Matisse Cut-Outs

Posted by PH on September 20, 2014
Visual Culture / No Comments

The weekend before last—how time flies—we went up to London to catch the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition at the Tate Modern. This being the last weekend of the show the Tate scheduled an all-nighter. We duly turned up at about 9:30pm and the place was absolutely heaving (although it did quieten down at about 10:30 and was actually quite civilized by about 11:30 when we left).

Anyway. Thank goodness we went. Despite being a huge admirer of Matisse’s paintings—noted in several earlier posts on this blog—I had been somewhat sceptical and had never really been enthused by his later work. But, as usual, seeing the actual works rather than reproductions made the world of difference. Firstly, the sheer scale of some of the works completely transformed their effect and their affective power:



Secondly, the intensity and inter-relationship of the colours was simply astonishing. The cut-out method gives every colour block a clean and definitive edge, emphasizing contrast. The vermilion in The Dragon (below) was was almost unbelievably rich and deep. And placed next to that blue? Not obvious, but very effective:


The Lagoon series. Note how certain shapes are the negative of others i.e. they were all worked on together:




Which brings us nicely onto number three: repetition and rhythm. There is a lot of both in this series of works and in this respect it remains very modern. However, unlike most contemporary imagery of this sort—which relies on the computer’s ability to copy-and-paste ad infinitum—there is no exact repetition in Matisse: each motif in a given series is slightly different from every other because they are all hand-made. This organic element gives his work a humanity and interest simply not possible with mechanical reproduction: in fact, humanity is exactly what the repetition of identical elements destroys. There is an important lesson to be learnt here for those churning out modern computer-based music:


Finally, when you see these works in reproduction they lose their depth and texture. When you see the originals it is incredible how rough they are: you can see where the cut-out elements have been sliced, ripped, and torn; you can see the pinholes where they were temororily tacked up before fixing; you can see the scribbles and outlines of the pencil marks on the paper; and you can see where the colour blocks have been modified by layering. This is a detail from Blue Nude IV:


Similarly, there are often different versions of these works in various media. Note the simplicity and flatness of the lithograph of Woman with Amphora and Pomegranates with the complexity, texture, and apparent depth in the relatively huge original:



Summing up then, I think it is both exposure to the simplified lithograths and the flattening effect of reproductions in general that, in the past, have put me off these works. However, seen in the flesh, the signs of intelligent and skilled human activity are all too clear. They are a magnificent achievement.


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From Russia

Posted by PH on April 05, 2008
Painting, Visual Culture / No Comments

This week I managed to get up to see the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London. In particular, I was keen to see the collections of French art assembled by Shchukin and Morozov, reappearing for the first time in the West since they were bought in the early years of the 20th century.

To be honest, I found the exhibition bit of a disappointment generally. A lot of the Russian stuff I found very poor and/or highly derivative. However, it was worth the price of admission alone for the relatively small number of paintings by Cezanne, Derain, Matisse, and Picasso. There were also some fine works by Kandinsky and Malevich on display. My highlights:

Paul Cezanne, Bridge Over the Marne at Creteil (1894?)

Pablo Picasso, Farm Woman (bust) (1908)

Henri Matisse, Nude (Black & Gold) (1908)

I had never seen this Matisse before, and it completely blew me away: the boldness of execution, the use of colour. It’s so rough, so far removed from ‘reality’, and yet manages to be a totally convincing representation of the woman. Sculptural!

Henri Matisse, Harmony In Red (1908)

One of my favourite Matisse’s. I would have paid the £11 just to come and see this, and it didn’t disappoint. The image above gives no real indication of the impact it has in real life: it’s huge—over 2 metres wide—and the depth and richness of that red really is something. Interestingly, this painting was originally called Harmony In Blue, but just before it was due to be delivered to Shchukin Matisse repainted it. Although you can’t see it on the image above (which has been cropped slightly), Matisse left a thin strip of the original blue around the edge. This creates the illusion that this huge expanse of red is somehow floating on the canvas: a brilliant touch.

Wassily Kandinsky, Winter (1909)

Kazimir Malevich, Red Square (1915)

Kazimir Malevich, Black Circle (c.1923)

Finally, there was a large model of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. The model wasn’t all that fantastic, but there was a film looping in the same room that showed what St. Petersburg would have looked like had it been built. In other words, they taken archive footage and inserted a CGI model of the building into the landscape, and ‘aged’ the model so that it blended in with the grainy black & white film stock. Incredibly convincing.

Although this isn’t that film, here’s a similar short from YouTube that at least gives an impression of what I’m talking about:

So, despite my reservations about much of the work on show, I’m really glad I made the effort to go. It really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to directly experience some great works of art. Sweet…

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