Currently on show at the Walker Art Gallery is a diverse selection of some of the greatest literature based artwork ever conceived. Part Fauvist and part modernist, master painter Henri Matisse is a zeitgeist defining legend of his era only surpassed by Picasso.  The exhibition consists of over sixty of his illustrations varying from artwork for books and poetry to his own genre defining art book; Jazz.

The opening of the exhibition begins with some interesting insights into the technique of printing and is a perfect introduction for those who don’t know their lithograph from their linocut.  Combining this with some examples of actual Matisse printing equipment that is available to touch, the first section is a wonderful insight into the technicalities of printing and can break the tension created in the one of the more traditional art galleries of Liverpool.

'Le Clown' ('The Clown'), plate I of XX from the illustrated book Jazz, 1947.

‘Le Clown’ (‘The Clown’), plate I of XX from the illustrated book Jazz, 1947. Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection.
© Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2011

The works themselves are often of a quaint nature, especially Matisse’s illustrations for the poetry of Stephané Mallarme, whose work fits lyrically well with Matisse’s images like a hand to glove.  However it is Matisse’s work for Jazz that is the real highlight of the exhibition.  Most of the works are bright, vivid and seem of an improvised nature as the title of Jazz suggests.  His typography is defining of a typical French writing style and the influence of it on today’s work can be clearly seen even in the most inartistic of places such as French themed restaurants.

Le Lagon is a particular highlight, bringing together all of the naive charm and iconoclastic colour use that would become a trademark of Matisse’s, while his Icare (French for Icarus) from the aforementioned Jazz captures the time and mind-set of the era spectacularly. Also included in the collection are his wonderfully simple, black and white illustrations for the Henry de Montherlant’s novelPasiphaé, Chant de Minos.  Seeing words of his re-imagining of Pasiphe next to Matisse’s illustrations is a joy and the overload of culture from these simple works can make the viewer feel full without being overfed.

Overall this is a majestic and unpretentious exhibition of a great and important artist who, by tying in his work with that of other art forms, truly found his niche in creating beautiful and timeless artwork.

The Art Books of Henri Matisse is currently on show at The Walker Art Gallery until the 15th of April.  Entry is free.

Adam Scovell

‘Icare’ (‘Icarus’), plate VIII of XX from the illustrated book Jazz, 1947, Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection.
© Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2011

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