierre Reverdy.
Lithographs by Henri Matisse.
Paris, Editions du Chêne, 1946. 4to, issued in loose leaves, pictorial cover (casing in publisher slipcase). Original edition, illustrated by Henri Matisse with 14 original lithographs in full page in sanguine, 17 linogravures in black and white, of which 14 culs-de-lampe and 3 on the cover, and 14 head letters printed in purple. limited and numbered edition of 250 copies, signed by the author and the artist. One of the 200 copies on vélin de Lana.

(in preparation)

Fleurs du mal

One of the many sketches made by Matisse for the cover of Baudelaire's Les Fleuers du mal.

Portrait of Baudelaire' by Matisse.