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Matisse's illustrated books at the Legion (and happy birthday to Van Gogh)

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While most visitors to the downstairs galleries at the Legion come for the superb "Intimate Impressionism" show, another exquisite exhibit is on view in one of the small side galleries. Chosen from the collection of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts (AFGA), the Logan Gallery is showing seven of Matisse's illustrated books.

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Henri Matisse was 60 years old when he began to create original illustrations for livres d’artiste (artists’ books). By the time of his death, 25 years later, he had produced more than a dozen illustrated books, deluxe, limited editions, meant to be collected and admired as works of art, as well as, read.

Matisse was stimulated and challenged by book illustration and design, often taking months to prepare pictorial concepts. In his 1946 essay “How I Did My Books,” he wrote, “I draw no distinction between the construction of a book and the construction of a painting and always move from the simple to the complex, but I am always ready to reconceive in simplicity.”

In the same essay he declared that the first principle of good book design was a rapport with the nature of the book. For Matisse this meant carefully balancing text and illustration. He handled this masterfully in "Pasiphaé" with delicate linocuts, and in "Poésies" with etchings composed of modified arabesques that draw attention to the illustration as much as to the inviting text.

Matisse took his first step in illustration when Swiss publisher Skira approached him in 1930 to illustrate the work "Poésies," by 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Matisse responded to Skira’s invitation with great enthusiasm and that summer, devoted most of his attention to the commission while he was residing in Paris. He made an enormous number of drawings for the project. Of these, 27 drawings were chosen to be engraved. Matisse said that he used the extraordinary economy of the thin, engraved line with no shading whatsoever in order not to overpower the etherial quality of Mallarmé's poetry. Matisse’s etchings of Mallarmé’s poems are considered among his greatest works in the print medium.

The last book Matisse illustrated, with color lithographs, was an anthology of poetry by Charles d'Orleans in 1950. Charles d'Orléans, a member of the French royal family of Valois, has been called the father of French lyric poetry and reputedly the sender of the first valentine. The chief subject matter of his poetry was courtly love and separation, written in such a veiled way that the unknown woman could be one of, or a conflation of, his two wives, a mistress or the land of France itself.

"Matisse and the artist book" displays seven of these rare books, including "Poésies" (1932) and "Pasiphaé" (1944), in conjunction with the special exhibition "Matisse from SFMOMA" at the Legion of Honor.

Happy Birthday Van Gogh - the only Van Gogh on view in the Bay Area is at the Legion of Honor as part of the "Intimate Impressionism" exhibit.