Giacometti. Tate Modern. 16-07-17

Man Pointing 1947 Bronze 178 x 95 x 52 cm Tate, Purchased 1949 © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

“We succeed only to the extent that we fail.”

Giacometti was born in 1901 and during a hard working and disciplined life he became one of the great sculptors of the twentieth century. The major exhibition of his work at Tate Modern is the first for twenty years and we have waited far too long for it. It is a fine show. The sculptures that Giacometti has left us seem to live on for him, honouring his memory. Each one bears the marks his fingers made on their surface as he worked on them obsessionally, his presence still clings to the surface giving it life. He loved to mould clay or plaster with his hands, although his work was cast in bronze, and the austere, passionate personality of the man who worked in the same frugal studio for many years stares calmly out of everything that he made. They do not challenge us, they just are. They have dignity, grace, composure, movement and above all humanity. They are timeless.

Very Small Figurine c.1937- 1939 Plaster, traces of colour 4.5 x 3 x 3.8 cm Collection Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Pari s © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Even the tiniest most unassuming little figure lives, although barely formed. The “very small figurine” made in 1937/39 is a tiny miracle. It is barely there at all……. yet it lives. I stood alongside a teenage boy and we both marvelled at it. The man walking across a square, a bronze figure from 1949, has determination and purpose- he is crossing that square to get somewhere- it is as though we can read his mind. The bronze dog from 1957 has great personality. He is going along at a medium lope, on his own, sniffing for stuff but he has not found anything yet. He is comfortable. He knows where he is and where he is going. It is also a saluki, one of the worlds oldest dog breeds so it can stand in for all dogs, everywhere, alive and dead, who have spent their lives doing just that. The falling man, a bronze made in 1950, has been caught in mid tumble, just before he loses balance. A moment has been freeze framed. In the final room three giant figures face us as we walk in, two women and a man. It is humbling to meet them- and yes it does feel like a meeting- and see Giacometti working on a grand scale. A grand scale which has lost none of the humanity and humility which runs through all his work.

Diego Seated 1948 Oil paint on canvas 80.5 x 65 cm Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

The paintings which mostly come from his early years, are dark and shadowy, intensely worked and full of vibrating life. I didn’t like them so much as the sculpture although there is one of Jean Genet which appealed to me very much.

Pierre Matisse Giacometti working on Four Figurines on a Stand at the Tate Gallery, 1965 © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2017

Part way through the exhibition there is a wonderful film of Giacometti at work in his studio. He is concentrating hard, intensely tactile, fingers moulding the clay, passionate, dignified, strong and unchanging, but always humble. He used the same few subjects, a few people who were close to him, over and over again and he tells his interviewer that he could try to paint someone for a thousand years and he would end up saying “it’s still all wrong but I am getting a little nearer”. Rather than making a likeness of an individual he was paring life, and in particular humanity, down to its essence and that is a long job- not one for the faint hearted. Never have I seen work that so reflects the personality of the man who made it. I think I would have liked him very much.

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Henri Matisse. The Cut Outs. Tate Modern. 13-07-14

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Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4 Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013


Si je crois en dieu? Oui- quand je travaille. Je me sens tellement aide par quel qu’un qui me faire des choses qui me surpassent.

It is sometime in the early nineteen fifties. An elderly artist, no longer strong enough to paint on canvas after major surgery, is confined to his bed, or a wheelchair, and he sits in his studio cutting up pieces of coloured paper. They have been painted for him by an assistant and they are held up gently in front of him so that it is easy for him to guide his scissors, allowing him to take the lead. The walls around him are filled with the coloured forms and patterns that he has made. He does not have much time left, and he knows it, but do not feel sorry for him. He has been a great artist for many years, bold and controversial, never afraid to innovate, and while there is breath in his body he is not going to give up his creativity. This is not a poor old man whose strength has failed him being given art therapy. He has often used cut out paper shapes to allow him to design a composition before starting to paint and now he is, quite simply, inventing a new art form, producing work which shimmers and vibrates with movement and colour. Making art gives him a reason to live, as it always has, and for a while, during the act of creation, it allows an atheist to believe in God.

Matisse, Henri (1869-1954): Memory of Oceania (Sou

Henri Matisse, Memory of Oceania. 1952-3 Gouache and crayon on cut-and-pasted paper over canvas MoMA Digital image: © 2013. The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala Florence Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

I walked around Tate Modern’s wonderful exhibition of Henri Matisse’s paper cuts in awe of the man. All around me there was work which amounted to a shout of joy at being alive. The contrast between the frail figure in video footage, filmed in his studio, and the youthful, dynamic energy of the work on the gallery walls was very moving. The core of creativity which was at his heart, his human spirit, was undimmed. Many of the images from Jazz are concerned with movement and physical energy- the joy and exhilaration of being young. Trapeze artists fly through the air, plumed horses prance, a toboggan flips up and crashes, a knife thrower is caught in the moment that he aims his knife, a creole dancer sways in full motion. Everywhere there is colour, balance and tension. Sometimes there is simple elegance too, in the flight of bees and swallows or the act of sword swallowing.

Over and over again you can see Matisse positioning, pinning, altering, until he gets the composition exactly right. It’s as if he is still there. The pins, overlays and creases are visible in a way that they are not in reproduction, something which disappointed him when they were first copied.

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Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I) 1952 Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas 106.30 x 78.00 cm Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Here is one of his most famous cut outs, the first of the blue nude series made in 1952. It is elegant, sensual and perfectly balanced. I can’t imagine changing one iota of it without destroying it- it is exactly as it needs to be. The chance to see the whole series together in the same room was a real treat.

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Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks 1953 National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1973.17.1 Digital Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

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Henri Matisse, Icarus 1946 Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

His skill and ambition grew as time went on and his cut outs grew with him. As you walk through the rooms you can feel his excitement growing as he realised what he could do with his new art form. I loved the parakeet and the mermaid, two elegant tapering silhouettes in a riot of coloured trailing pattern, made on a grand scale. The largest cut outs really do take your breath away.

The final room is devoted to a stained glass commission for the Time-Life building in New York. It is stunning, a yellow star shining out of a dark blue sky above balancing patterns suggesting a fertile landscape. We are able to see both the original design and the stained glass finished version. They are surprisingly different in feel, although the design is unchanged. Stained glass is a natural medium for the cut outs but it does change them. Subtlety is lost, replaced with a joyful blaze of light.

I have waited a long time to see these cut outs given the celebration that they deserve. People weren’t always sure what to make of them at the time they were made, but Matisse knew how good they were and he also knew that eventually other people would realise it too. The crowds making their way through the exhibition each day are proving him right. They included a lot of children. One tiny, excited little girl was being allowed to lead her mother from one work to another, a small boy was sitting in his expensive travel system, eyes lowered, playing on his ipad, while a third small girl simply lay down flat on the floor in the middle of one of the rooms hiding her face. I think they call it gallery fatigue. I hope that it would have made Matisse laugh.

FILM Tacita Dean.The turbine hall. Tate Modern. 01-03-12

Tacita Dean’s installation in the turbine hall at Tate modern is quite hypnotic. It is a tribute to 35mm celluloid film on a grand scale, flickering away in its darkened space dominating everything around it and dwarfing the people watching. It encourages stillness and silence. The bright colours, familiar objects and strange moving shapes and images draw your eye. You never know what is going to happen next. A large orange looms out at you, an eye appears and watches calmly, a monochrome waterfall tumbles silently downwards accompanied by bright blue dots, flowers and trees bloom and fade. It is an abstract look at beauty and loss, tied into the death of analogue film and its gaze is without panic or pity, this is how the world is. It creates, destroys and moves on. It is certainly full of surreal imagery and quite serious in tone but I’m not sure that I really understand what it all means. I wonder if that matters? Probably not. You don’t have to understand exactly how Cyd Charisse moves to recognise beauty and grace or understand the comedy techniques which Buster Keaton uses before you are able to laugh.

It has been made specifically for the turbine hall at Tate Modern and won’t be shown anywhere else. The wall of the turbine hall showing through behind the image forms part of the images so it would be a different work if it was installed somewhere else anyway. It fits the space it was made for like a glove. No small achievement when that space is 115 feet high.

There is a dreamlike quality in the way that familiar objects appear on a scale that you don’t expect and process gravely downwards without seeming odd or disturbing. They just are. The saturated colours sing out in the darkness, pitted against monochrome backgrounds or used together to form moments of pure joy in colour. It’s not realistic, any more than old fashioned black and white photographs were after they had been hand coloured, and it doesn’t mean to be.This is film turned on its head, slipped into a portrait format, the familiar made into something strange and new.

It was very strange to see something which was both calm and monumental, there is no wow factor in watching it, you are drawn into contemplation rather than amazement in spite of its size. I watched it wondering how and why things are as they are. There are no answers of course, only a quiet dignified acceptance and a realisation that loss and change are an inevitable part of life.This work is a wonderful response to a very challenging space. I wish I could have stayed with it for longer.

Yayoi Kusama. Tate Modern. 01-03-12

Yayoi Kusama 1965 Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo © Yayoi Kusama, courtesy Yayoi Kusama studio inc. Photo: Eikoh Hosoe

Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most prominent living artist, was born in 1929 into a world which didn’t encourage self expression. Especially for women. Her wealthy and conservative family didn’t approve of her being an artist and although she insisted on following her dream and stuck with it the traditional Japanese way forward to becoming an artist was not one which she was suited to. She had a fragile and obsessive temperament which meant that she needed to go her own way and find her own path rather than have her skills honed as a disciple of an already accepted master. After finishing her training she took off to New York, found what she needed in the wildness of the contemporary arts scene there and became a prominent and influential part of it, finding great support and friendship. It was an enormously productive time, full of freedom and abandonment to her vision, although she began to overtax her strength and her health suffered. This ill health finally led her back to Japan in 1973 and in 1977 she checked herself into the Seiwa hospital for the mentally ill where she has lived ever since. Not that this has stopped her working. She has a studio near the hospital and works for long and intense hours there still creative and productive at the age of 82. She has said, “If it were not for Art I would have killed myself a long time ago”. Her work has been her joy and salvation. She has placed herself and her inner life at the centre of everything that she does, pouring herself into it and working out her obsessions within it, taking inspiration from her hallucinations. It’s an inspiring life story of someone who has been a successful working artist for sixty four years so far and made wonderful things in spite of obstacles which would have stopped most people dead in their tracks.

Yayoi Kusama Kusama posing in Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show 1963 Installation view, Gertrude Stein Gallery, New York © Yayoi Kusama and © Yayoi Kusama Studios Inc.

Amazingly the current major retrospective at Tate Modern is the first time her work has been exhibited on a major scale in Britain. I found out about her very late when I looked into one of her magical mirrored boxes at Tate Liverpool and found myself in a whole new world. I was completely enchanted. The Tate Modern exhibition is a clear and well chosen selection of the work that she has done, allowing you to follow the path of her career. There is a huge range of work and there were some sculptures that I didn’t really get, but there was plenty that I did love and respond to. Some of the early drawings, collages and watercolours are intensely beautiful and meticulously worked, with jewel like colours and they were probably what I liked best of the works on paper. She has used mundane everyday objects in collage making a virtue of their repetitive designs, colours and patterns and there is a large work made up of closely packed small identical air mail stickers which I found very satisfying to look at.

Yayoi Kusama Self-Obliteration No.2 1967 © Yayoi Kusama and © Yayoi Kusama Studios Inc.

There is an astonishing video made at a happening in New York in the sixties which should be required viewing for any young artist who imagines that they are being wild and controversial today. It is rough, grainy, erotic and totally out of control. The absolute antithesis of those early drawings which came out of the finely worked controlled Japanese artistic culture that she had been trained in.

There is a strange and unsettling space in which an ordinary living room has been covered in fluorescent stickers which seem to float in mid air while Kusama speaks from a television set. The fact that the spots seem to float in mid air rather than being attached to anything makes you wonder exactly what you are seeing.

Yayoi Kusama  Infinity Mirrored Room - Filled with the Brilliance of Life, 2011  © Yayoi Kusama  Photo credit: Lucy Dawkins/Tate Photography

Yayoi Kusama. Infinity mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life, 2011 © Yayoi Kusama Photo credit: Lucy Dawkins/Tate Photography.

Her most accessible and beautiful works are her mirrored infinity rooms. She has made a new one for the exhibition. You stand there completely transported into her world seeing reflections of yourself and the small coloured lights hanging around you in the darkness disappearing into the distance. I found it every bit as magical as that box which I looked into at Tate Liverpool, only now I was allowed inside. The chance to stand in that space alone would have made the visit worthwhile

A life well lived then, against all the odds, full of self expression and creativity. Proof if ever there was one that the saying “talent will out” is true. A woman to admire and respect.

Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape. Tate Modern. 20-07-11

I had never given the work of Joan Miro serious thought, although of course I knew it. It is easily recognisable, full of distinctive shapes and colours, with a charm and humour that attracts attention. Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape at Tate Modern provides a stunning overview of his development as an artist, a perfect way into his thought and output for someone in my position. It is clearly laid out with many major works, the first major retrospective of his work in Britain for nearly fifty years and it lets us see the mind of an artist at work as his vision develops.

Joan Miró The Farm, 1921-2 National Gallery of Art, Washington Gift of Mary Hemingway © Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011

Miro’s  early work is full of concentrated detail and more or less representational although he was already exploring links between reality and his imagination. His love of his country and in particular his Catalan heritage, shines through.

Quite soon he began to pare down what he included in his paintings, a process of refinement and reduction that continued all his life, A Catalan peasant is reduced to a simple arrangement of symbols, a red barretina, strands of beard, and a cross. Representing the Catalan heritage was an act of defiance at a time when Spain was being centralised by force. It is an image of a cultural identity which is under threat and half hidden. He responded to the violence of Spain’s civil war by painting furious and heartbreaking images of people in extremis, tortured abstract shapes with vivid colours on Masonite. Having seen the early images, especially a wonderfully benign portrait of a peasant who is reduced to bare essentials of a few lines and splodges but seems to smile out at you it is terrible to see the suffering which he depicts. There seems to me to be a deep kindness and humanity at the heart of Miro’s work and you can’t help but wish that he hadn’t had to see such suffering.

Joan Miró Still Life with Old Shoe 1937 Museum of Modern Art, New York © Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011

One of the most iconic works in the exhibition is Still life With Old Shoe, painted in 1937. It seems to burn with an inner light and shows the basic needs of life, food, drink and clothing, all of which seem to be under threat, as indeed they were, from a formless,nameless violence. It is the least still life that you could ever hope to see, vibrating with colour, beauty and righteous anger.

Joan Miró Morning Star, 1940 Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona Photo: Jaume Blassi © Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011

The Constellations, some of his most beautiful works, were made in exile in Normandy and Mallorca in 1940-1941. They have enormous presence, still, reflective and beautiful, each a complex web of colour shape and pattern. It feels as though he is beginning to conceptualise his anger and start to move beyond it to a place of peace and contemplation.  The ladder was always a key symbol for him and it now becomes a means of escape and a beacon of hope. There is a beautifully balanced sculpture of a ladder which reaches up from a rock in the exhibition and they appear throughout his work.

It was his later work which struck me most powerfully. By the 1970’s Miro had refined his vision down to simple exquisitely placed marks blobs and lines, elegant works which you can lose yourself  in.  They are deeply spiritual and satisfying to look at.  Hope for a Condemned Man sits in its own space, large, precise and confident, and it asks gently for quiet and contemplation. I have no idea why a few perfectly placed lines and blobs of primary colour can bring hope in the most difficult of traumas.  I can only tell you that they would, and they do.

Joan Miró Hope of a Condemned Man I-II-III 1973 Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona © Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011 Terms of Loan

There is also a wonderful fireworks tryptych signed on the same day as Hope of a Condemned Man.  Although it is almost entirely in black and white with just a few touches of primary colour  it manages to explode off the wall, giving the essence of fireworks in the darkness by using a kind of negative image in which the white light of the fireworks in the darkness becomes a series of dark curving shapes on a white background.

Joan Miró Burnt Canvas I, 1973 Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona Photo: Jaume Blassi © Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011

Finally there are the burnt canvases. Two of them hang proudly in mid air, bloodied but unbowed, a celebration of a quiet mans ability to endure, survive and love through his art. They were made at the same time as the contemplative work, inspired by student protests. There is some wonderful footage of Miro and his assistant at work on them in his studio, using fire indoors with no fear whatsoever and he caresses one of them afterwards with a look of deep joy and fulfillment on his face. He was eighty at the time.

I came to this exhibition excited and interested, ready to learn about someone who has always intrigued me from a distance. I left feeling humble in the face of someone who lived through terrible times during a long life, but never lost the ability to live, develop, love and create.

Gauguin. Maker of Myth. Tate Modern. 12-01-11

Gauguin Maker of myth at Tate Modern is a very big exhibition, a real crowd puller. It is the first major exhibition of Gauguin’s work in Britain for fifty years or so and there is some beautiful work on show, along with an interesting selection of background material and documents. I know Gauguin’s work, as just about everybody does, and I knew the basic story of his life but this was the first time that I had given him some serious thought and I’m not sure that I was completely convinced. There was a lot to like. He had a wonderful understanding of colour, a bold sense of design, and a real appreciation for female beauty, but I began to wonder whether the title Maker of Myths wasn’t a polite way of saying that he was a poseur who fed his ego by creating a story around himself which others would buy into. After all, only someone with a fair amount of arrogance would make a painting of Christ in Gethsemene into a self portrait. The exhibition does him more than justice, showing his development and setting him in context, although I did think that it could have been better lit.

Gauguin begun his career as an artist as a Sunday painter, pursuing his art alongside his day job as a stockbroker, until he was driven to paint full time and left his wife and family in pursuit of his dream and moved to Paris. For a long time he had little success and suffered periods of depression, even attempting suicide. He finally set out for Tahiti and the Marquesas, financially destitute, saying that he was looking for a purer simpler way of life and wanted to escape convention. The years that followed were those which led to the making of his most beautiful and iconic work.

When he arrived on Tahiti he set about creating a way of life that was certainly unconventional in the eyes of western society. He set up his Maison Du Jouir (which translates not as playhouse but as house of orgasms we are told in the audio guide) along with a series of beautiful young Tahitian girls and created a version of himself which he could sell, as well as enjoying the obvious fringe benefits which came with it. He also worked hard. He kept in touch with his wife while he was out there but that is all. He had found his paradise but it was not as exotic as he made it seem. The Christian missionaries had got there well before him, and the work that he sent back to France was selling a dream of an exotic mysterious Tahiti which no longer had much basis in reality. His religious imagery, for example, owed as much to the art in churches back in Brittany as it did to anything that he saw in Tahiti. Not that this matters, necessarily- part of his early life was spent in Peru and that had left his mark too- its what an artist does.

So was all the hard work, sacrifice and self belief justified? That’s not for me to say. The best of his work is full of life and colour and absolutely leaps off the canvas. There is also some which doesn’t. He certainly had great talent, but one of the very greatest? Perhaps not. All the same I was very glad to have the chance to see so much of his work and make up my mind. If I had been in the yellow house (which must have been a complete nightmare for both of them) I would have been firmly on Van Gogh’s side. His paintings in the Van Gogh: the man and his letters exhibition at the Royal Academy last year made me cry. These just made me wonder.