ARTS & CULTURE

Henri Matisse And James Joyce Collaboration Heads To Auction For Over $10,000

06/18/2015 09:12 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2015
LEON NEAL via Getty Images

What happens when two of the 20th century’s greatest artists team up to produce a gold-embossed, illustrated book? That book's value, just $15 in 1935, will bloom to a price of over $10,000 a mere 80 years later.

The item of interest is a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which goes on sale June 24 at Bonhams Auction House. First editions of the author’s 1922 modernist masterpiece have long fetched high prices. But this one has an added kick: illustrations by Henri Matisse.

Back in 1935, 1,500 copies signed by the French artist were printed and sold for a paltry $10. Joyce elected to add his signature to 250 -- which made those copies worth an extra $5. A variety of other Joyce materials are up for auction at Bonhams this June, such as first editions of Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as well as The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies illustrated by Joyce’s daughter, Lucia.

Amidst the flood of Joyce materials, what makes the Matisse-illustrated Ulysses so special?

ulysses

Courtesy of Bonhams

One answer is the conceptual link between the artists. Though one worked in words, the other primarily paint, both Matisse and Joyce challenged our assumptions that art should represent “objective” reality. Matisse strayed from conventional colors and forms in order to better capture the expressive, emotional sides of his subjects and scenes. Joyce dove into the complexities of the human consciousness, inventing language and literary devices better suited to rendering the interior mind. Both, in their ways, wanted to convey how people subjectively experience the world, a preoccupation that caused them to radically innovate -- and scandalize -- the art and literary worlds.

And how did their parallel projects come together? The collaboration was the brainchild of George Macey, an American publisher who pitched the idea and $5,000 to Matisse. Pairing two such geniuses may seem outlandish today -- Can you imagine Jeff Koons illustrating Zadie Smith’s next novel? -- but Matisse was known for his interest in artistic partnership. In fact, he first used the paper cut-outs technique for the set design of "Le Chant du rossignol," an opera by famed composer Igor Stravinsky.

The book up for auction next week, though, may not reflect Matisse's most collaborative spirit. It’s widely believed that he never actually read Joyce’s infamously difficult tome -- which isn’t hard to believe when you see the etchings. They depict scenes from The Odyssey, and while the Homeric epic structures Ulysses, Joyce’s book takes place in modern Dublin, not ancient Greece. Homer's one-eyed Cyclops became, in Joyce's novel, a narrow-minded Irish citizen at a bar, but Matisse stuck with the original mythology. In addition to those Cyclops drawings, Matisse added sketches for the Calypso, Aeolus, Nausicaa, Circe and Ithaca episodes. Whether his works are the result of insightful rumination on Homeric-Joycean parallels or just pure laziness is hard to tell.

ulysses matisse

Courtesy of Megan Rosenbloom/Flickr

At times, though, the two masters' arts come together with poignant grace. Matisse's stunning cover, “Nausicaa,” appears to be a timepiece, but look more closely and you’ll see interlocking female bodies encased inside a golden celestial orb. Joyce was fascinated with the relationship between femininity, time, and the planets. “What special affinities appeared to him to exist between the moon and woman?” asks the narrator in the penultimate chapter.

So maybe Matisse did tap into the writer's mind, or maybe their works had a natural affinity. They were, after all, exploring similar questions in different media.

We’ll let you be the judge. Here's the rest of the Ulysses excerpt answering the narrator's question on relations between woman and moon. Is there enough aesthetic resonance between his art and Matisse's to warrant that $10,000 price tag?

Her antiquity in preceding and surviving successive tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.

ulysses2

Courtesy of Bonhams

  • Henri Matisse Nudo Blu II (Nu bleu II), primavera 1952. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Parigi, acquistato nel 1984. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Pannello con maschera (Le Panneau au masque), 1947. Designmuseum Danmark. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Due ballerini (Deux danseurs), 1937-38. Progetto del sipario per il balletto Rouge et Noir. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Parigi, 1991. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Righ
  • Henri Matisse Il Clown (Le Clown), 1943. Bozzetto per la tavola I del libro illustrato Jazz Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Parigi, 1985. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (AR
  • Henri Matisse Codomas (Les Codomas), 1943. Bozzetto per la tavola XI del libro illustrato Jazz (1947). Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Parigi, 1985. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights
  • Henri Matisse. Composizione su fondo verde (Composition fond vert), 1947. Collezione Menil, Houston. Fotografia di Hickey-Robertson, Houston. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse, Parigi / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Zulma, inizio 1950. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Due maschere (Il pomodoro) (Deux Masques [La Tomate]), 1947. Famoglia Donald B. Marron, New York. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Foglia viola su fondo arancione (Feuille violet sur fond orange), 1947. Famiglia Donald B. Marron, New York. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse, Parigi / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Alga bianca su fondo arancione e rosso (Algue blanche sur fond orange et rouge), 1947. Famiglia Donald B. Marron, New York. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • La caduta di Icaro (La Chute d’Icare), 1943. Collezione privata © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Composizione, Nero e rosso (Composition, noir et rouge), 1947. Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. Dono della famiglia John McAndrew. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). The Swimming Pool (La Piscine), late summer 1952. Maquette for ceramic (realized 1999 and 2005). Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper. Overall 73 x 647” (185.4 x 1653.3 cm). Installed as nine panels in tw
  • Henri Matisse Finestra azzurro chiaro (Vitrail bleu pâle), novembre 1948– gennaio 1949. Secondo bozzetto per la finestra della Cappella del Rosario a Vence. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Pari
  • Henri Matisse. Il fascio (La Gerbe), 1953. Bozzetto per ceramica, 1953. Collection University of California, Los Angeles. Hammer Museum. Dono della famiglia Sidney F. Brody. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). Venus (Vénus), 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on white paper, mounted on paper panel. 39 7/8 x 30 1/8” (101.2 x 76.5 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1973.18.2. © 2015 Succe
  • Henri Matisse Grande decorazione con maschere (Grande Décoration aux Masques), 1953. Bozzetto preliminare per ceramica. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Fondo Ailsa Mellon Bruce, 1973.17.1. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS)
  • Henri Matisse Bozzetto per la copertina del libro Matisse His Art and His Public, 1951. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fondo Simon Guggenheim, 1968. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Notte di Natale (Nuit de Noël), 1952. Bozzetto per vetrata. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Dono di Time Inc. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Ricordo dell'Oceania (Souvenir d’Océanie), estate 1952– inizio 1953. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fondo Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1968. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Il parrocchetto e la sirena (La perruche et la sirène), 1952 Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Comprato con l'assitenza dei fondi Vereeniging Rembrandt e Principe Bernhard © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse La lumaca (L’Escargot), 1953. Tate. Ottenuto con l'assistenza degli Amici della Tate Gallery, 1962. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Henri Matisse Bozza per Pianeta rosso, fine 1950-52. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Ottenuto attraverso Lillie P. Bliss Bequest © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Matisse at Villa le Rêve, Vence, c. 1946-47. La Biennale di Venezia – Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee. Photo by Interfoto
  • Matisse in front of gouache-painted papers, Hôtel Régina, Nice. Photo: Lydia Delectorskaya. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse
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