“Henri Matisse: A Celebration of French Poets and Poetry”
Noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Through May 9. $5. Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, 4484 Peachtree Road. 404-364-8555, museum.oglethorpe.edu
Bottom line: Matisse’s books are the subject of this absorbing exhibition.
By Catherine Fox
One of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Henri Matisse was a jack-of-all-trades. If paintings were the French master’s long suit, his creativity infused all his endeavors — drawing, printmaking, sculpture, stained glass, collage and, as you can see firsthand at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, books.
Matisse’s first effort, the 1932 illustrated publication “Stéphane Mallarmé’s Poésies” was undertaken at the suggestion of famed publisher Albert Skira. After illness left him bedridden in 1941, he went on to make 11 more.
This absorbing exhibition, the first North American exhibition tour of the Albert Skira Collection, focuses on two in particular: the Mallarmé and Matisse’s most complex effort, “Florilége des Amours de Ronsard,” published in 1947.
Matisse read poetry every morning and enjoyed novels and the classics, which he read in their original Greek and Latin. The images he created grew out of a personal engagement with the poems.
Illustrating the work of 16th-century poet Pierre de Ronsard was his idea. That he chose love poems as his subject should be no surprise, considering the primacy of pleasure and sensuality in Matisse’s art and the frequency of women as subject.
The exhibition features 47 lithographs from the Ronsard book and 16 etchings from the Mallarmé. In addition to finished pages, it also includes some of his mock-ups, shorthand books in which he maps out the placement of image and type. It’s always interesting to go behind the scenes, and these planning studies don’t disappoint.
The show’s title suggests that it is as much about French poetry as Matisse, but there aren’t enough English translations to make it effective in that way. In many instances, though, the labels offer enough information to help us see the relationship of the images to the poems.
Matisse was not interested in literal depiction. He thought in metaphors and associations, often making reference to art and mythology, such as Renaissance artist Botticelli’s painting “The Birth of Venus” and the mythological “Rape of Europa.”
Much of the imagery will be familiar to Matisse’s fans. He favored fruit, flowers and women, all of them ripe. The women have those almond eyes, aquiline noses and pliant (compliant?), curvy bodies.
The vaunted colorist relies entirely on line, and mostly on silhouette. His powers of distillation are such that myriad details are unnecessary. As he once said, exactitude is not truth.
The entwined bodies depicted in catalog No. 13 have no heads, and it’s hard to tell whose limbs are whose. But it is as erotic as anything by that satyr Picasso and demonstrates that suggestion is often more powerful than description.
Catherine Fox writes about art and architecture on www.artscriticatl.com.