The new special exhibition of the Art Books of Henri Matisse at the Chester Beatty Library presents the visitor with an inspiring selection of images, which is sufficiently small to be taken in with comfort during a lunch hour, but large enough to leave the viewer sated at the end. Sated, but still desireous of another encounter with this fascinating artist. I visited the Chester Beatty on Thursday.
Rather than just simple illustrations, livres d'artistes were interpretations of the works of well known writers by well known visual artists, coveted as luxury goods among the middle class from c. 1900 onwards. The exhibition at the Chester Beatty displays works by Stéphane Mallarmé, Henry de Motherlant, Charles d'Orléans and James Joyce as seen through Matisse's eye, as well as images from Jazz, Matisse's collection of plates based on improvisations of jazz musicians. Jazz, with its deep striking colours, stands out from the rest of the images, mostly black and white, or with only the occasional touch of colour. One of the images displayed is Icarus, the figure of black on a blue background surrounded by yellow stars. I was amused to note that the claim of this being Matisse's most reproduced artwork seemed to hold true, as I later on the same day passed through Temple Bar and saw a restaurant advertise a special menu, with the words printed on an A4 poster of Icarus.
Much of Matisse's work is very sensual. The striking colours of Jazz are reminders of hot days and exotic milieus. The stylised images of the rest of the artists' books displayed here create impressions of curves, motions and desires with their simple technique of outline drawing. Female bodies feature a great deal, from the playful La Chevelure (Hair) to the sincerity of ...emportés jusqu'aux constellations...(....taken up to the heavens...). It is worth noting that the exhibition is presented on an interior of dark magenta and sky blue, which on the one hand recalls the colours of Jazz and on the other hand does justice to the lightness of the other works. Against a light background, it would have been too easy to simply pass by the etchings and linoleum cuts without paying attention to their exquisite lines.
The Art Books of Henri Matisse, 26 May - 25 September 2011, admission free.