Matisse: Minotaure to Verve

Friday, 1 March 2024
10:00AM - 5:00PM (AEST)
Schaeffer Library
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An exhibition of treasures from the Schaeffer Fine Arts Library collection, curated by Roger Benjamin. On view from March to April 2024.

When the Power Institute of the University of Sydney was set up in 1968 it comprised not just an academic department, but a Research Library and the Power Collection of Contemporary Art. The latter grew to major scale and became Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1989, while the Library evolved into a rich resource for students, practising artists and scholars. In 2002 the Library was given a glamorous new home in the R. C. Mills Building, and was renamed for the late art collector and major donor John Schaeffer. 

As early as 1968 the founding Power Professor, Bernard Smith, hastened to purchase key journals of modern art. These included the famous Paris-based publications MINOTAURE (1935-39) and VERVE (1937-1960). Named for the totemic Greek man-bull by its editor André Breton, MINOTAURE was a small-scale Surrealist publication. Printed in black and white with occasional colour plates, MINOTAURE mixed learned essays with short stories and discussions of non-Western art.  Following the model of Cahiers d’art, the journal’s art editor E. Tériade sought cover designs and art pages from major Parisian artists like Pablo Picasso (the inaugural cover), Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and Henri Matisse.

The brilliant Greek-born immigrant Tériade (surname Eleutheriades) had greater ambitions for his VERVE. He conferred on it the luxurious aesthetics of “artists’ books”, in which his friend Matisse excelled, illustrating volumes of French poetry with his inimitable line-drawings, etchings and lino-cuts. The first issue of VERVE, in large format on heavy paper, featured a hypnotic Matisse design. Marc Chagall, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Rouault, Picasso, Georges Braque, the Surrealists Miró and Abraham Rattner followed suit.  Critic John Russell recalled that after World War Two “virtually the only way to keep in close touch with what was being done by Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Chagall was to grab the relevant issue of VERVE”.

The impact and breadth of Matisse’s output between 1935 and his death in 1954 can be studied in these pages. While MINOTAURE printed sets of photos tracking the evolution of his new oil paintings (taken by his model/assistant Lydia Delectorskaya), VERVE perfected the printing of Matisse’s influential portrait and still-life drawings. 

Above all, Matisse made several intense cover-designs using pochoir (a stencil-printing technique that transferred the colour-segments of his cut-outs). These works prefigure his Jazz (1943/47), the most famous of all 20th century artists’ books. Tériade also commissioned short essays by Matisse, who was a highly articulate writer. The text of his “Divagations” (1937) and “Of Colour” (1945) were set by the artist in typefaces chosen to suit the expansive pen-drawings on the page. This immediately impacted newer journals like Variété, at a time when The Studio from London used Matisse images to defend modern art (Herbert Read’s “Modern Art and French Decadence”).

VERVE was co-published in English from 1937 (and reached Australian as well as Anglo-American audiences). VERVE’s posthumous, hard-cover Last Works of Henri Matisse, 1950-54 uses superlative pochoir plates to show the vast cut-outs of Matisse’s last years: "Mermaid and Parakeet", "The Swimming-Pool" and "Sadness of the King". These 3 and 4-page foldouts will be changed every fortnight during the course of the exhibition.

In this exhibition we also sketch the history of Matisse publications, from Moscow to Brisbane. The work of New York’s Museum of Modern Art under Alfred Barr in popularizing Matisse began with his retrospective of 1931, and continued in the massive Matisse: His Art and his Public (1951). At the time Dr. Albert Barnes refused the colour reproduction of any work in his great collection. Thus Matisse’s Fauvist masterpiece "The Joy of Living" (1906) only appeared in colour in 1995, after Barnes’s will was set aside. Today the Barnes Collection is fully accessible in digital format.

 

Curated by Roger Benjamin, with thanks to Sajid Foazdar (Senior Librarian) and Isabella Bartlett (exhibition assistant).

The exhibition is on view at the Schaeffer Fine Arts Library from March to June 2024.

A cover of VERVE magazine, which comprises cut-outs of a figure dancing, surrounded by stars and the letters of the magazine title, against a bright green background.

Henri Matisse, Cover of VERVE (Volume IV, Number 13), 1945.

People

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Roger Benjamin

Roger Benjamin (Professor of Art History, U of Sydney) has written and lectured on Matisse throughout his career, beginning with his Bryn Mawr PhD (Matisse’s ‘Notes of a Painter’: Criticism, Theory and Context, Ann Arbor 1987).  He co-curated QAG’s touring retrospective Matisse of 1995 before turning to questions of European Orientalism. His most recent publication on the Frenchman was “Matisse at the Senya el Hashti” in The Art Bulletin for 2019.

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