Art Essays

Matisse: Drawing Life

Published December 17, 2011
Henri Matisse, Henri Matisse gravant (Henri Matisse etching), Drypoint on wove paper, 1900–03

Henri Matisse was almost certainly the finest colourist in modern art but the bulk of his work contained no colour at all. Although the mention of his name conjures up thoughts of The Red Studio, The Joy of Life, or perhaps the kaleidoscopic Woman with a Hat, over the course of a long career Matisse (1869-1954) produced only a couple of hundred paintings. By contrast, he made many thousands of drawings, 829 prints, 82 sculptures, and no fewer than 58 illustrated books.

To see Matisse in his entirety it is essential to look at his vast output of works on paper. This was the opinion of artist’s grandson, Claude Duthuit, who often expressed a desire to see a comprehensive survey of Matisse’s prints and drawings. When the Queensland Art Gallery hosted a Matisse exhibition in 1995, Duthuit was already talking about a works on paper show. Sixteen years later the idea has come to fruition, although Duthuit did not live to see it, passing away in May this year.
The impetus was continued by Claude’s widow, Barbara Dauphin-Duthuit, and by the other members of the Matisse clan who gathered in Brisbane last week for the opening. This was a measure of the good will behind an exhibition that is quite unlike anything we have seen before in Australia.
One grows accustomed to hearing local museums proclaiming the supreme importance of every blockbuster, but this one is the real deal. While the National Gallery of Australia’s costly Masterpieces from Paris exhibition was little more than a random selection from the holdings of the Musée d’Orsay, Matisse: Drawing Life is the largest exhibition of the artist’s graphic works to be held anywhere in the world.
This is a coup for Brisbane and a source of satisfaction for the touring agency, Art Exhibitions Australia, who have built up enduring relationships with the French art institutions. Of more than 300 items in this show, the majority comes from the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. These pieces are supplemented by pieces from the NGA, from private collections and overseas galleries, including the museum in the artist’s childhood home, Cateau-Cambrésis. The catalogue contains a set of new scholarly essays and one questionable claim: that Picasso introduced Matisse to African art in 1906. Many, including Matisse, would say it was the other way round.
Scruples aside, until now it was almost unimaginable that an Australian museum might initiate a landmark exhibition by an artist such as Matisse. Forget the hype, this is a genuinely important event.
One of the exceptional aspects of this show is the design by French artist, Christoph Cuzin. To hang more than 300 prints and drawings on white walls would have been a recipe for monotony, regardless of the intrinsic value of individual pieces. Instead the display is punctuated with a few well-chosen paintings that bring a splash of colour to the galleries. The designer has picked out these colours, tinting the walls of each room a very soft shade of blue, green, cerise, and so on. On the floor there are scattered squares of carpet, each a more vivid shade of the wall colour. A room with two rows of glass cases is covered in black, loosely drawn patterns.
Some would argue this show is too big for comfort, but there is an undeniable thrill in seeing so many works by one of the great draughtsmen. A smaller show would have necessarily omitted a lot of sketches and minor pieces, but these are exactly the things that make the exhibition so fascinating for those already familiar with the artist’s work.
Drawing for Matisse was a life-long project that never reached a point of stasis. He would use drawing, printmaking or sculpture as a “corrective” to his painting when he felt he was growing stale. He believed that an artist should never become a prisoner to a theory or a style. There were many times, including a period from 1941-43, after undergoing a major operation, that he virtually abandoned painting in favour of the graphic arts.
He saw the two mediums as vitally interrelated. “Drawing and colour are in no way separate;” he wrote in 1904, “as one paints, one draws; the more the colour harmonises, the more precise the drawing becomes.”
Years later he would tell friends that his painting and drawing were becoming separate as he delved ever deeper into the difficult business he called “putting my feelings in order.” Printmaking too became a stand-alone affair, with little relation to Matisse’s paintings. Rather than see the medium as a way of producing a cheap facsimile of a painting, he pursued the different techniques as unique forms of art, each suited to different purposes. From 1922-29 he produced a large body of lithographs, then turned his attention to etchings, producing over a hundred in a year. By 1937 he was experimenting with lino-cuts, which he saw as deceptively difficult. Although the surface of the lino was easy to carve, a little too much pressure could ruin the quality of a line. He compared the process to playing the violin.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of this show lies in the sheer variety of Matisse’s drawings. It begins with careful, academic studies from the nude made while he was still a student. There are a few rough sketches, dashed off in the streets, following the precepts of his mentor, Gustav Moreau, who was more adventurous as a teacher than as an artist. There is even a wonky drawing of two horses made from a moving carriage.
As the show progresses, Matisse’s drawings become progressively more sophisticated. He is less and less inclined to use drawings as studies for paintings, and more willing to treat them as self-contained studies. Some drawings would take months, others were the work of a minute. Yet Matisse would argue that he could not have accomplished the rapid sketches if he had not put in so many hours on the other drawings. It was a process of freeing himself by means of hard work.
By 1909 he was able to declare: “I now draw with feeling and not anatomically.” This was a crucial distinction, because at the time he was widely derided for his ugly and distorted figures. Thirty-eight years later he would put it more succinctly: “Exactitude is not truth.” He was explaining that the outward appearance of the drawing was less important than the emotional investment involved. The process meant more to him than the final result.
Although he came dangerously close to abstraction, Matisse never ceased to draw from life, and especially from the model. He explained this whimsically by saying he had no imagination. He was far too excited by the things in front of his eyes to feel the need to indulge in artistic fantasies. The closest he came was probably the series of odalisques produced during his first sojourn in Nice. But the pleasure he took in these works came from the figure of the model and the costumes and draperies he had assembled as props. There was nothing of the Arabian Nights in these pictures.
The model was never simply a body for Matisse, he entered into a complex relationship with his favourite sitters. He wanted to know how they thought, how they felt, in order to delineate them correctly. Sometimes he would sit knee-to-knee with them as he drew, at other times withdraw to a distance. The intensity of these sessions was carried over into the way he drew still life subjects. Each object, he would say, is an actor.
The show ends with Matisse’s vibrant paper cut-outs, which were exercises in drawing with scissors. One of the highlights is the juxtaposition of the NGA’s Océanie: Le ciel with its companion piece, Océanie: la mer, from Cateau-Cambrésis. Leaving the exhibition we walk into an installation called The Drawing Room, with a life model, musicians, still life subjects, and an invitation to sit and draw – either on paper or on an iPad.
Henri Matisse, Océanie, le ciel (Oceania, the sky), Screenprint on linen, 1946
Henri Matisse, Océanie, le ciel (Oceania, the sky), Screenprint on linen, 1946

Henri Matisse, Océanie, le mer (Oceania, the sea), Screenprint on linen, 1946
Henri Matisse, Océanie, le mer (Oceania, the sea), Screenprint on linen, 1946

While the iPad is a very contemporary touch, the idea of drawing in a museum is an old-fashioned, civilised ritual. Over the past few years we have seen the National Gallery of Victoria banning visitors from taking a pencil into an exhibition but GoMA has taken the contrary route. Using the Matisse exhibition as a way of stimulating interest in drawing entails a renewed interest in looking – at both works of art and the life around us. As Matisse knew well, drawing is all about thinking and feeling. To study a drawing gives us a precious insight into an artist’s mind, but to attempt a drawing is to enter into an intense, intimate relationship with the world itself.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 17, 2011
Matisse: Drawing Life, Gallery of Modern Art, QLD Art Gallery, Brisbane, until 4 March 2012