For Henri Matisse, the object of drawing was not to display technical dexterity, but "to give simplicity and spontaneity to the expression, which should speak without clumsiness, directly to the mind of the spectator." His successful realization of that goal can be richly appreciated in the Baltimore Museum of Art's new exhibit "Matisse as Printmaker."

The show focuses on a relatively unexplored side of the artist's legacy - from his first, quite traditional self-portraits to examples of Matisse's bold last works in the print genre, when just a few, thick black lines sufficed. Almost everything here (the exhibit spans five decades) is in black and white, yet reveals a vibrancy to rival Matisse's more famous paintings, with their striking colors.

More than 150 prints are on display, many of them from the BMA's own collection of 400-plus; others are from a touring exhibition put together by the American Federation of Arts and the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation. Like the BMA's major exhibit of the artist's sculpture, this project underlines the museum's determination, as director Doreen Bolger says, "to be a leading Matisse center."

That the exhibit includes a room devoted to "Prints in Context," offering viewers an opportunity to see direct relationships between the artist's prints, paintings and sculpture, is one example of how the BMA is, indeed, filling the role of a center for Matisse studies.

In 2007, the Matisse Foundation announced a gift to the BMA of 77 prints (now increased to 84). At the time, Alessandra Carnielli, the foundation's executive director, said that the donation would mean that the BMA "will house the largest collection of Matisse's graphic art in the United States."

Several of these donated works are receiving their first public display in this show. For that matter, museum-goers are in for a lot of fresh experiences.

"I would say that people have not seen three-quarters of [them] before," says Jay Fisher, the BMA's deputy director for curatorial activities. "And all are in pretty good shape. Many of these prints have never seen the light of day; they've always been kept in drawers. It will take people visiting this exhibit a few minutes to adjust to the lower light levels needed to keep the prints safe."

Even in that subdued lighting, the art shines.

A pair of Matisse's finely detailed self-portraits from around 1900, inspired by Rembrandt's 1648 etching of himself at a window, starts off the show. One of them suggests what Fisher calls "an aura around his hands," Matisse's way to emphasize the principal tools of his craft.

By the time the viewer reaches a 1951 self-portrait, the artist concentrates only on his face, this time with an almost goofy expression and glasses that look as if they've been shattered - a wonderfully animated characterization achieved by an uncanny economy of lines.

The 1906 "Long Nude" finds Matisse ahead of his time. The rendering of an eyeless, featureless woman, her elbows pulled up off to one side of her head and one knee crossed over the other, seems to be but a few small steps away from Cubism. It's an image that gets to the heart of Matisse's interest and delight in sculptural shapes, a theme echoed diversely throughout the display. (Nudes populate this show in significant numbers.)

Among the BMA-owned Matisse prints are many from the almost legendary Cone Collection, the legacy of Baltimore sisters Claribel and Etta Cone to the museum. And the thoroughness of their approach to collecting art pays strong dividends in this particular exhibit.

"For me," Fisher says, "the central aspect of Matisse's printmaking is the fact that he worked in series, producing multiple works from a single model sitting. The Cones understood the importance of preserving [this]." The sisters bought whole series, not just one or two pieces.

Several of these are displayed, giving the viewer a sense of how an entire session of artist and model unfolded. "It's almost cinematic to see the works this way," Fisher says. "You're very aware of the passage of time during the sittings."

Even the slightest variations from one print to the other in a series - the turn of a head, the placement of an arm, the curve of a back - can shed fresh light, as much on the model as on Matisse and what caught his eye.

A group of small portraits etched in 1914 reveal the artist refining his approach, creating a kind of candid snapshot of friends with a minimum of lines.

The face of American artist and critic Walter Pach, for example, exudes considerable personality from a print that is just a little over 6-by-2 inches.

In a 1956 essay on Matisse's printmaking by William S. Lieberman, reprinted in the catalog that accompanies the BMA show, the author writes that the 1914 portraits "were finished with astonishing speed. ... The drawing is quick and decisive. Like all of Matisse's etchings, each is distinguished by its simplicity. Individual details are reduced to vivid details."

That simplicity and steady refinement of gesture would continue to be trademarks of his printmaking over the years, as Matisse employed a variety of means, including monotypes (drawing on an inked plate, leaving white lines against a black background) and aquatints (a related process). A particularly compelling example of Matisse's aquatints is "Sleeping Man" from 1936, a masterpiece of atmosphere and design.

With a minimum of lines and nuances, Matisse's two portraits from the 1920s of famed pianist Alfred Cortot reveal almost as much of his highly individualistic, super-poetic style as his recordings do. The wide-eyed woman in "The White Fox" (1929) not only captures the physical essence of the model, Lisette, but conjures up a wealth of attitude; the addition of subtle details in the background intensifies the print's power.

The exhibit provides a useful look at the evolution of one of Matisse's two color prints (he also used color in illustrated books), "Marie-Jos? in a Yellow Dress," from 1950. First is the basic print, with only black lines molding the shape of the seated figure next to a table. Next, with red and yellow added. Finally, with two more shades, blue and green, filling out the picture. In the context of this show, it's the black and white print that seems just right.

Matisse's final prints are among the most engaging. They reveal what Fisher describes as "the most simple digesting of what he is drawing," when very thick black lines "vibrate in intensity against the white paper" and bring together everything that had informed the artist's approach to printmaking over his lifetime.

Various portraits of a model named Nadia distill features and characteristics in an extraordinarily compact fashion, without removing the humanity. "Three Heads. To Friendship" (1952) are even more boiled down, almost alien in appearance, but the playful angles communicate strongly to keep the image far from being merely decorative.

Like the other creative outlets he explored, Matisse's printmaking helped to animate 20th-century art in indelible ways. The BMA's new exhibit opens a welcome window into that lively pursuit.

If you go

"Matisse as Printmaker" will be exhibited through Jan. 3 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free admission. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

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