December 29, 2013 9:07 pm

Matisse: The Essence of Line, Marlborough Fine Art, London – review

This is the first show for decades to concentrate on Matisse’s prints
‘Le Cow-boy’ (1947) from Matisse's ‘Jazz’©Marlborough Fine Art

‘Le Cow-boy’ (1947) from Matisse's ‘Jazz’

“I’m full of curiosity, as when one visits a new country. For I’ve never before advanced this far in the expression of colours. Up to now I’ve been merely tarrying at the temple gates.” Matisse was 78 when he wrote this and had just finished “Jazz”, a book of prints based on the paper cut-outs he made when no longer easily able to hold pencil or brush. Cutting directly into gouached paper, like a sculptor carving into stone, he continued the confrontation with colour begun as a Fauve half a century earlier, but attained new freshness, abstraction, freedom.

The “Jazz” stencils, among them celebrated images of “Le Clown”, “La Nageuse” and “Le Cow-boy”, are highlights of this show, the first for decades to concentrate on Matisse’s prints, and a welcome taster for Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, Tate Modern’s major 2014 exhibition. This epoch is contextualised here by other late works: boldly outlined, pared-down aquatint heads from 1947-52, and linocuts, which Matisse called “this simple medium . . . comparable to the violin with its bow: a surface, a gouge – four taut strings and a swatch of hair”.

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Matisse was an unusual printmaker: rather than sustaining interest in the medium throughout his career, he concentrated it into short bursts, each revealing his concerns at the time. The show opens with a woodcut of a nude from 1906, expressive and savage, from his Fauve period; continues with 1920s lithographs of nudes, women reading and odalisques where Matisse achieved spectacularly varied effects – the richly patterned interior of linear markings, rubbings and overlays in “Nu au fauteuil sur fond moucharabieh”; the deep darkened tones defining wallpaper, floor, rug, costume in the moody “Odalisque à la coupe de fruits”– and moves on to key experiments from the 1930s including etching/aquatint studies for the Barnes Foundation’s “La Danse” and illustrations to Mallarmé’s poems. All share a keenness for clarity – for Matisse, Picasso noted, the best line was always “the most stripped down . . . the purest, the definitive one.”

Until January 11, marlboroughfineart.com

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