Color is the word that comes to mind for most people when they think of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). With good reason: He had a lifelong passion for it and in his mature years had mastered all its glorious possibilities in the stunning paintings that frequently overshadow even his great peer, Pablo Picasso.
I, too, see those colors in my mind's eye. But I also see, just as much, his lines, which are the most direct expression an artist can use in communicating.
"Henri Matisse: Master of Line and Light" at the new Tampa Museum of Art shows us his true colors without using much color at all. More than 170 works, mostly black and white prints, guide us through the artist's ultimate mastery of the line through his long career. That they are technically prints instead of drawings matters not at all.
You'll probably think many of them are drawings since he often used printing processes that would mimic them. In all, Matisse created 800 images. These were reproduced in small editions. Combine them with the prints he created for several large-scale, limited-edition books and historians tally more than 10,000 published prints made during his lifetime.
Examples of every type of printmaking are in this show and you can enjoy them in different ways. Study them as a scholarly examination of Matisse as he moves from one process to another to explore composition and motifs. Or, less intensely, enjoy them as a cavalcade of beautiful images, mostly of women, that will bring associations to your mind with his paintings. Probably the best plan is to have some of both approaches.
Give yourself lots of time to enjoy the exhibition. Though the emphasis is on prints, the museum also displays five paintings and several bronze sculptures that reinforce the prints' integral place in Matisse's oeuvre.
The museum's long special exhibitions gallery has been divided into thirds and the larger central area holds the paintings and largest sculptural work that reference surrounding prints. It's the showpiece gallery and primer for the entire exhibition. You might want to start there just to get an overall perspective. Then go back to the west side where the show begins its chronological journey with an engraved self-portrait he began in 1900.
Engraving is probably the most rigorous type of print, in which a needle scratches marks onto a copper plate. Historically, a lot of artists gave a drawing to a master printer who performed the manual labor of engraving. Matisse didn't favor the technique, probably because it lacked spontaneity and this one doesn't presage the qualities that made Matisse great. It's more a self-assessment that announces his professional intent. In this portrait, he shows himself in the process of making an engraving, looking up from his work, his hands and eyes the most compelling elements.
Museum director Todd Smith has created groupings that provide a visual narrative and encourage viewers to pause for varying intervals. The groupings also subtly reinforce the ethos of printmaking, which is to create multiple versions of a single image.
Two examples of such arrangements are three woodcut prints from 1906 and six etchings from 1929. What a difference 20-odd years makes! The woodcuts are vibrant, certainly, but so very different from his primary work as a painter during that Fauvist period when he was gaining notoriety for his "wild" use of color. Skip to 1929, when he makes multiple versions of a model gazing at a bowl of goldfish. They were done more than 10 years after he began painting goldfish so their recurrence in a print suggests the value of the print in and of itself rather than as a preliminary to a painting. They could not be more simple or eloquent. Matisse was fascinated by the woman's fascination with the fish and she seems to smile both from them and the knowledge that the artist is observing and recording.
Sometimes, though, the prints do seem to serve his paintings more than holding their own. One example is in the image of a young woman posed against a patterned background, reading. She's rendered in several lithographs and a painting from the early 1920s that is included in the exhibition. The prints are beautifully done but Matisse seems to want painterly effects translated into them. I feel the odalisque prints also share a secondary quality.
No one can say that about a suite of several dozen prints from the late 1940s created when Matisse was ill and often too weak to paint. They're portraits in which every detail has become so distilled that we can imagine the artist doing them in seconds with one or two swooping strokes. A testament to their total independence from other mediums is that we cannot imagine them either as paintings or sculptures.
Elegance is refusal, a great fashion doyenne once declared. That's what I love about Matisse's prints, their elegance based on a refusal of the extraneous. His paintings have always been referenced as precursors to modern art; these prints, too, had a profound impact. You'll see why.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.