Thursday, 6 October 2016

Matisse drawings create an exhibition of beautiful purity

“Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence.”

That quote is at the heart of a new exhibition celebrating Henri Matisse’s mastery of line drawing, which opens tonight at the Eames Fine Art Gallery in south London.

In our familiarity with Matisse as a master of vibrant colour, it’s easy to forget the striking simplicity and purity of his drawing.

Throughout much of his career, he also utilised a wide variety of printing techniques, and the collection that the gallery has put together unites lithographs and etchings to great effect.

However easy he made drawing look, Matisse was quite clear that it was an effect that resulted from long discipline.

“If I trust my drawing hand,” he said, “it is because, in training it to serve me, I forced myself never to let it take precedence over my feelings.”

The works here – and all are available for sale, with prices ranging from £400 to £4,000 – are linked by poetry.

From Florilège des Amors de Ronsard
Matisse himself loved poetry so much that he would start each day with reading verse before he began work.

The prints in this exhibition come from three suites: Poésies from 1932 was inspired by the work of the same name by the 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallard, while Florilége des Amours de Ronsard from 1948 illustrated the courtly love poems of 16th century poet Pierre de Ronsard.

The third series was inspired by the poetry of Charles-Antoine Nau, which was in turn inspired by visits to the Caribbean and, in particular, Martinique.

Years after Nau’s death, Matisse decided to create an album of poems, linked to a series of lithographic studies of models from Martinique.

The project began in 1945 and was completed by midway through the following year, but the album remained unpublished.

In 1972, 18 years after the artist’s death, his heirs and Fernand Moulot, the intended printer, agreed to print the album as Poésies Antillaises.

Portrait of Charles-Antoine Nau
“I have always considered drawing not as an exercise of particular dexterity … but as a means deliberately simplified so as to give simplicity and spontaneity to the expression, which should speak without clumsiness, directly to the mind of the spectator,” stated Matisse.

Here we see that simplicity in all its beauty: works that seem at once light years away from the bright textures and decoration that filled so many of the artist’s canvases, and yet also so instantly recognisable as works by the same man.

As if to remind us of the contrast and connection, a cabinet holds a vividly-coloured lithograph of a cut out from 1954, the year of Matisse’s death.

It is a joy to be able to let the eye take a walk around the lines of such deceptively straightforward drawings – a reminder (were it needed) of Matisse’s timelessness.

Matisse – The advantage of permanence opens tonight and runs until 30 October at Eames Fine Art Gallery, 58 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UD.

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