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'Matisse as Printmaker' showcases evolution of a master

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Though Henri Matisse is an A-list artist whose work is normally the subject of attention-grabbing exhibits, `Matisse as Printmaker,' a new traveling exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art organized by the American Federation of the Arts, is by no means a blockbuster.

It is, nicely, the anti-blockbuster - the kind of sharply focused exhibit that the Blanton has become deft at selecting and showcasing since it opened its new building four years ago. Its small scale and atypical focus offer a new snapshot of a legendary artist everybody might think they already know. Come for the big-name artist, stay for something you likely haven't seen before.

For starters, "Matisse as Printmaker" is hardly a large show. The 63 small-scale prints occupy one-third of the Blanton's main floor gallery. (The other two-thirds of the gallery currently feature "New Works for the Collection.")

Also, Matisse is synonymous with color: The French modernist master revolutionized the use of vibrant color as a means of emotional expression. "A great modern attainment is to found the secret of expression by color," Matisse once wrote.

But except for two works, the Matisse on exhibit at the Blanton is an artist working entirely in black and white.

Likewise, Matisse is celebrated as a painter. This is an exhibit entirely of prints. And while his peers - in particular Picasso, his great friend and artistic rival - continuously churned out prints during the course of their careers, Matisse practiced printmaking in fits and spurts over his half-century career, using the technically specific medium as a sort of extension of his drawing that he considered the essential element of his art.

"My line drawing," Matisse once wrote, "is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion."

There's a pecuniary motivation to printmaking, too. Produced in multiples, prints are infinitely cheaper than unique paintings. Matisse, like many artists, used prints as a way to sell his work to as many collectors as possible.

Though it's a compact exhibit, the trajectory of Matisse's evolving style is all there in "Matisse as Printmaker" - the early experiments with expressive gesture, the gradual simplification of line and form, the growing use of pattern and abstraction, all of which led to an eventual flattening of the pictorial space.

It's the type of exhibit that demands attention to detail. Prints, after all, do that, and not just because they're typically small. Traditional black and white prints such as those Matisse made are ultimately symphonies of simple lines - there is no bold texture, no color to define the image. And different printing techniques (etching, lithograph, woodcut) make for subtle differences in how those lines are rendered. To appreciate those subtleties takes some patient viewing.

Which isn't to say that the works on view don't have immediate impact. They do. "Nadia with a Serious Expression," for example, is a striking 1948 aquatint, the earnest, steady gaze of the model captured in less than 20 thick lines - an exquisite example of how Matisse mastered an extraordinary economy of line and a remarkably calculated simple form.

Though the Blanton's collection of 13,500 prints may be one of the best among any university art museum, it only includes seven Matisse prints, not one of which was added to the current show, though. "Matisse as Printmaker" is culled entirely from the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation. (As a bit of ballast, the Blanton has organized a small companion exhibit, "Picasso: A Graphic Inquiry," which features prints by the Spanish master from the Blanton's collection.)

The artist's youngest son, Pierre Matisse, who died in 1989, was a prominent New York art dealer who introduced now legendary 20th-century artists like Marc Chagall, Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti to the art scene in the United States. The foundation now maintains Pierre's substantial collection, including many works by his father.

That the exhibit is curated by Jay McKean Fisher, senior curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art, is also noteworthy. Though in this country, Matisse was first championed by New York's Museum of Modern Art (the museum is mounting yet another large Matisse exhibit in July), it's the Baltimore Museum of Art that arguably has the most substantial gathering of his work. A pair of wealthy Baltimore sisters, Claribel and Etta Cone, were among Matisse's first patrons, amassing some 500 of his works. Fisher arranged the exhibit chronologically, and that offers a sense of Matisse's come-and-go relationship with printmaking. (Matisse would nevertheless produce more than 800 images, typically in editions of 25 or 50.)

Born to a middle-class family in 1869, Matisse studied law before taking up painting seriously in his 20s. And while he attended art school classes, he spent considerable time in the Louvre copying paintings. He didn't seriously begin turning his attention to printmaking until about 1906, after his first major solo show in Paris. After producing a series of lithographs and linoleum cuts, several of which are featured in the exhibit, he returned to painting and sculptures. He tried his hand with monotypes in 1914, but the next flurry of serious printmaking activity didn't occur until the 1920s, when he made an astonishing 247 images in addition to his prolific production as a painter and a sculptor.

As his reputation grew in the United States and Europe, Matisse - always alert to the marketing of his art - produced more prints as well as illustrated books, also reasonably priced examples of his work.

Still, though Matisse continued to make prints throughout his life (he died in 1954), he would never again do so in such volume as he did in the 1920s.

The public's appetite for Matisse's prints hasn't waned. Today, copies of original prints - often marketed as limited edition lithographic copies - still sell heartily. In fact, in the Blanton gift shop reproductions of Matisse lithographs - specially stocked in tandem with the current exhibit - sell for as little as $19.

Perhaps, then, only with its accompanying merchandising, does "Matisse as Printmaker" resemble a blockbuster.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

Matisse as Printmaker: Works from the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation

When: through Aug. 22

Where: Blanton Museum of Art, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Congress Ave.

Cost: $5-$9 (Free on Thursdays; children 12 and younger free.)

Information: 471-7324, www.blantonmuseum.org.

'Why Matisse Matters'

What: John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and curator of several major Matisse exhibit, discusses the continuing relevance of the modern master.

When: 2 p.m. June 12

Cost: Free with museum admission

Picasso: A Graphic Inquiry

What: Highlights of the Blanton's Picasso prints

When: through Aug. 1

Philanthropists helped bring exhibit

The Blanton Museum of Art announced last week that it has met a fundraising challenge to support the costs of two traveling exhibits.

Austin philanthropists Teresa and Joe Long pledged $100,000 in April 2009 to help bring "Matisse as Printmaker" — currently on view — and "Turner to Monet: Masterpieces from The Walters Art Museum," which opens in September.

The Longs challenged the Blanton to raise $200,000. The Blanton to date has raised $232,701 toward the goal from 246 museum members and other donors

Major donors to the challenge include: Mr. and Mrs. Jack S. Blanton Sr., RBC Wealth Management, Sarah and Ernest Butler, Booth Heritage Foundation, Patricia and Dee Osborne, Carolyn and John H. Young, Mary Ann and Larry Faulkner, Leslie and Jack Blanton, Jr., R. Bruce Buckley and Mrs. Vincent Buckley, Elva J. Johnston Foundation, and Eliza and Stuart Stedman.