Friday, 18 August 2017

An insight into Matisse's inspirations

Spot the milk jug from Collioure
Honestly: who could paint a red beach, with pink-infused sea, and be taken seriously?

Such was pretty much my reaction as a teenage A level art student when confronted with Matisse, the art-changing ‘wild beast’.

I was such a dreadfully conservative and conventional creature, even as a teen, that I simply could not ‘get’ any modern art. Apart, that was, from Picasso – but that was only really in terms of a sense that any artist who was as good as he was conventionally at 16 needed to evolve or die creatively.

The Other Half and I found our way to Collioure entirely by accident – or rather, it was because of rugby league and not because of art. The art followed.

And as we returned, year on year, utterly beguiled by the place, I had an epiphany: I ‘got’ Matisse.

It was the same experience – a northern European seeing and experiencing the light of the south.

Give or take another couple of years, and I returned from Collioure with fingers simply itching to take up art again myself.

After almost three decades, I started trying to create art once again.

Flowers and vase
There’s not a huge amount of Matisse’s art in British galleries. The Courtauld in London has a couple – including Red Beach from the year of Fauvism, 1905. In real life, the beach is Port d’Avall in Collioure, and we’ve spent a fair few very happy hours on it.

The Tate Modern’s cut outs exhibition in 2014 was a thrice-visited treat.

Last year’s Gardens from Monet to the Matisse at the RA was, in terms of Matissian content (given his presence in the title) disappointing.

October 2016’s exhibition of Matisse drawings at Eames Fine Art Gallery was a gem.

So when a new exhibition promises lots of Matisee – and an insight into just how his artistic mind worked, then it is an opportunity to be leapt at.

Mattise in the Studio opened at the Royal Academy in London earlier this month.

It’s a compact exhibition by the standard of some of the city’s recent wearying blockbusters – and this is no bad thing.

Grand Mask
The central idea is simple. Matisse collected all sorts of items during his life, which he used in his works, from strips of fabric to African masks to Chinese calligraphy to pots and vases.

Here we see some of these items displayed alongside works that they helped inspire or which directly feature them.

Thus the first room begins with Vase of Flowers from 1924

Next to it is the sea green Andalusian glass vase that is central to the composition. And after that, Safrano Roses at the Window from a year later.

Not only do we get to link the object and the paintings, but these two works offer Matisse in a much more pastel mood than is often the case: in the former, the delicacy of a lace curtain is simply delightful, but for all its simplicity, the use of lines and textures in the composition is sophisticated.

In the next room we have the wonderful Yellow Odalisque from 1937 – and alongside it, the small, decorated table from North Africa and the large pewter jug that feature in the work.

Yellow Odalisque
In the work – another illustration of how Matisse could combine colours on a canvas that, you feel, really shouldn’t work together (and there are a number of artists in Collioure these days who try for the same sort of effect but cannot pull it off) – there seems to be a meeting of worlds.

The jug came from the same area of the country that the artist himself hailed from and its very greyness could be taken as symbolising the grey north meeting the vivid south.

It’s easy to forget, in Matisse’s ecstatic use of colour, that he also had a superb sense of line.

And in the third room, we have a series of brush and ink pieces from the 1950s that that illustrate this perfectly – and the influence of the African masks that Matisse had encountered and collected.

The simplicity of line is simply wonderful – it has such purity and elegance.

These are not simply copies of the masks: have served as an inspiration; a jumping-off point for the artist rather than a straightforward appropriation.

Take The Italian Woman from 1916 as an example. At once extremely conventionally and formally posed, yet she appears to be dissolving into a drab background. It could almost be that the conventionality, with her mask-like face, render her less substantial as an individual.

The Italian Woman
Later, we encounter fabrics and more objects from North Africa – and it was fascinating to come at last into the final room, with some of the cut outs.

These included exhibits that had been seen at Tate Modern back in 2014 – not least the designs for the priests chasuble for the Chapel at Vence. Here, against the background of the decorative influences, you see them in a new light and with a new understanding.

It is a room that also includes a panel of Chinese calligraphy, hung as it was in Matisse’s own home in Nice, alongside some of his own work.

If this exhibition doesn’t have quite the uplifting impact of the cut outs, it has a depth that will set visitors thinking, whether they themselves make art or not.

The idea to group objects of inspiration and the works produced together was itself inspired, but even if you don’t really ‘get’ that, then the chance to see some superb works by such a major figure is not to be missed.

And of course, Collioure is here too – it is believed that the milk jug featured on the painting in the poster (and in other works) was from the village.

The objects themselves have plenty of interest – but it is in their role as ‘actors’ in these artworks makes them so much more.

I’ll be back before it closes.

Matisse in the Studio is at the Royal Academy until 12 November.

Find out more at the Royal Academy.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Valerian's visuals light up the screen

Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities may not be quite up there with Luc Besson’s camp sci-fi classic, The Fifth Element, but it’s an enjoyable romp for the holiday season.

In part crowdfunded – helping make it both the most expensive European and independent film in cinematic history – it’s based on the iconic French sci-fi comic series, Valérian and Laureline, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières.

Valerian and Laureline are 28th-century special agents who have been sent to retrieve the last of a species of animal, known as a converter, from black market dealers.

But Valerian realises that the cute little creature – and an unknown race of aliens who are desperate to get their hands on it – have featured in an apocalyptic dream he had.

Back at a vast space station where millions of beings from across the universe live and work together, Valerian and Laureline are plunged into further danger when the converter is stolen and Commander Filitt tells them that part of this ‘planet of a thousand cities’ has become infected by an unknown force that is spreading.

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne as the leads are perhaps not entirely convincing in terms of holding the film together – certainly at the beginning – but they grow into the roles and also have welcome help from Clive Owen as Filitt, Rihanna as Bubble, a shapeshifting alien chanteuse, and Sam Spruell as General Okto Bar.

Herbie Hancock, Ethan Hawke and perhaps particularly, Rutger Hauer, don’t really have enough screen time to make a great impact.

The plot is entertaining enough, with a nice ethical heart, but where the film unquestioningly wins is in its sumptuous, superb visuals.

There are all sorts of little references, as you’d expect from Besson: I’m not sure I’d be alone in seeing a subtle thread between the K-Tron robot warriors here, the battle droid army in George Lucas’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), the Mondoshawans in The Fifth Element (1997) and Jacob Epstein’s Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill (1913-14).

Nor does it seem too farfetched to feel that in his central alien race, Besson has looked at what James Cameron did in Avatar – and then done it better.

And in the Doghan Daguis – a trio of devious, platypus-like characters – he seems to be saying that he can do irritating characters without going too far, as Lucas did with the legendarily awful Jar Jar Binks.


All in all, eminently watchable – and probably worth seeing more than once if only to play spot the reference and to enjoy the look of it all.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

A haunting sense of the ancient and the apocalyptic

With the clock ticking, Friday evening proved the perfect time to catch the Giacometti at Tate Modern.

Much shorter than some of the gallery’s recent blockbusters, this includes sculpture and painting from the Swiss artist most famous for his elongated, highly textured figures.

The opening room is perhaps the most effective though, populated with a series of heads and busts on plinths that provide a perfect illustration of the breadth of Giacometti’s stylistic experimentation.

There are some wonderful, very naturalistic pieces here, including two of his brother, Diego, who was one of his most regular models. 

The second room takes us away from the naturalistic and into the realms of the abstract: Cubism and African art are obvious influences; the artist was almost an engineer at various points, creating constructions with moveable elements, while some of his ‘woman and man’ works do feel a tad obvious in the use of convex and concave.

The next room introduces us to the sorts of small works that Giacometti produced in order to make a living – and his links with Surrealism – and then we move into the realms of the familiar with his elongated human forms.

One reviewer raved about this exhibition as illustrating that Giacometti was every bit as great as “Degas, Picasso and Matisse”.

That is hyperbolic nonsense. First, why on Earth would you tag Degas to the other two? And then why would you tag Giacometti to them – the two superstars of 20th century Western art?

Make no mistake: it is a very, very good exhibition that illustrates how good Giacometti was. But while there is variety here, there is nothing like the variety of style and experimentation within a lifetime of work that marks out both Picasso and Matisse.

What the exhibition gives you, by the end, is something rather haunting: the half-painted plaster works seem to echo the ancient Classical past; there is something about the texture of his stick figures that, for me, evoked a sense of apocalypse; even of Pompeii’s charred dead.

Briefly, as one walks around, there is music. It comes from a film of Giacometti working and talking to interviewer between drags on a cigarette. The music complimented the works perfectly and this is an occasion where it would have been beneficial to have more.

The artist’s stick figures are iconic – including his dog, from 1951 (pictured above). And by the time you exit the final room, you have a sense of the power that they possess: at once primitive and yet strangely futuristic. The paintings are certainly interesting, but they are in an incredibly muted palette and seem more like preparatory works than finished ones.

Giacometti deserves his place in the upper reaches of the artistic pantheon and this is very much an exhibition that is worth seeing: but don’t let anyone kid you – he is not the equal of Picasso or Matisse.


• Giacometti is on until 10 September. Find out more at Tate Modern.