Matisse periodically refreshed his creative energies by turning from painting or sculpture to other forms of expression. Each time he did so, the change in media led to important artistic innovations. Explorations of this type led to the creation of Pasiphae which is now considered one of the masterpiece "livre de peintre" of this century.
The energy and monumentality of Pasiphae is comparable to that which is only normally found in major paintings; for this reason, the Pasiphae should be considered a major work.
The whole task, which included the execution of more than one-hundred lino-cuts in black, eighty-four initials, and chapter heads occupied Matisse for ten months of full working days, often extending into the night.
The original edition of this extraordinary "livre de peintre" was limited to a mere 250 copies as is usually the case with such special editions. Although Matisse had devoted so many hours to this project, he always felt there was no disproportion between the labor he spent preparing this book and the joy and aesthetic pleasure viewers would experience with every contemplation of it.
These posthumous plates must be considered the prolongation of the first edition from which they should no longer be separable. All of the Pasiphae images sprang from the same source and constant level of quality. In fact, one wonders why some of these plates were not chosen for the original publication, being better than those which were indeed published. Matisse used the expression "a cinematography of a series of visions". This expression is indeed appropriate to describe these plates.
When Matisse expresses a dissatisfaction with an image it is generally not because he is displeased with the line or the drawing itself, but simply that he feels that adjustments must sometimes be made in relation to the subject.
In that sense, the plates which were never published should not be considered sketches or corrected drawings that one would find in a preliminary sketchbook. They are materializations of feelings experienced by a prolific artist in relation to the theme as well as the subject.
The fact that many of them were not published in the original version is primarily due to Matisse's critical eye and classical background. Of the many possibilities and variations he would only choose a few. He selected, according to his own subjective criteria, the images which he felt most comfortable with. In other instances, it could also be that there simply was not enough room for all the images he had produced.
It is said that Matisse's books are architectural designs and his architectural designs, books. Pasiphae is no exception to this. Its organization is homogeneous and complete. Te book stands on its strength, beauty and vision.
Matisse went to infinite pains. The white-line linocuts for the illustrations and decorations are without doubt one of the noblest existing works in this medium; only Picasso's linoleum engravings rival them for sheer virtuosity.
Never content to merely provide accompanying illustrations for his books, Matisse submitted himself to the discipline of the page and to typographical considerations, invariably taking a hand in designing the jackets, selecting the typeface, deciding the layout and choosing the paper and binding.
By book standards, the images are large. One copy in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris is in a superb original binding by Jacques-Antoine Legrain. It is made of black morocco with decorations of curved and parallel fillets. Very few copies of the original edition can be found today. Most of them have been tucked away in collections which are seldom presented publicly.
Pasiphae may well have caught Matisse's interest after the play was given its first performance at the Theatre Pigalle on December 6, 1938.
It is reported that in the same year Vollard had conceived the idea of having Matisse illustrate a book of de Montherlant's poetry, although no specific mention of Pasiphae was made.
One theory concerning the fact that the Minoan myth retained Matisse's attention attributes this interest to his desire to enter into a dialogue with Picasso, whose fascination with the Minoan theme goes back to 1932-33. Picasso had already devoted a series of etchings to the theme of the Minotaur included in the Vollard Suite which appeared in 1937.
It is difficult to establish the sequence of events, but one thing known is that, around the same period, Matisse had already manifested a certain interest in familiarizing himself with the Mediterranean culture and had begun reading ancient mythology.
The precedents to the use of black and white in the work of Matisse are many. Monotypes from 1915-1916, paintings produced upon his return from Morocco, Young Girls by the Riverside, Still Life with Seashell, The Silence of Houses -- all of these have strong black elements and can be considered early precursors.
In Pasiphae, the black is treated as a negative background, the word and image set against it in positive. The overall effect of the use of black and white is more than dramatic -- it serves to place the action outside of time.
For a long time, Matisse was very concerned with the amount of black on the page. He went to great pains to balance the relatively white page of the text with the black page, and finally arrived at a satisfactory solution by bringing the black page closer to the center so that the eye took in the double page as a whole.
He also added red with his initial on each plate, and red chapter headings. The color chosen for the cover was a soft deep Mediterranean blue.
During the thirties, Matisse made a number of portrait drawings with vigorous characterizations and formal strength. Among them was the portrait of Henri de Montherlant produced in 1937. It was possibly during the long portrait sittings that the project gradually took shape.
About the same period Matisse began to experiment with linoleum engraving, having come to Nice without Lacouriere who generally pulled his engravings.
From 1938 on, Matisse worked on an admirable series of linocuts. Their technique and their atmosphere clearly anticipate the Pasiphae plates.
The images of Pasiphae accompanied Matisse throughout the difficult period between the anxiety-ridden years preceding the war and the dark Occupation years.
Finally in 1944, Martin Fabiani, who was able to publish books in Paris during the German occupation, brought out de Montherlant's book of poems Pasiphae; Chant de Minos designed by Matisse. The project was at last complete.
Montherlant's play centers around the Minotaur with its bull's head and human body. Pasiphae falls in love with a white bull sent by Poseidon and kept by Minos, her husband, the king of Crete. The bull was fed on human flesh, and through union with it Pasiphae engendered the Minotaur.
The poem is constructed in two voices, the lyrical voice of King Minos, and the tragic voice of Pasiphae. It is a drama of the night, of inner darkness, of a guilty queen who lucidly prepares herself for her monstrous wedding.
The text evokes shadows, night, darkness, death. This is the only truly tragic theme which Matisse ever developed. Minos's wife Pasiphae is a queen of the night -- or rather, a queen in the night. She is prey to desire and insomnia.
The artist could readily understand the forces at play. By plunging Montherlant's erotic world into darkness, he brought to it a quality that was at once intimate and cosmic, confidential and impassive.
Matisse's illustrations are the perfect fulfillment of Montherlant's dream. The embraces are set against a background of stars. The stellar brilliance of the alternately soft and hard lines gouged out in linoleum expands the uniformly black surface to the point where the drama of the flesh is dissolved in it and the human cry is lost in the "divine harmonies of the night".
Matisse's crowning achievement is the series of vignettes which are virtually abstracted variations on celestial bodies and in some cases ethereal human bodies. Their small size is canceled out by the vastness of their scale. Thus, the linocuts for Pasiphae illustrate the conversion of the biographical into the mythical which was to occupy Matisse during the last ten or twelve years of his life.
Matisse himself was afflicted with insomnia -- he never slept more than three or four hours a night -- especially during the years following his operation. His illustrated books were veritable children of the night. Matisse recognized his anxiety in Pasiphae's words.
Anxiety increasing as it beats under your breast.
This inspired an arabesque soft as a woman's profile, sharp as a streak of lightning.
Minos, of whom Pasiphae had reason to be afraid, could not fail to remind Matisse of the hostile forces that made the nights so oppressive in France between 1940 and 1944. About this he said:
From head to foot, I quiver like a bow with the desire to destroy . . . I am sick with hatred.
As is true of all Matisse's best illustrated books, the literary imagery of the writer stimulated him to the invention of visual images quite different from any he had created before. They inspired his classical genius to explore new realms.
Whether one is looking at the feminine aspect -- the exquisite drawings of Pasiphae -- or the assertive male element, the bull, rampant or trotting, or the highly delineated man's head, one is conscious of the rightness of every line, continuous or articulated, of every sinuous curve and contour.
Matisse's line, however deliberated on, always creates the illusion of spontaneity. The medium of lino introduced a new variable which Matisse took advantage of. It enabled him to vary the line's thickness with ease and, where necessary, to obtain sweeping curves without angularity.
There could be no greater economy of dramatic statement. Even the chapter heads have an important place and provide valuable continuity.
Matisse's illustrations for the Montherlant play are the nocturnal counterpart of his Mallarme plates. Their gravity and monumental splendor make them the negative equivalent.
Matisse owed these qualities to the solution of the same formal problem he had faced with the Mallarme book -- how to balance the black illustrating page against the comparatively white page of type. By bringing the two quantities together so that they formed a unit, he attenuated the rather funereal character of the whole.
The inner appropriation of the text also played a considerable role in the success of all his illustrated books. This appropriation -- contrary to what has recently become known as "appropriation art" -- entailed an inner intuitive understanding of the text. A phrase, a suggestion, a little detail might spark his own imagination and inspiration.
Matisse was often sick during the time he took to complete the illustrations he produced for Pasiphae. He spent his days in bed. He also felt a great urgency with completing this project, aware that it could well be his last effort.
He approached it with great seriousness and gravity, intuiting that it could become a great composition, a major work of art. He summoned his best attention and talent to producing this demanding monumental series.
This book was to be a landmark for Matisse. It heralded a "cosmic space" which it would take him many years to successfully recreate in his paintings.
Matisse did not attempt to create images which would be secondary to the text. He only produced when a particular phrase compelled him from within, when he felt an inner resonance with it. The plates therefore appear with the fragment which so inspired him.
The flowing lines of these images are all indications as to the feeling of freedom that Matisse experienced in relation to the text which he did not attempt to imitate in any way.
The poetic quality of what Matisse accomplished is undeniable. But this is only the superficial layer of what these images represent. Matisse's images open up to a vision of the sacred founded on the beauty of the feminine body, a worship of the feminine principle, and pure voluptuousness. By doing so he lifts us from the poetic and leads us to the symbolic.
All of these designs have a life of their own. They have an immensity, a monumentality about them.
Matisse and Picasso shared a life-long amicable rivalry. They respected each other at a distance. Both of these artists were very different, almost diametrically opposed.
Picasso relied on the perfection of his first impulse on the canvas or paper. He considered that nothing could improve on the first spontaneous drawing, and observed that Matisse had a very different way of working: "Matisse makes a drawing, then he makes a copy of it . . . he recopies it five times, ten times, always clarifying the line . . ."
Nothing could be more exact. Matisse indeed worked and reworked the same idea, the same image countless times until at last it reflected what it was that he sought to evoke. The mood, the quality of emotion, the light, the flow.
The respectful duels between Matisse and Picasso took several forms. Not only had Picasso developed the extraordinary Vollard Suite, but he had also prepared a cover for the surrealist review The Minotaur.
Eventually, Matisse produced his own cover for The Minotaur and finally countered Picasso's illustrations for Vollard with his own suite.
Throughout his long and prolific career, Matisse painted and drew many portraits of both men and women. In fact, he is one of the few masters of our time who has left beautiful portraits. The range of these portraits is extensive.
Matisse painted several self-portraits including one from his powerful Collioure period, another during his stay in Nice. This one reflects austerity and even melancholy. Eight portraits were drawn for Verve in 1944. These reflect serenity rather than character. There are also many portraits of the painter studying a female nude, as well as a number of Fauve works like the famous Femme au chapeau. There are also many admirable portraits of his lovely, dignified wife.
Marguerite Matisse was her father's inspiration for a considerable number of works, for a long time she was her father's ideal model. His portraits of her are reduced to the essential. They indicate a desire to go beyond appearances and discover the inner being hidden behind the gaze, the expression.
Matisse also painted his son, Pierre as well as the entire family. The Portrait de famille in the Museum of Modern Western Art in Moscow has been compared to a Persian miniature. It shows Madame Matisse standing on the left, Jean and Pierre Matisse in the center playing draughts, Marguerite with her sewing on a sofa on the left, against a richly ornamental background -- in the foreground an Oriental carpet, a wallpaper flowered with tulips, a marble mantelpiece over a tiled fireplace, on which are bunches of flowers in vases.
There are also portraits of Andre Derain, Albert Marquet, Miss Eta Cone of Baltimore, Greta Moll, Olga Merson, Serge Stchoukine, Auguste Pellerin, Sarah Stein, Yvonne Landsberg, Greta Prozor, Michael Stein, the Baronness Gourgaud, Mrs. Hutchinson, Princesse Helene Galitzine, as well as the splendid Lydia Delectorskaya who was to be an incomparable model for the master during the last twenty years of his life. Famous playwrights and poets such as Montherlant and Apollinaire were also painted.
Few modern masters, including Picasso, have shown such penetration of vision and such diversity of stylistic and emotional approach to the subtle art of portraiture.
Matisse's clearest definition of this art was given to the master printer, Fernand Mourlot. The text reads as follows . . .
The study of the portrait seems forgotten today. Yet it is an inexhaustible source of interest to one with that gift, or simply that curiosity. One might think that the photographic portrait is enough. For anthropometry, yes, but for an artist who seeks the true character of a face, this is not so: recording the model's features reveals feelings of the unknown even to the one who has brought them to light. It need be, the analysis of a physiognomist would be almost necessary to attempt an explanation of them in clear language, for they synthesize and contain many things that the painter himself does not at first suspect . . .
Real portraits, I mean those in which elements as well as feeling seem to come from the model, are rather rare . . .
The revelation of my life in the study of portraits came to me in thinking of my mother. In a post office in Picardy, I was waiting for a telephone call. To pass the time, I picked up a telegraph form lying on a table, and made a pen drawing oon it of a woman's head. I drew without thinking of what I was doing, my pen working on its own, and I was surprised to recognize my mother's face with all its subtleties . . .
My mother had a face with generous features, which bore the deep distinction of French Flanders . . .
I was still a pupil occupied with "traditional" drawing, anxious to believe in the rules of the School, remnants of the teaching of masters who came before us, in a word, the dead part of tradition in which all that was not actually observed in nature, all that derived from feeling or memory was despised and condemned as bogus. I was struck by the revelations of my pen, and I saw that the mind which composes should keep a sort of virginity towards the chosen elements and reject all that is offered by reasoning . . .
The portrait is one of the strangest of arts. It demands especial gifts of arts. It demands especial gifts of the artist, and an almost total relationship between the painter and his model. The painter should come to his model with no preconceived ideas . . .
It should all reach his mind like the smell of the earth in a landscape, and of the flowers in harmony with the play of clouds, the movement of trees and different sounds of the countryside . . .
After half an hour or an hour, I am surprised to see gradually appearing on my paper an image more or less precise and resembling the person with whom I am in contact . . . That image is revealed to me as if each line of charcoal erased some of the mist from a mirror which until then had prevented me from seeing it . . .
I gain a deep knowledge of my subject . . . After long work in charcoal, made up of studies corresponding more or less to each other, visions arise which may appear summary, but which are the expression of the intimate exchange between the artist and his model. Drawings containing all the subtle observations during work arise from a fermentation within, like bubbles in a pond.