Matisse’s Poets: Critical Performance in the Artist’s Book

Matisse’s Poets: Critical Performance in the Artist’s Book
by Kathryn Brown

Bloomsbury Press, NY, NY, 2019
1st U.S. edition, 2017
392 pp. illus. 90 b/w. Paper, $39.95
ISBN: 9781501351396.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
October 2020

This is a remarkable book on a subject that may have been described in great detail yet (one thinks here of the 1988 Catalogue raisonné des ouvrages illustrés by Claude Duthuit), but whose study is here thoroughly revised and opened to a wide range of new aspects and dimensions. Written by a specialist of the art market, already author of a delightful book on the pictorial representation of the “reading woman” (Women Reading in French Painting. 1870-1990, Ashgate, 2012), this study goes beyond the description of the material and visual qualities of Matisse’s artist’s books as well as the discussion of the actual production of these works. Its research agenda is much more ambitious.

On the one hand, Kathryn Brown aims at offering a broader historical and cultural contextualization of this part of Matisse’s production, which in spite of the very small print run of these books and thus their highly elitist character were used by Matisse as important tools in the permanent reshaping of his own practice and its place in French culture, if not the reshaping of French culture in general. On the other hand, and unlike the general tendency to exclusively focus on the visual elements of these works, the author also proposes to close-read Matisse’s artist’s books in their totality, that is an original combination of images and words, the mutual relationships between both being always key to the meaning of the work. The result of this twofold orientation is a unique and ground-breaking study that is all the more rewarding since it manages to redefine our approach of the much challenged notion of artist book (here not defined as an artistically illustrated text but as an original work of art designed by the visual artist, often in collaboration with other creative agents such as writers, editors, publishers, photographers, and printers) while also highlighting the individuality of each creation. Brown is not interested in producing a general theory of the artist book, but to rely upon the genre of the artist book to disclose the unicity of each work and its place within the evolution of a specific career, that of Matisse, within a no less specific but complex and multilayered context, that of French modern culture and its contested value and importance during the years of Matisse’s activity in the field of the artist book, roughly speaking between the late 1910s till the early 1950s.

Although it is impossible to completely separate Matisse’s artist’s books with the rest of his production, Brown resists the temptation to read the former mainly in light of the latter, as a kind of footnote or extension of Matisse’s paintings and other visual creations. She prioritizes the debate with literature as well as the exploration of the book as a unique host medium and the thorough contextualization of each creation allows her to foreground a complex and rich vision of Matisse’s intervention in the field of the artist book and at the same time in that of French culture. Brown rightly insist on the strategic position of the genre of the artist’s book, which in all its formal and thematic diversity was seen in these years as a typically French genre, not only in French but also abroad, for instance in the US where rich bibliophiles commissioned several of Matisse’s artist’s books. This specificity had to do with the conception of the artist book as a way of defending French modernist writing in particular and French print and visual culture in general (certainly after World War Two, when the global center of cultural prestige and production was rapidly shifting from Paris to New York). It were these two elements, modernism and French exceptionalism, that proved controversial in the case of Matisse, whose work was often seen as “less modern” but also “less politicized” than that of Picasso, hence of course the vital importance of the post-war appropriation of Matisse by communist author, editor, politician, cultural entrepreneur  and extremely nationalist (read: anti-American) Louis Aragon. His highly influential book Matisse, roman (published 1971, but gathering texts going back to the early 40s) is the permanent sparring-partner and echo chamber of Brown’s study. Brown withdraws however from any polemic with Aragon, as she does not polemicize with other authors: Her analyses are so strong that there is no need to enter in any kind of direct controversy. In this sense, Matisse’s Poets is simultaneously an important contribution to a renewed reading of the artist and a fascinating cultural history of a genre as seen through the work of one single author, who is of course never working alone.

In twelve generally chronologically organized chapters (the last one devoted to Matisse’s posthumous and thus less personal or achieved publications in the artist’s book genre), Brown presents detailed case studies that always take their departure from a double ground: first, a perfect knowledge of the material and historical circumstances of the book’s production; second, and more importantly, a set of questions that is often overlooked by connoisseur scholarship: Why does Matisse decide to collaborate with a certain author and what does such a collaboration involves in antistatic, political, and ideological terms –in other words: how can the artist’s book be approached as an attempt to make a more general claim, a claim having important stakes for Matisse himself and the type of French modernism he wants to defend at that time of his career but also at that time in history (and of course the German occupation during World War Two is a key aspect of this debate, as well be the period of national reconstruction after the War, in a context of cultural crisis generated by the decreasing influence of France in the international arena) ? And how is this claim materialized through which kind of techniques in the object themselves? Which stylistic features of Matisse’s visual style resonate with which themes and aspects of the texts and authors of the books? How does Matisse explore the various features of the book as a host medium: questions of printing techniques, layout, sequential reading, size, and architecture of the book as a three-dimensional object?

The scope of these case studies is always double as well. On the one hand, Brown succeeds in asking new questions and giving new answers when reading a corpus that has not always been well understood. Matisse’s work on Joyce’s Ulysses for instance, where at first sight the selected drawings have “nothing to do” with the novel (Matisse only offering sequences of variations on mythological figures, not on contemporary Dublin)  is brilliantly approached in relationship with the debate on the meaning and relevance of Joyce’s antique subtext, while Matisse’s handwritten copy of the ballads of late-medieval French poet Charles d’Orléans is not just analyzed in biographical terms, important as they may be (with the well-known correspondence between the modern artist working in German-occupied France and the old poet having to live for many years in English imprisonment), but also in creative and esthetic terms (the actual rewriting, in a spirit which is not unlike that of Borges’s Pierre Ménard, of Charles d’Orléans’s texts is also a reference to the possibility of creating highly original works via imitation and emulation, a key feature of French traditional poetry). On the other hand, Brown succeeds in superseding the individualizing reading of each work. She highlights the persistent influence of, and dialogue with, Mallarmé and Baudelaire and the importance of issues such as the “book” (as an idea as well as an ideal and utopia in the case of Mallarmé), the notion of “freshness” and vitality (mainly in the case of Baudelaire) and of course the status of the metaphor, as a rhetorical device but also as a reading technique (the notion of “performance” in the subtitle of Brown’s book refers to the creative dimension of productive and transformative rereading, first by Matisse converting a text into an artist’s book, second by the reader who appropriates in her or his way the initial plastic intervention in a new context).