Matisse creates poetry in motion

The Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale and Contemporary & Modern Print Exhibitions have curated proof of Matisse’s paternity to modern art with a presentation of 63 illustrations, rendered by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) in response to the works of French poets Pierre Ronsard (1524-1585) and Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898).

Matisse’s dream — ”an art of balance, of purity and serenity — becomes manifested in this exhibition of his late work, which was the result of his pioneering in the graphic arts of etching and lithography and a leaning toward “minimalism,” a clean and economical use of line, color and subject matter. The prolific body of work presented is impressive considering that the artist was disabled for the last 15 years of his life.

This melding between Matisse and the French poets came about as the result of commissions by Albert Skira, a 20th-century Swiss publisher who first invited Matisse to produce illustrations related to the poetry of Mallarme, culminating as a “Livre d’artiste” (artist book in French) titled “Poesies.” As his last major project, Matisse requested to produce with Skira the “Florilege Des Amours De Ronsard,” a collection of love poems illustrated and assembled in book form. The exhibition figuratively pulls the books apart, and presents the illustrations framed and hung, with attendant information plaques on the relative poetry, authors and background.

The artist’s passion for poetry led to his robust creative process and comprehensive, innovative book designing, which included not only the interpretive renderings of the poems themselves, but the design of the frontispiece, patterned inside covers, ink color and typeface. The economy of line in his artwork belies the effort put into its formation. Matisse would “practice,” creating version after version of each piece until he could perform the creative exercise with eyes closed, producing the ideal image from muscle memory.

The sanguine color had to be an exact blood red, organic and warm with enough contrast to enhance his pure and perfect lines, without distracting from the thoughts behind the words of these masters of French lyrical and philosophical poetry. He was so meticulous in the selection of the typeface that he had a discontinued typeface remade because of its perfect complement to the poems. This balance was critical to his “dream.”

Matisse’s perfected line drawings are as lyrical as the poems that inspired them with their own strong and emotional, visual language. It appears as though he rarely lifted his crayon as he efficiently captured the essence of each image. His subjects were often female nudes and faces, mythological creatures, nature, love and eroticism.

His illustration titled “Plant Form (derivative of the female figure)” is a compilation of the artist’s favorite subject material. It was a response to Ronsard’s poem (song lyrics) that begins “Tighter than the vine marries itself to the elm…” There are many extant designs that were apparently studies that led to this image — a tree trunk subtly personifies a female form, whose arms become branches supporting mature foliage, whose feet become roots, bound by new life in the form of curling flora. She is Venus the goddess of love, both erotic and natural in birthing new life. She is the epitome of the artist’s dream.

Terri Martin is an artist, art historian and art critic.


What: Henri Matisse: A Celebration of French Poets & Poetry

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday until May 8

Where: Forest Lawn Museum, 1712 Glendale Ave., Glendale

Cost: Free admission and parking

Contact: (323) 340-4921 or

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