Monday 27 November 2017

Matisse in the studio

Matisse in the Studio, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Matisse once stated: 'The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures'. Matisse loved, and collected objects: furniture, textiles, sculptures, vases, jugs, African masks.  His engagement with African sculpture marks a turning point in modern art. The disregard for accurate physical form in African art had a significant impact on Matisse's own sculpture in the early years of his career. African masks also made a particularly strong impact on his portraiture - the abstract simplification and forceful geometric designs helped Matisse to go beyond straightforward resemblance towards portraits that, as he explained, 'suggest the deep gravity that persists in every human being'.

This exhibition presents works by the artist in the company of objects from his collection. I was particularly taken with his collection of African masks, but as photography is not allowed in the exhibition, I am unable to show some of those.

Embroidered Textile Maquette for Red Chasuble, 1912

Panel with Mask, 1947

Quite a few of Matisse's cut-outs are displayed, most of which were completed in the 14-year period after his near-fatal operation for stomach cancer. You can see more of these here and here

Discussing the cut-outs in 1951, Matisse said: 'I have attained a form filtered to its essential... and of the object which I used to present in the complexity of its space, I have preserved the sign, which suffices'.

Odalisque on Turkish Chair, 1928

Matisse's densely patterned interiors challenged the convention that the human figure should be the focus of the artwork. In this painting of a reclining female model, he gave equal weight to the objects, the surrounding decoration and the woman herself. Connections are made between the pattern of the blue and the white vase and the model's ornate clothing, and between the chessboard and the beads around her ankle. By diminishing the importance of the model (see, for example, her simplified facial features and vacant expression) Matisse defies centuries of Western art, in which the reclining nude was an object of desire.  It was the visual stimulus of Islamic culture that appealed to him: 'For me, the subject of a picture and its background have the same value... there is no principal feature, only the pattern is important'.

Margueritte with Black Velvet Ribbon, 1916

Portraiture for Matisse was about far more than representing features accurately. He sought to evoke enduring qualities beyond likeness: his subjects' true identities, their significance to him, and the experience of their sessions in the studio. From about 1906, Matisse's portraiture incorporated the lessons that he had learned from the sculpted heads and masks in his collection, although some items seem to have caught his eye because they echoed directions that he was already taking in his art.

Marguerite, 1906-07

Portrait of Olga Merson, 1911

Yellow Odalisque

Friday 24 November 2017

Dali Duchamp

Dali Duchamp

 at the Royal Academy, London.

An improbable idea - pitching together the founding father of conceptual art and inventor of the idea of the ready-made, with the silly, exhibitionist, narcissistic showman that was Dali.

I still wanted to see this exhibition, because I basically cannot overcome my fascination with Marcel Duchamp's work.  Salvador Dali's work leaves me cold, even though I find some of his early work mildly interesting.  Jonathan Jones' view of this exhibition in the Guardian is that 'for all the shock value of Dali's vulgarity, this is an exhibition about one man who told everyone he was a genius, Dali, and one man, Duchamp, who really was one... In the end, it is Duchamp's genius that triumphs'. Jones is absolutely right.

When it came to writing this post however, I found that much of what we saw at the Royal Academy I had seen and written about before. I still got a lot of pleasure out of the exhibition, as I still hope that one day I will be able to understand Duchamp's genius, but there did not seem much point in repeating myself. Consequently, this will be a short post just outlining some of the basic themes of the exhibition, and I will include links to other posts I have written about Duchamp's work.

The basic premise of the Royal Academy exhibition is that the two artists were united by a shared humour and scepticism that led them both to challenge conventional views of art and life. They both identified as fellow myth-makers. Dali frequently behaved as an outrageous provocateur in the artistic and the public sphere. He understood the power of celebrity and he anticipated the way artists of recent years have skilfully and brazenly courted publicity and the art market. By the mid-1920's Duchamp's colleagues were convinced that he had given up art altogether in favour of playing chess. In truth, the perpetuation of this myth gave him the space and freedom to try radical new approaches to what art might be.

Salvador Dali, Cubist Self-portrait, 1923

I quite like this one.

Dominating one of the rooms in the exhibition, a cabinet of three-dimensional objects made by both artists. Duchamp's Urinal, Dali's Lobster Telephone, Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, amongst many other.

Salvador Dali, Las Meninas (stereoscopic work), 1975-76.

In his quest for creating optical illusions, Dali experimented in the 1970s with stereoscopy, a 19th century method for producing the three-dimensional effect of binocular vision and often used in popular entertainment. Painted with great precision, the two almost identical pictures of Las Meninas would merge and spring into relief when seen through a special viewing device. It was a pity we did not have access to such a device in the exhibition.

The second room in the exhibition is dominated by Duchamp's  seminal The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.

I have had the pleasure of seeing quite a lot of Marcel Duchamp's work:
  • The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns, at the Barbican, one of the most cerebral exhibitions I have ever been to, and still one of my favourites. You can see a post about it here
  • Marcel Duchamp at the Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm. This is probably the most comprehensive collection of the artist's work in the world. You can see the post about it here
  • Fountain. You can read about this ready-made that is cited as the origin of conceptual art, here
  • The exhibition on Approaching Surrealism at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Andros featured some of Duchamp's works. You can see it here
  • Also, individual works here and here .

Tuesday 21 November 2017


Softer, by Jenny Holzer

at Blenheim Palace.

This exhibition is based on themes of modern conflict, history and memory. The work centres on the power of language and its effect on society, especially in public spaces. Through language and through the use of an array of materials and processes, Holzer speaks of power, war, death and hope, bringing to light topics that are usually silenced or ignored.

Since 1993 she has increasingly worked with text from outside sources. For this exhibition she partnered with The Not Forgotten Association, a British charity that serves the needs of wounded injured, disabled and sick service members and ex-service members of the British military by providing a community and putting fun, enthusiasm, energy and enjoyment back into their lives. The Association collected testimonies from over fifty veterans and serving personnel in the UK.

Further text draws from first hand testimonies of refugees and others affected by the conflict in Syria, collected and charities Save the Children and Human Rights Watch and from Polish poet Anna Swirszczynska who wrote about her experiences in Warsaw during WWII. In selecting excerpts from this large archive of first-person testimonials, Holzer addresses the ways in which an understanding of war and violence cannot be abstracted from its lived experience.

Black mondo grass:

Black mondo grass has been planted throughout the Palace.

The procession of black grass lining the pathway in the Palace's Great Court provides a signal that something may be amiss.

Stone works:

Holzer began to work with engraved stone in the 1980s, partly to complement the ephemeral formats with which she was working at the time (for example, posters or electronic signs temporarily displayed in public spaces).  For this exhibition, Holzer created a series of new stone benches and a sarcophagus inscribed with text excerpted from the English translation of Anna Swirszczynska's collection of poems Building the Barricade, describing her memories of survival during the Warsaw Uprising at the end of the summer of 1944.

Electronic Signs:

Holzer has employed electronic signs since 1982, when she displayed her text on an electronic signboard in Times Square in New York City. LEDs are typically used to circulate news, information or advertisements, and Holzer uses the medium's public appeal to present content that is at times challenging.

In the Great Hall, a kinetic four-sided LED sign, Statement, presents poems by Anna Swirszczynska as well as accounts by Syrian refugees collected by Save the Children, and stories recorded by Human Rights Watch from Syrians subjected to torture under Assad's regime.

In the Long Library, curved electronic signs are installed around the bust of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Multicoloured diodes illuminate text excerpted from testimonies collected by The Not Forgotten Association. These stories recount the rewards and trials of military service, as well as the challenges of readjusting to civilian life.

Bone installation:

In 1994, Holzer began incorporating human bones into her practice in the wake of the war in former Yugoslavia, where sexual violence against women and girls was a strategy and weapon. 

This first installation is within the cabinets in the China Ante room.

The second installation is on a table in the Saloon.


Since the early 2000s Holzer has researched US government documents released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and transformed these into oil and watercolour paintings. The content of the documents date back to Bush-era initiatives in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each painting is true to the vernacular of the original. The document is digitally enlarged and the content is meticulously traced to faithfully reproduce the text and also the traces of censorship and concealment which redact much of these documents' content. Holzer then adds colour to the documents, sometimes in lurid res and contrasting blues, overlaying a human touch on the digital format used to share, or conceal, information about the tactics of war.

 Instructions on torture

looking closer

In 2004, Al-Qaeda and allied groups were the focus of another FBI report, 'The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland: an FBI Assessment'. Thirteen pages of the forty-three page report were declassified in 2012, but even these few pages had been heavily redacted. Among the most striking is page 26, where only a single line of the report survived, with the subject heading 'Shifting to Softer Targets'.

This document provides information on medical guidelines for detainees, included in a fax sent to the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel by the CIA in 2005. The page is entirely redacted, with all information still withheld from the public.

This is an entirely redacted page from a memo that was sent from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to the CIA 'advising the CIA regarding interrogation methods it may use against Al-Qaeda members'. The document discusses 'alternative interrogation methods'.

This document is from a 1984 report titled 'Threat Assessment of Pro-Khomeini Shite Activities in the United States'. It presented the FBI's view of Shiite doctrines, terrorism in the Middle East, and groups in the United States suspected of espionage or support for terrorist activities. As originally released in 2008, the 19-page document was heavily redacted. It was obtained again in 2011 by the National Security Archive with many redacted passages restored, which described an Islamic Education Centre just outside Washington, DC.

Alternative interrogation techniques, e.g. torture.

Monday 20 November 2017


It was the Canadian goose that I was interested in when I took this photograph, but it's the reflections that gave me pleasure once I looked at the final image .

Sunday 19 November 2017

Blenheim Palace - autumn

Last week we decided to visit Blenheim Palace yet again, mainly because we wanted to see the Softer exhibition by Jenny Holster. Blenheim offer quite a good deal because if you buy a ticket for one visit you can convert it to a pass that gives you free access to the place for a year. We will therefore manage quite a few visit in the next 12 months as we love walking in the grounds.

Capability Browne's bridge looked as magnificent as ever

We walked through the Water Terrace to get to the grounds

down the steps to get to the lower level

where we got a good view of the palace.

This sculpture is by Georg Baselitz

The path we took leads to the rose garden and the cascades

autumn colours

we turned right and walked along this path

which leads to the cascades. Unfortunately they had drained the water from the dam. The cascades looked pretty sorry for themselves

whilst a pheasant decided to explore the area now that it was dry.

Beyond the dam all was like it always is

A view of the bridge once we climbed the short path that leads 

to this path that takes you back to the palace.

Wonderful autumn colours

This is one of the nicest walks in the grounds - this stretch of water is human made and runs through the estate, created by Capability Brown

zooming in we could see the palace and the boat house

the mist gave the area the feel of a fairy tale

large trees on the edge of the water

while the branches of some reach into the water

another boat

and another

We continued on our way

and eventually reached the boat house.

After lunch we decided to walk around the Secret Garden. The asters' autumn colours were at their best

Lots of small ponds in the Secret Garden

all interconnected by small brooks

This is by far my favourite place in these grounds

it's carefully tended

and very peaceful

Even though it was Sunday and the palace was full of visitors, we were the only people in the Secret Garden - bliss