Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 20, 2019
Kathryn Brown Matisse’s Poets: Critical Performance in the Artist’s Book London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 392 pp.; 8 color ills.; 82 b/w ills. Cloth £110.00 (9781501326837)

From the end of World War I to his death in 1954, Henri Matisse engaged in a number of notable experiments with the livre d’artiste. Kathryn Brown’s expansive study aims to show how Matisse’s artistic production and his thinking on creativity developed through an ongoing dialogue with literary texts, bringing to the fore the important role played by book production within the artist’s overall output. Through multiple fascinating case studies, Brown explores a range of intersecting questions about text-image interactions, about Matisse’s use of the book as an artistic-critical laboratory, and about the cultural importance of the illustrated book in early to mid-twentieth-century France. Brown’s most basic contention is that Matisse’s book production deserves to be taken seriously: while some might be tempted to dismiss at first glance images that do not illustrate the text in any direct way as merely “decorative”—implying that there is little to say about the ways in which text and image work together to create meaning—Brown shows that there is in fact much to say, and that sustained critical attention pays off.

One of the book’s most interesting and compelling arguments is for the importance of paratexts—title pages, colophons, dedications, and so on—in determining meaning. Brown suggests that Matisse’s images may on occasion speak to or interact more directly with these than with the principal text in question, giving the example of Matisse’s illustrations for a 1935 edition of Ulysses, in which the artist chose to represent episodes from Homer’s Odyssey. The images thus correspond to the introduction provided by Stuart Gilbert, which sought to make James Joyce’s text more intelligible to the reader by bringing out its Homeric structure. Brown, however, presents Matisse’s images as part of a broader conversation among readers and critics about the meaning, and the intelligibility, of Joyce’s text, rather than as “speaking past” Ulysses. A further example is Matisse’s 1946 edition of the Lettres portugaises, which Brown frames as an intervention into debates around the authorship of the letters (originally published without a named author in 1669). The book’s paratexts take a very strong position in asserting Marianna Alcoforado (most likely a fictional construct) as the author; and yet the shifting, imaginary portraits of the author provided by Matisse enter into a dialogue with these paratexts by seeming to put the stability of the author’s identity into question, in a way that also corresponds to the artist’s reticence around linking his own work directly to his “personality,” or indeed his personal life.

The latter theme is taken up elsewhere in the volume, where Matisse’s own selection of poems for his Florilège des “Amours” de Ronsard (1948), and indeed his accompanying images, are seen to play into his conceptions of influence and originality, which find a parallel in sixteenth-century conceptions of imitatio as a blending of tradition and the individual artist’s subjectivity. These issues are also pertinent to Les poèmes de Charles d’Orléans (1950), where once more Matisse’s selection of a number of poems, as well as the fact that these are written in the artist’s own hand, seems to imply a claim of ownership over the literary work, or perhaps a merging of artistic and literary creative acts.

As part of a broad reflection on authorship and artistic control, this study also highlights the role of publishers and other intermediaries in shaping the form and content of the artist’s book; it exposes, clearly and carefully, the networks of friendship and correspondence between Matisse and various writers, as well as the reception of Matisse’s artist’s books by writers themselves (notably Louis Aragon in his Henri Matisse, roman). In placing Matisse’s book production in this wider context, Brown effectively shows how the material form of the book may be determined by imperatives beyond the purely aesthetic: by commercial concerns, certainly, but also by a desire on the part of the artist and his collaborators to form strategic alliances in order to cement or suppress aspects of their public reputations. Matisse’s early collaboration with the poet Pierre Reverdy on Les jockeys camouflés (published in two editions in 1918) is a case in point: Brown shows that this project worked to position Matisse—viewed by the Dada generation as distinctly vieux jeu—as having continued relevance for the postwar avant-garde. Similarly, Matisse’s 1932 edition of Mallarmé’s Poésies also served the strategic purpose of linking the artist with a poet whose radical typographical experimentations made him a key figure in avant-garde genealogies.

These strategic collaborations sometimes misfired, however: one of the most revealing chapters of this study examines Matisse’s partnership with Henry de Montherlant, an author whose collaborationist sympathies saw him investigated by the Comité national des écrivains after the Liberation, and whose subsequent fall from critical favor is undoubtedly related to his dubious political position. Matisse’s production of linocuts for a 1942 edition of Montherlant’s play Pasiphaé meant that the artist ran the risk of being associated with the writer’s “right-wing aesthetic of force” (87). Ultimately, however, Matisse emerged from the collaboration unsullied, because the artist’s book in question drew, in both its visual and verbal aspects, on classical themes that seemed quite divorced from the political concerns of the period, and also because the material qualities of the book itself distanced it from Montherlant’s other more politically problematic writings. Brown also provocatively suggests that Matisse’s images for Pasiphaé ultimately work to bring out the more progressive implications of Montherlant’s script with regard to sexual identity—although the question of whether contemporary readers might have picked up on this (and indeed the extent to which Montherlant’s identity as a gay man was public knowledge) is not fully explored.

Matisse also emerges as a relative progressive elsewhere in the study, in respect of his gender politics: Brown’s examination of his Florilège des “Amours” de Ronsard reads the artist as not just perpetuating but rather “disrupting a tradition in European visual art in which the female body is idealized and objectified for the pleasure of a heterosexual male gaze” (117). Although Matisse’s numerous art historical references might seem to imbricate his representations of women within the Florilège in just that tradition, the cornerstone of Brown’s argument is that Matisse’s choice of poems places emphasis on the figure of the poet as himself in decline, and that the poems thus work with the images to “question the authority of the desiring [male] gaze” (133), which is no longer identified with a sexually masterful male viewer but rather with a weakened, potentially impotent male subject. This argument is compelling, but elsewhere in the volume there are some missed opportunities to fulfill the book’s promise of critically examining the gendered discourses embedded in Matisse’s book production. The final image from Les jockeys camouflés, representing a seated, female nude reading a book, may well “give pictorial form to the ideal artist-audience engagement imagined by Reverdy,” in that it represents the reader’s body “devoid of artificial covering” (32) and thus in unmediated contact with a similarly stripped-back text; but there may also be something to say here about the eroticized female nude as recipient of male genius. Similarly, Brown argues that Matisse and André Rouveyre’s 1952 Apollinaire functions as “an ideal space of literary bonding between men” (237), which both cements and commemorates male bonds to the exclusion of women. So far, so good; but one of the problems in this discussion is that it moves fluidly between the 1952 artist’s book, Rouveyre’s earlier book on the poet (1945), and his 1947 novel Repli, and it is not fully clear to what extent the collaborative work itself bears out Rouveyre’s repellent gender politics. Brown mentions that only one image of a woman is included in Apollinaire, but the image itself is not described or reproduced: it is therefore difficult to judge whether the cruelty of Rouveyre’s caricatures of women, or his insistence in his essay for Apollinaire that women pose a threat to male creative energies, are picked up by Matisse in visual form.

The chapter on Apollinaire ends with the suggestion that both Matisse and Rouveyre saw their book as “hermetic,” and that at least some of its meanings “remain accessible only to initiates” (249). This speaks to the notion, running throughout the study, that the artist’s book may mean different things to different readers, and that readers must engage in an active process of creating meaning, or “self-performance” (267). And yet this insistence on the lack of stable meaning in Matisse’s artist’s books rubs up a little awkwardly, at times, against Brown’s own readings, which can appear a little too sure of themselves, and a little too intent on forcing text and image to make sense together. This is particularly the case in Brown’s rather quick dismissal of Jean Guichard-Meili’s suggestion that Matisse “excludes evil” from his edition of Les fleurs du mal in order to “retain only the flowers” (151): it must be acknowledged that this edition is, if not a deliberate whitewashing of Baudelaire’s poetry, then at least a somewhat peculiar take on it. In Matisse’s editions of Tristan Tzara’s Midis gagnés (1939 and 1948), meanwhile, the artist’s representations of women in domestic scenes seem to have little to do with the author’s Dada aesthetics, and Brown’s attempts to make the partnership bear meaning at other levels do not undo the fundamental oddity of the text-image conjunctions within the volume itself. These are not major problems, by any means; indeed, the book’s rare lapses and lacunae ultimately expose the richness of the subject matter, and the complexity of the debates into which Brown intervenes. One might have liked to see more detailed analysis of Jazz—not only Matisse’s best-known book, but also the only one for which he provided the text—and further color illustrations would have been welcome. It is, however, extremely rare to find a scholar able to move so expertly between literary and visual analysis, and this remains a tremendously impressive and useful contribution to scholarship on Matisse and his literary and artistic networks, on bibliophile culture, and on text-image relationships.

Katherine Shingler
Assistant Professor, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Nottingham