Jazz Prints by Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was 74 when he produced his much-celebrated and idiosyncratic album Jazz, widely considered to be the greatest and most sought after illustrated book of the 20th stencils of colourful cut-outs or gouaches découpées in French, accompanied by text composed and handwritten by the artist himself. Matisse intended the text to primarily serve as a visual function, to ‘…frame the colour plates…(1)
Jazz was published in 1947 in an edition of 250 folded ‘books’ which were not bound, with the impressions exhibited here coming from one of the 250 books. There also was an edition of 100 or the so-called ‘flat Jazz’ for which the plates were unfolded and without text. Jazz was published by Tériade, a well-known publisher, who was the instigator of the project. As early as June 1941, whilst in hiding from the Nazis, he begged Matisse to create a “livre-fleur” (2) gouachées que vous pouvez imaginer…”(3) and promised we will achieve “… votre couleur exacte” (4). The couleurs gouachées Tériade referred to were the paper cut collages that he had recently seen in Matisse’s Paris studio and that were being used as a tool to help the artist to decide the final composition of his paintings.
Matisse had been experimenting with paper cut collages as early as 1912, tracing compositions and pinning on to canvases such as Perwinkles and Moroccan Garden, but these were a means to a compositional end and initially Matisse made efforts to keep the technique a secret. Whilst gradually embracing the cut-out practice Matisse came to realise that it could exist independently as a work of art in its own right, capable of expressing form and movement.
Jazz was created in an extraordinary period of fertile creativity; it would take four years. Having been very ill, Matisse did not start working on the cut-outs before 1943 with the first two, Le carrosse and L’éléphant blanc, ready in November 1943. By August 1944 the artist had finished 18 of the 20 gouaches découpées, having changed the title of the album from Cirque to Jazz in the course of his work. His subjects are loosely taken from the circus, with the knife thrower (Le Lanceur de Couteaux) and the sword swallower (L’Avaleur de Sabres) and the prominent nose of the ringmaster Monsieur Loyal.
It would then take another three years for Tériade to perfect the printing technique that would ultimately render Matisse’s couleur exacte. Tériade experimented with lithograph, woodcut and finally settled for the pochoir technique. The colourful cut-outs were translated into hand-cut metal stencils. Then Edmond Vairel, an illuminator by training, reproduced the cut-outs by directly brushing gouache through the metal stencils which gave the pochoirs a directness and richness similar to that of the gouache used by Matisse.
It was an immediate success though Matisse was at first disappointed. He thought that the transposition of his cut-outs into stencils had lost some of the delicacy and poetry imbued in the outlines of the former. A few months later, he moderated his views by underlining that the colours of the pochoirs were similar in tones and texture to those of the gouaches découpées. This was an astonishing printing achievement executed not by using traditional printing ink but working with colours specially prepared by Linel, the purveyor of Matisse’s gouache for his cut-outs. Not only is Jazz an extraordinary creative accomplishment but also a wonderful technical printing feat.