In 1935, George Macy, the founder of the Limited Editions Club, offered a commission to Henri Matisse to illustrate an exclusive edition of the novel, Ulysses by James Joyce. Ulysses was initially serialized between 1918 and 1920, and published as a novel in 1922. Some labeled it pornographic and it was banned in the United States until 1934.
Macy was correct in identifying Henri Matisse as an appropriate and prominent figure within European modernism, and he engaged Matisse and James Joyce to produce the Limited Editions Club Ulysses illustrated with six etchings and twenty drawings.
The outline of Joyce’s novel Ulysses is well known in literary circles and its “stream of consciousness” style is notoriously difficult to read. Macy sent Matisse a French translation of Joyce’s text. Despite Matisse’s admiration for the book’s ultra-modern style of writing and status in the literary world, commentators agree that Matisse might have not read Joyce’s Ulysses in entirety before he created the etchings for the book, because the artist turned in six beautiful etchings based on Homer’s Odyssey, and not Joyce’s own text to George Macy. In the history of illustrated books one can’t really speak of a true collaboration between Matisse and Joyce, because Matisse decided to go directly to one of Joyce’s sources of inspiration for the book; Homer’s Odyssey.
Matisse always emphasized the importance of instinct and intuition in the production of a work of art. He argued that an artist did not have complete control over color and form; instead colors, shapes, and lines would come to dictate to the sensitive artist how they might be employed in relation to one another. It appears that in Joyce’s Ulysses, Matisse used instinct and intuition instead of following the restrictive format of a requested commission.
While there is much talk of the greatness of Joyce’s Ulysses, the truth is that few literary adventurers conclude a careful reading of it. Matisse might also not have read Joyce’s Ulysses but some sources suggest that he was still familiar with the book. In any case, the etchings, which depict, for example, the Cyclops not as an anti-Semitic nationalist in a Dublin pub, but instead as a giant one-eyed monster, are clearly inspired by Homer’s tale instead of Joyce’s novel.
In a sense, Matisse had an advantage over other Joyce non-readers: he was a masterful draftsman. Relying directly on his own imaginative resources, his drawings are less literal illustrations to accompany Joyce’s words but rather a correlative, reinterpretation of Homer.
Joyce was thrilled that an artist of Matisse’s stature would illustrate his master work, but also worried that the artist might not actually read the book, and his fears were justified. However; to quote Joyce: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles in Ulysses that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” One wonders if Matisse’s interpretation of his novel coincided with Joyce’s plan of adding a visual conflict in addition to other linguistic nits that scholars still to this day wage wars about.
Macy still published Matisse’s work with his new edition of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1935. He even managed to get both parties to sign his books. Rather than detracting from the novel, Matisse’s works are perhaps a helpful reminder of the classical armature around which Joyce built his masterpiece, while also telling their own story.
The extravagance of the Ulysses edition goes beyond its precise and careful publication; it’s not merely a luxury object for collectors but a true piece of art, extended and taking the ancient Greek epic as its starting point. Striving in two ways, it is a journey—one through words, another through drawings— of a man’s return home.
Today, Ulysses edition is sought-after by art and literary collectors that saw two of the most significant influencers of the early 20th century collaborate in the most unconventional way. Martin Lawrence Galleries has just recently introduced as part of their collection for sale six hand-signed soft-ground etching of Matisse’s Ulysses.To find out more, visit one of our nine galleries for the opportunity to view these prints in person.