Ming: 50 years that changed China at the British Museum. A review by AHA alum Will Martin

Ming is a word familiar to most of us, and tends to be synonymous with any fragile, rare Eastern pottery. We all know the trope of the Priceless Ming Vase; someone on a (usually pretty mediocre) TV show happens upon a Ming vase, and is at pains to ensure that no harm comes to it. What happens next is inevitable – one particularly clumsy character will knock it off its absurdly precarious perch, smashing the vase into a million pieces, before spending the rest of the episode frantically trying to repair it!

Longquan shrine (Yongle era, 1406). Stoneware, celadon glaze and gilding. Zhejiang province

In reality however, the Ming dynasty, also known as the Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling house of China for around 300 years between the late 14th century and the middle of the 17th century. The influence of the Ming dynasty on the politics, art, governance and history of Asia is huge, but it is perhaps not always appreciated.
Now though, light is being shed on the dynasty through a new exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400 to 1450 – the period in which the dynasty cemented China as a superpower in an increasingly globalised world – and brings together artefacts from various museums in China, as well as the British Museum’s collection, and pieces from other museums in the UK.

The effect of this collaboration between the various museums is a stunning array of pieces, spanning the obligatory Ming porcelain, gold, jewels, textiles, paintings and much more. A large amount of the antiquities displayed have never been seen outside of China until now, and as such, this is a rare chance to view some truly stunning Eastern artwork.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration of lotus flowers (1426-1435). Made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi (province), China, Ming dynasty Xuande (reign)

The exhibition starts with a brief video, providing a timeline of the five rulers of the dynasty during the 50-year span covered. Initially focusing on the Yongle emperor and his decision to move the court of the dynasty from the city of Nanjing to Beijing, the exhibition moves on to look at all parts of Ming society, examining military, religion, hunting, every day courtly life, trade, and everything in between.
There is surprisingly little porcelain given its indelible association with the word Ming, although the standout piece is a huge, polychrome cloisonné jar, covered with dragons and various other regalia. Also amongst the collection are a vastly opulent sword, whose handle takes the form of a gilded dragon, a beautiful golden Buddha, a Daoist shrine crafted from a single piece of jade, and numerous pieces of red lacquered furniture.

Cloissoné enamel jar and cover with dragons, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

Furthermore, adorning the final wall of the exhibition is, strangely enough, a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the northern Italian Renaissance artist. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, but is notable for featuring a small Ming porcelain bowl, illustrating the pervading influence of the dynasty throughout the world at the time.
These are some of the very best pieces, but truth be told, almost everything in the place is a highlight – such was the quality of the artefacts on show, it took me nearly three hours to leave what is essentially a single room of pieces!
I went into this exhibition with virtually no knowledge of anything to do with the Ming dynasty, but came out feeling far better acquainted with what is a truly fascinating part of history and of art. Tickets are not cheap, but for such a brilliant exhibition, they are worth every penny.

Tickets for Ming: 50 years that changed China, are available to book online, and cost £16.50 (£13 for concessions). The exhibition is free to British Museum members. The exhibitions continues until 5 January 2015.

Copyright for all images belongs to the Trustees of the British Museum

For more information; visit www.britishmuseum.org

AHA Alum Helena Roy reviews the V&A’s ‘Horst: Photographer of Style’

If fashion is most often a triumph of style over substance, the V&A shows Horst P. Horst’s photography to be the very substance of style, and the redemption of the materialistic.

In 1930, aged 24, Horst moved to Paris. Attractive, urbane and in search of experimental aesthetic, Horst was absorbed into a bohemian clique that included many renowned people who would shape his career. Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a photographer for Vogue Paris, became his lover and mentor; Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a lifelong friend and champion.

Gloria Vanderbilt, photographed in 1941 by Horst. American Vogue captioned: 'She is dark and beautiful, seventeen years old'.
Gloria Vanderbilt, photographed in 1941 by Horst. American Vogue captioned: 'She is dark and beautiful, seventeen years old'.

Horst began his career as the era of photography began to eclipse graphic illustration in magazines. Fashion week in the 1930s was absent of the model hysteria it has today. Modelling was in its infancy as a profession, and to avoid inconveniencing haute couture clients, models were shot in the studios at night. The black and white nocturnal photographs are sensual and atmospheric, with lighting that is intense without harshness.

The exhibition is large and laid out according to theme. Photographs move from elegant chiaroscuro to the surrealism of the Dali years. Whimsical elements increasingly infused Horst’s 1930s work, making the commercial mystical: tasked with cataloguing nail varnish, he creates impossible patterns with layered hands; mirrors in dark, cluttered attics reflect blue skies and bright clouds.

Salvador Dalí-designed costumes for Léonide Massine's ballet Bacchanale, 1939

The centrepiece of Horst’s legacy and the V&A’s exhibit is the ‘Mainbocher Corset’ (1939). Madame Bernon wears a Mainbocher corset, assuming the role of Venus with perfect statuesque proportion. The last photograph Horst shot in Paris before the war, it epitomises the end of a charmed era. Melancholy and seductive, it was retouched to make the corset cling to Madame Bernon’s body; but the original has a loose provocativeness that is more striking.

Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher (unedited), 1939

The 1940s present a mess of fractured wartime motifs and icons of the silver screen. Horst trained with the army in Fort Belvoir, accepted US citizenship and worked as a photographer for army magazines. Photographs of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth hang opposite landscapes of ruined Persepolis (then recently uncovered) and the newly established state of Israel.

Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1942
View of ruins at the palace of Persepolis, Persia, 1949

Straying from the fashion he was known for, the V&A presents close up ‘Patterns from Nature’, repeated and panned out to replicate gothic architecture. Along with Horst’s collection of nudes, the sheer skill in artistic composition underlines the integrity of his fashion photography, in an era that was steeped in commercialism.

'Patterns from Nature' Photographic Collage, about 1945

The V&A’s exhibit imparts a loose sense of the man behind the camera. Handsome and elusive, there are a few childhood pictures of Horst, scattered objects and the rare glimpse of him on a fashion shoot. But personality leaps forth with endearing anecdotes. Horst once visited Chanel in her studios to shoot some jewellery she had designed. He sat, chatting to her, playing with a bit of putty they were using to model the jewellery. A few weeks later she gifted him a cigarette lighter. She had moulded it on the putty he had left behind so it fit perfectly into his fist; he carried it throughout the war.

Horst directing lights and cameras on a fashion shoot with model Lisa Fonssagrives, New York, 1949

The penultimate room in the exhibition pops with 1950s colour. As fashion crossed the Atlantic to settle in New York instead of Paris, technicolour entered the mass media. Ninety-four Vogue magazine covers, and 25 giant photographs are blown up with jewel tones. Some are overlaid with murals, making haughty models the centre of easels.

'Summer fashions' for American Vogue, May 15, 1941

Horst’s fashion has a spontaneous feel. It has no desperation or need for immediate admiration, but is confident and considered. There is an inexhaustible thirst for the ground-breaking, but not necessarily the brand new, original, garish or shocking. With no vindictive internet audience to please, art was able to permeate his work as the world moved at a stunning, sloping pace.

Model Carmen Dell’Orefice on shooting with Horst, opening the exhibition and staying young: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29017638

‘Horst: Photographer of Style’ will run at the V&A until 4th January 2015. For more information visit http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-horst-photographer-of-style/

 

With thanks to Conde Nast Horst Estate for photographs.

The Diagnostic scans of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, by AHA tutor Freddie Mason.

It is often said that the life of Maurizio Seracini is like something out of the Da Vinci Code. He studied bioengineering at Harvard in the 70s before returning to his home, Florence, to develop technology to investigate Florentine renaissance paintings diagnostically and non-destructively. Since then, he has adapted medical and military technology to scan paintings and disclose secrets locked within the layers of paint.

In the 90s he used this technology to scan the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio to find a lost Leonardo fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, believed to be under the Vasari frescoes that are visible today. More recently, he turned his attention to an investigation of da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. What his work uncovered in this latter piece is simply spell binding.

 

 

Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, 1481

I recently helped to write a chapter in a book to be published about what was discovered. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what Seracini’s work means for Leonardo da Vinci scholarship and the future of art history.

Leonardo’s enigmatic Adoration is unfinished and in a somewhat unsatisfactory state. The yellowing varnish that covers the entire piece mutes the vibrancy of the forms a great deal. Art historians have long suspected that a hand other than Leonardo’s applied the paint to the work at a later date. The dark brown smears in the foreground certainly seem much cruder than the delicate forms of the congregation.

But despite its unsatisfactory condition, it is clearly a bold work, exhibiting the young Leonardo’s precocious talent. With the painting, Leonardo broke decisively from the moods of pageantry and celebration that Gentile da Fabriano chose for his famous Adoration half a century earlier and instead gave the event a highly unusual sense of troubled urgency. Figures approach the Madonna in a state of unrest, desperately trying to catch her attention or a glimpse of the miraculous occasion. Gone are the dreamy, utopian landscapes of, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, and instead we have a work that finds a kind of disquiet in the worship of the young Christ. It is a painting, I think, which associates the coming of Christ from the trauma of his crucifixion.

With Seracini’s scans we are able to see Leonardo’s original intentions for the piece. They provide us with unseen Leonardo drawings and a fascinating insight into his compositional process. We are literally able to ‘step into’ the painting.

 

 

Underdrawing for Leonardo’s Adoration.

Notice how the leg of the Virgin is bathed in an ethereal light in the under-drawings. This detail is completely lost in what is visible today. The scans restore a former luminosity to the seated Madonna and a sacred atmosphere to the event. This luminosity perhaps explains why one of the figures to her left appears to be shading his eyes.

Notice how Leonardo thought it necessary to design a much more complete architectural setting in his preparatory sketches. This is a truly remarkable insight into Leonardo’s compositional process: he seems to have felt the need to build the temple first before subjecting it to imaginary ruination. In the discovery of these hidden sketches we can see Leonardo working as a master of naturalistic gesture and anatomy, but also as an architect.

Notice how Leonardo included figures rebuilding the temple in his preparatory sketches. The ruined temple is a common theme in adoration scenes. It is meant to represent the decay of paganism at the birth of Christ. But, its rebuilding displays a desire to preserve, reawaken and revere the forms and ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. It seems Leonardo intended a more complex symbolic duality to the image of the ruined temple. The condemnation of paganism combined with the respect for classical antiquity is after all a contradiction at the heart of all renaissance religious painting.

These are just some of the amazing details you discover when observing Seracini’s scans. I think it is safe to say that his work has changed art history for ever.

Crucially, the scans are not just an important moment for scholarship, but also a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience.

 

 

Marina Abramovic at the Serpentine: 512 hours of being by AHA alum Frankie Dytor

How may art be made out of nothing?

How may space become something?

Three, almost empty rooms, turned into an extraordinary piece of performance work.

Abramovic: pioneer of performance art

As the slogans surrounding the exterior of the space pronounce, the exhibition is a “landmark”. It proposes something totally new. The audience themselves have to become a living piece of art. Their reaction is essential in transforming the rooms from an area simply populated by art lovers to one that may considered of artistic value and credibility.

 

It is difficult to describe exactly how ‘512 hours’ works.  But that it does work, as an entirely viable innovation, I was entirely convinced. The notion of energy and ‘being’ lie at the core of what Abramovic seems to be aiming for. The audience are invited to focus entirely in on themselves; it is not an experience where you ‘lose yourself’ but rather become keenly aware of the workings of your own existence. Chest heaves up and down. It must do this eternally for us to live. In our day to day lives this goes unnoticed. But here, in this space of total self-absorption – every participant is given sound blocking headphones – it is all that you are aware of.

 

Yet there is also a kind of strange bond between everyone in the rooms. Everyone moves at the same pace, even though you are never specifically directed to do so. The best comparison to this sensation is the automatic stillness and hush upon entering a church. Abramovic has turned the gallery into a type of holy space. She moves throughout the rooms as supreme creator; the sense of artist as God was potent, even though she had in material terms brought nothing. Opening my eyes and seeing her next to me was like receiving an electric shock. Although it sounds rather incredulous now, my heart beat at twice its normal rate. For a few seconds it was difficult to breathe, and my vision was horribly clouded by tears.

Present in the exhibition, the artist herself will guide you

There are moments when you fall out of the trance. Suddenly it all seems ridiculous and rather posed, a gathering of posturers who all take themselves terribly seriously. And then, with the effort of mindfulness you may fall back in. It was an all enveloping white room, charged with such intensity that by the end I couldn’t stand it any longer. I left feeling utterly drained and curiously empty, even though in the actual rooms I had perceived the experience to be an uplifting one.

 

‘512 hours’ should certainly not be missed. It really is a show like none other, and the thrill of actually being able to see the artist herself (and maybe even be touched by her) is certainly worth the small queue to get in. One word of advice – go alone, or with someone that you entirely trust and love. It is a deeply powerful experience, and one to be shared only with the very best.

The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery continues 10 am – 6 pm until Monday 25 August.

Artistic Walking Tours: AHA alum Helena Roy’s picks from the Tate Britain’s ‘BP Walk Through British Art’

The BP ‘Walk Through British Art’ is a Lonely-Planet-style walking tour through the pinnacles of Britain’s creativity from the 16th century until today. A chronological re-hang of the Tate’s collection, it offers icons of every Art History textbook, as well as lesser known masterpieces.

If you have no idea about art, and are clueless about what you like, this exhibition is the best introduction. It is still worth a visit if you know everything. Every person will pick and choose a different highlight in each room, but here is a wandering trail of personal favourites…

This walkthrough begins with Hans Eworth’s ‘Portrait of an unknown lady’ (c. 1565-68). The tiny painting of the anonymous lady comes to life in the miniature beading and gold fabric, and feels living and conversational. A century or so later, Peter Monamy’s ‘Ships in Distress in a Storm’ (c. 1720-30) jumps from the rigid to the über-dynamic. The capsulated moment is frozen, turning waves into rocks and mountains, and implies fate in the sinking wood. Death in art turned from a fashionable skull in the corner of an opulent dress, to a violent, realistic and confrontational scene.

'Portrait of an Unknown Lady' (c.1565-8) by Hans Eworth
Peter Monamy’s ‘Ships in Distress in a Storm’ (c. 1720-30)

William Hogarth’s ‘Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants’ (c. 1750-55) injects humanism into the pomp and circumstance that pervaded Britain in the eighteenth century. Amongst aristocratic painted peacocks, six very real faces are stuffed together – helpfully mimicking the inequality in living conditions of the period – but, magnified and luminous, they are infinitely more emotive. Joseph Wright of Derby, in ‘An Iron Forge’ (1772), captured the working class a few decades later. The indiscernible light source, shading and fiery warmth are pure artistic genius and draw you in. The presence of young women and children make it a metallic and raw nativity scene on the eve of the Industrial Revolution’s birth.

William Hogarth’s ‘Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants’ (c. 1750-55)
Joseph Wright of Derby's ‘An Iron Forge’ (1772)

While industry rose its heavy head in Britain, abroad colonialism thrived and coloured Britain’s grey paintings. ‘Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match’ by Johann Zoffany (c. 1784-86) shows the unruly event – tumbling and vibrant colours of India spotted with the white and red pretension of British officers. Barbaric and unruly, the sporting event exemplifies looser moral codes of British colonial life. At home in 1830, John Frederick Herring painted ‘Birmingham with Patrick Conolly Up, and his Owner, John Beardsworth’. Stark and rigid figures on a grey seaside landscape, they provide a surreal and tight-laced contrast to colonial exploits.

'Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match' (c.1784-6) by Johann Zoffany
'Birmingham with Patrick Conolly Up, and his Owner, John Beardsworth' by John Frederick Herring (1830)

The late nineteenth century favoured the epic. John Martin’s series ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, ‘The Last Judgement’ and ‘The Plains of Heaven’ (1851-3) stuns with orthodox opposition of heaven and hell (painted in conjunction). They are completely and utterly breathtaking in their maddened imagination of the apocalypse. Lord Leighton’s ‘An Athlete Wrestling with a Python’ is fleshy and forceful, achingly classical with a hands pressing sensuously into the python’s flesh.

'The Great Day of His Wrath' by John Martin (1851-3)
'An Athlete Wrestling with a Python' by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1877)

John Singer Sargent’s ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ (1885-86) is a twilight look back at the haze of childhood. A peaceful flurry of lilacs, pinks and mossy greens with pure lilies, harkens back to the eighteenth century’s fascination with natural elements. By the early twentieth century, culture was shattering and war clouded over Britain. Mark Gertler’s ‘Merry-Go-Round’ (1916) sarcastically paints soldiers as young men marched off to war with false hope and childhood dreams. The fairground ride endlessly rotates with military rigidity, carrying those killed by an unrealistically bright view of the world.

'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' by John Singer Sargent (1885-6)
'Merry-Go-Round' by Mark Gertler (1916)

Without designated themes or movements, the range of art is diverse and conversational. Unlike exhibits of one artist, theme or period, the ‘BP Walk Through’ lets the viewer sense their own artistic taste buds and connect the dots through the centuries. A comfortable circuit, it is simple but perfect in its choice of pieces. More relaxed than an exhibition, the ordered randomness catches you off-guard, and lets you look at art without any accompanying brochure telling you why you’re seeing this exhibition, and what to think.

The BP ‘Walk Through British Art’ is open daily at the Tate Britain until January 2023. Admission is free.

 

Lift Off! A review of Gustav Metzger’s current exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, by Frankie Dytor

“So, it’s, um, auto-destructivist art. A creative form of political protest through destruction and disintegration”.

Such were my words in an attempt to convince my family to come to the new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, ‘Lift Off!’, featuring the work by the activist and artist Gustav Metzger. This rather paltry attempt to enthuse was fairly unsuccessful, and it was a sullen group that shuffled into the extension of Jim Ede’s bequeathed house. I needn’t have worried, however. Twenty minutes later we were all lying on the floor in awed silence, transfixed by a particular piece entitled ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’.

Liquid Crystal Environment

In it, this all absorbing and all encompassing rapture, slides containing heat sensitive liquid crystals are rotated, creating movement that is projected onto the walls. As they are heated and cooled the crystals also change colour, creating a protozoic psychedelia. The wish emblazoned on the wall in the previous room suddenly became manifest; that Metzger wanted art that would “levitate”, art that would “gyrate”. Faced with these endlessly moving shapes, his wish was transparent. Removed from the acts of human and consciously physical creation, a new type of artistic distance is created. But did this distance permit greater comprehension?

 

In ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’ politics, an element so strong in Metzger’s writings,    did not seem to me to be a primary concern. Or certainly it inspired no political anxiety within me. Rather a state of abstract being. It was like lying back and looking at the stars, whilst the immediate present remained irrelevant. The forms were histological, although it was not they that changed but rather their colour and luminosity. Eventually, their flickering grew stronger, more urgent. Saturation increased with violent luminosity until it was almost painful to look at them. But, as if in a trance, everyone in the room stayed. The light became blinding, and reality became the vision you get when you shut your eyes after too much brightness. And then, popping in and in with less confidence and determination each time, the forms slowly faded to black.

 

This spectacle required no artistic foreknowledge or understanding. Simply every human’s deep attraction to light. And there was a certain beauty in that, one quite different to many of Metzger’s other works, such as ‘Dancing Tubes’. Without the choice sentences from his fifth manifesto (a nice curatorial choice) the work would have been totally baffling. Every ten minutes, two tubes… well, dance. All very interesting, but what of it? The words of Metzger must be turned to, in particular his notions regarding random activity. Art, he says, is the “drawing of belief”, whilst random activity “escalates an extension of accepted (unproductive) concepts of art, nature and society”. The presentation of activity with the minimal amount of interruption by the artist is “belief at its maximum’. So random activity allows the work to take on a new state, to reach a particular “transcendence…which the artist could not achieve except through random activity”. A perfectly logical explanation to the seeming chaos of the work.

Metzger’s work is exciting and inspiring. His works combined with his words force you to think about the implications of technology, the effect of machines and the social responsibility of the artist. What is interesting is that he uses this problematic technology in his art, and in so doing creates things which are profoundly beautiful. It’s a pity that the exhibition is so small, but it leaves you with that delicious feeling of wanting more.

Gustav Metzger: Lift Off continues at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge until 31 August 2014.

Kaleidoscope Landscapes and Playful Goats: John Craxton, by AHA alum Anna Fothergill

John Craxton. The name many have little significance to the British public, but his recent exhibition at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge (which closed at the end of last month) served to change the fact.  And with just cause. The British-born, Mediterranean-bred artist, produced some of the most vibrant and beautiful work I have encountered in a while. Despite the small scale of the exhibition, it demonstrated the evolution and diversity of Craxton’s work, from delicate line drawings, to geometric landscapes.

Pastoral for P.W, 1948, Oil on canvas

Inspiration from artists like William Blake, Picasso and Samuel Palmer is clear throughout his oeuvre. His friendship and teaching from Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud also found its way into the young man’s work. He was also appreciated as a good companion as well as an artist and the variety of his art testifies to his colourful character.

Lucian Freud, 1946, Conte pencil
Portrait of Sonia, 1948-57, Oil on Canvas

 

It was Craxton’s first visit to Greece in 1946 that  inspired him with light, food, landscape and nature. His work shed the slight gloom of his youth and took on the romanticism of the Mediterranean, where he spent the majority of his adult life. He demonstrated a unique ability to capture the easy pace of these sunny regions and the unique characters he encountered there. Many of his larger scale works are of pastoral scenes and the use of block colours, effective layering and intentional compositions work in harmony to  give an impression of an exotic culture – one that any traveller to Greece or Sicily will be familiar with. There is no doubt that his landscapes are seeking to create arcadia with their serene shepherds, chromatic light and whimsical goats.

Landscape with derelict Windmill, 1958, Oil on board

Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85. Tempera on Canvas

However, the most interesting aspect of Craxton’s work did not occur to me until after I had stood enjoying Landscape with the Elements, a monumental kaleidoscopic work. Craxton was producing works such as these in the aftermath of the Second World War, wanting to project a joyful, energetic picture of life – life in Europe that was continuing despite the years of loss they had suffered. To this end, he painted images of thriving landscapes, flourishing feasts and animated locals. Because he chose to remain in Greece for the remainder of his life, his work was not celebrated by the British art world for many years. Thankfully, it is now possible to view Craxton in the context of history and see him as a joyous contrast to the horrors occurring during his lifetime.

 

Landscape with the Elements, 1973, Oil on board

His paintings have a personal sensitivity to them and also capture the fullness of a life lived. He will amaze you with his talent, complexity, simplicity and emotional narrative. And his goats really are humorous too.

Study for Four Figures in a Mountain Landscape, 1950,

Matisse: The Cut-Outs. A review and other thoughts by AHA tutor Richard Stemp

Starting, unconventionally, in Pittsburgh, Richard Stemp looks forward – and back – to Matisse’s Paper Cut-Outs on display at Tate Modern, and then looks forward again to living happily ever after.

I have been to Pittsburgh four or five times, more often, in fact, than I’ve been to Boston or Washington DC, and most Americans would ask, horrified, ‘Why?!’ It still hasn’t recovered from the reputation it gained in the early 20th Century as the soot-blackened, smog-ridden steel capital of the States. But when I first went, way back in 1986 (ah, how time flies), it had just been voted America’s Most Liveable City. Andy Warhol was from Pittsburgh, as was Henry Clay Frick, a coke and steel industrialist whose vast wealth (from all that pollution) allowed him to put together one of the greatest individual art collections, the Frick, which found its home in New York and is one of the highlights of any visit to that remarkable city. Andrew Carnegie, another Steel Magnate and philanthropist from Pittsburgh, is perhaps not as well known, but you can still find Carnegie Libraries across Britain. It is intriguing to think that in the early 20th Century an American thought that the British needed to read, but he was British – a Scottish émigré, in fact, from Dunfermline. He gave his name to Pittsburgh’s wonderful Carnegie Museum of Art, well worth a visit, and home to probably my favourite work by Matisse, a paper cut-out called The Thousand and One Nights.

 

The Thousand and One Nights (1950) Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

I know this image remarkably well. Having seen it several times in the late 1980s, it was still in my mind when I moved in the late 90s.  The new flat was in the basement, and had a long, narrow room underneath the ground floor entrance, ideal as a study. At the far end was a window, perfect for a coffee table and an armchair, so I could sit and read, work and relax at the same time (Matisse once said that art should be like a comfortable armchair). I thought The Thousand and One Nights would look perfect there, and planned to write to Pittsburgh to see if they did a poster. But before I got round to writing, I was forced to go to IKEA. That’s what love does – it makes you go to IKEA. It makes you go to Pittsburgh. True love means you don’t have to do these things if you don’t want to, and, a couple of exes later, I haven’t been to either for a long time now. But this was Kismet – a perfect concept, in this context – as IKEA actually did do a poster, and it fit perfectly on the wall by the window at the end of the study for four years. And, when I moved ten years ago (exes being what they are), it found a place above my bed.

 

I don’t always sleep very well (though better, I’m sure, than Matisse, who suffered terribly from insomnia), but The Thousand and One Nights is the perfect companion for a sleepless night, a great tale well told. Scheherazade knows that the King, angry at the infidelity of his first wife, has killed many subsequent wives after just one night of marriage. Nevertheless, she accepts his proposal, and to save her own life she tells him a story, keeping his attention throughout the night, and leaving off half way through as dawn breaks. She lives to see the day – and to tell the rest of the tale the following night. Only she never finishes. Well, not for a thousand nights, by which time he has fallen in love with her, and from the thousand and first night, we presume, they live happily ever after. Matisse tells his tale in separate sections, using five main ‘blocks’, which he developed separately and then joined together, chapters in a story. The first, a smoking lamp, as night falls, is followed by a stylised, blue female form: Scheherazade herself, perhaps, in obeisance before the King. Flashes of stars, and leaf-like forms take us through the night, which draws to a close with another, smokeless lamp. Day has dawned. And finally, a rich, round, red oval – the rising sun? The warm heart of the story? Or something more sensually direct? And then the image opens up, a red leaf crosses from the hard edge of the last ‘block’ and brings the white background into play, an open-ended, happy ending. Red and pink hearts trail along the bottom, and along the top, black hearts, which alternate with green, trail off into words: “…she saw the dawn appearing, and discreetly fell silent”.

The Dance (1932-33) The Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.

I’ve always loved the cut-outs, and when I heard that Tate would hold a major retrospective this year I was very happy. Even more so when I heard that the Carnegie – who don’t always display The Thousand and One Nights, paper being so fragile – are lending it to this exhibition. It was remarkable to see it, like meeting an old friend, with whom you’ve been asleep for ten years, for the first time in twenty-five. It’s far larger than I remembered, and the colours far more subtle. Its physical presence, as a made object – not a machine tooled, flat plane of colour – is also essential for its understanding. The flatness of the printed versions of his cut-outs was something that disappointed Matisse himself, even though he developed them, in part, to avoid other disappointments of printing – the subtle shifts in colour, for example, between the preparatory maquette, or model, and the finished edition.

 

Two Dancers (1937-8) Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Initially, paper cut-outs were just a tool for him. He would use them while developing other works, a form of sketching, or drawing with colour. As such it was vital for the development of his mural, The Dance, of 1932-3, for another great American entrepreneur, Albert C. Barnes: the more-or-less vertical bars of pink, blue and black relate to cut-out elements in the preparatory stages. His interest in dance led to a commission to design the ballet, Rouge et Noir, for choreographer Léonide Massine. The stage curtain design is still held together with pins, the same colour as the paper, showing how the individual elements could be moved and adjusted to find the right combination of line and colour. But it was with Jazz – undoubtedly one of the most important artist’s books of the 20th Century – that he began to realise the full possibilities of the cut-out.

 

The Heart (1943), maquette for plate VII of Jazz (1947) Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Jazz is exhibited in its entirety in the Tate exhibition, and is one of the highlights. Indeed, it is exhibited twice, as the final, printed version is displayed alongside the original maquettes. Frustrated, as I have said, by the changes in colour from design to print, Matisse decided to cut into colour itself, using paper painted in exactly the same pigments as the printer’s ink. The original idea was to illustrate poems, but instead Matisse wrote notes about his ideas, his working practice and about the inspiration for the images. The text functions formally, a black and white breathing space between the brilliant intensity of the images. Already, with The Heart, we have the seed for the later tale of Scheherazade, with the same combination of black and green, pink and red, in adjacent blocks, and with the tell tale heart. This is by far one of the simplest of twenty vibrant images. It is wonderful to see them all together, and instructive, too: given the accuracy of the colour, Matisse was now disappointed by the flatness of the final image, and, of course, he was right. Side by side they are still glorious, but somehow lifeless, and later cut-outs were arranged together, loosely pinned to the wall so that cut leaves would wave in the breeze, as three-dimensional works. Different combinations of colours were tested against one another, much as Albers would focus on the square, or Riley on the line. Indeed, the undulating leaf forms so beloved of Matisse allow the maximum interaction between two different colours, in the same way that Riley uses long lines, straight or curving, to maximise the contact between the elements of her chosen palette.

The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Matisse used the technique to design book covers and posters, ceramic wall panels and stained glass, and even the decoration of an entire chapel (including the priest’s vestments) for the Dominican Nuns of Vence, in the South of France, one of whom had nursed him through a serious illness. But before long he realised that the paper cut-outs could be an end in themselves, they could live free of the restrictions of the canvas, and take up entire rooms. The Parakeet and the Mermaid, for example, was developed on the walls of his studio, and originally wrapped around a corner of the room, while the Oceania works developed, in part, as a way of covering marks on the dull and shabby walls of a room in Paris. As you go round this wonderful exhibition the works get steadily larger, his ideas become freer and you gradually find yourself encompassed by colour. If you do go – and you should – it will be the most positive, glorious and life-affirming thing you see this year – this decade, for that matter, or this millennium – and it will leave you happy, if not forever, at least for now.

 

Pick of the week: a mini guide to London’s artistic eateries – by Helena Roy

Food and art have a long and illustrious history (think Caravaggio’s ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, or Van Gogh’s ‘Apples’ or ‘Crabs’) – and ever more cafés, restaurants and bars are adding to that tradition in London. A recent post detailed the artistic work of Taylor St Baristas – not a gallery, but a coffee shop.

Van Gogh's 'Apples' (c. 1885)

Though I have yet to find an Italian example (I’m at a loss as to why given a) my obsession with pasta and b) the Italian love of art – any suggestions would be greatly appreciated), one discovery led to another, and thus here are a couple more artistic eateries in London…

Koshari Street

Koshari is a delicious and speedy traditional Egyptian street food: a hearty combination of lentils, rice and pasta topped with a spicy tomato sauce and garnished with caramelised onion, boiled chickpeas, dried herbs and nuts. Koshari Street is a new restaurant (read: cramped but cosy alley that bursts onto the street) serving the dish from St Martin’s Lane, just off Trafalgar Square.

Inside you’ll find the stark black and white street art from Egyptian artist Samir M. Zoghby. A self-taught artist, Zoghby works with a modest felt pen and acrylics. Born in Egypt, he completed his education in the USA and served with the US Government. Zoghby says, ‘my work conveys no message but simply looks at the world through the changing prism of earthy humour.’ His signature is all clear lines, blank monochrome and traditional forms; a nadf style mostly influences by his Arab and Czech roots, and experiences in Africa and America. He has designed stamps for UNICEF and the World Food Program.

Koshari Street and the work of Samir M Zoghby

Dishoom

A slice of Bombay in London, Dishoom is a tribute to the old Bombay cafés – or Irani cafés – a tradition which Dishoom believes has been ‘lost in the frantic rush of progress’. A myriad of hot spiced, salty and sweet tastes, Dishoom offers Indian cuisine with a twist. Dishes are moderate in size but big in zest: packed to the brim with a heady mix of flavours. Their Shoreditch branch is a charming, idiosyncratic blend of warmth and bare decoration.

Dishoom in Shoreditch

Dishoom’s art is of the DIY variety: nostalgically reminiscent of the paint-your-own pottery cafés of childhood. Their plate-wallah is a project whereby customers can note their memories of Irani cafés down online, and the best ones (crazy and unusual anecdotes encouraged) are displayed at Dishoom. The more personal the stories, the better. Umbrella-shaped text on a creamy plate tells stories of discovery on rainy days, while jagged strips of words convey incomprehension after the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008.

Dishoom's Plates

Galleries

Of course, there are some gorgeous locations for a drink and a nibble in galleries across London. On a Friday evening in the summer, the Royal Academy’s sunlit courtyard is packed with people sipping Pimm’s amongst posters and sculptures. The Tate Modern bar offers a minimalist interior, with spectacular skyline views across the Thames to St Paul’s; as does the National Portrait Gallery’s restaurant over Trafalgar Square.

Food and art are two of the best ways to get to know the soul of a culture. What makes these eateries so unique is not necessarily the food or drink – though it is fantastic. It’s the sense of a different, original atmosphere which brings comfort and escape. The art infinitely contributes to that in telling the cuisine and café’s story. It brings warmth and fullness to the material comfort of sharing a meal.

With thanks to Koshari Street and Dishoom for photos.

As we approach Easter, Richard Stemp enjoys a minor Passion

One of the great joys of teaching for Art History Abroad is the possibility to see some of the great masterpieces of world art on a regular basis. Given this ‘regularity’, students – both young and old – regularly ask which is my favourite city, and even which is my favourite artist. Finally, I can give you a definitive answer: I really don’t know. But in a balloon debate between the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo and others), the Brancacci Chapel (Massacio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi) and the Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto) I would definitely save the last. Not that you could get a whole chapel into a balloon. It has an astonishing cycle of paintings, entirely by Giotto, with the early, apocryphal life of Mary at the top, the Nativity and Mission of Jesus in the centre, and on the lowest level, closer to us because it is the most important, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. It is an astonishing sequence of images, superb storytelling, and scans perfectly across the walls. Throughout there are links between adjacent images, from side to side and, perhaps more remarkable, from top to bottom. And there are resonances crossing the chapel, making the whole space ring with beauty and meaning. You need to be there to appreciate it fully, it takes time to see each image, let alone the whole, and it has been a real privilege to share this wonder with many of our gap-year students, and to learn from their fresh insights and vital enthusiasm.

 

Giotto The Scrovegni Chapel Padua (c. 1305)

The Passion Cycle, leading towards the altar on the ‘north’ (left) wall, is particularly moving. Of course the subject is one of the great staples of Roman Catholic art, and can be just as beautiful and moving even when not as well known or, for that matter, as well preserved. Approaching Easter, I was reminded of a small, incomplete cycle I saw in Switzerland when on a failed ‘pilgrimage’ to see a curious relic of St John, not far from the German lakeside city of Constance (see my earlier post, from 17 February). Located in the village of Landschlacht (population a mere 850, apparently), it was painted in the first quarter of the 14th Century. Stepping off the train, it is not immediately apparent that this tiny place could house a church, let alone a fresco cycle. The 11th – 12th Century chapel of St Leonhard is unprepossessing: without the little steeple it could easily be mistaken for a barn. Like many churches, the frescoes were whitewashed either during the Reformation (which, around Constance, didn’t last very long), or later – the 17th Century probably – for reasons of taste, which we now find hard to comprehend, or changing fashion, which often had an impact on pre-existing art. Whatever the reason, it explains why the surfaces are worn, and why not all of the cycle survives.

St Leonhard’s Chapel, Landschlacht, Switzerland (11th-12th Century)

This very fragility of the material itself is one of the things that makes the paintings so moving, something which is all but impossible to reproduce photographically, the delicacy of the painted surface somehow contributing to the delicacy of Chirst’s damaged body. The first complete image is the Flagellation, conceived more pragmatically than later examples. Caravaggio’s painting, for example, glorious as it is, is designed to display a beautiful, physical form, but, despite its emotional depth, it is one of the few paintings in which he fails to communicate the physical reality of the act: Christ’s back is next to the column, how could they whip him? Here Christ’s arms are tied around the support, he all but hugs it, his back exposed to the lashes.  The extreme tilt of the neck allows us to see his face whilst also communicating an overbearing agony, which continues through the extreme, but elegant, sagging of the hips, bend of the knees and splaying of the feet.  By contrast, in the Crowning with Thorns, Jesus sits upright, regal, fully in control, blessing us, the onlookers, while the torturers use a metal bar to press the unmanageable thorns onto his head. Their calm concentration on the imposition of pain contrasts with his serene forbearance, and emphasizes how calculated their cruelty is.

Unknown Constance Master The Flagellation and Crowning with Thorns

The Virgin Mary assists on the Way to Calvary, her hands covered by her cloak just as a priest would hold the consecrated host: the cross is seen as a holy relic, even before it has performed its sacred function. She takes the same position – at the right hand of Christ – in three successive images. In the Crucifixion her heart is pierced with a sword – an illustration of the prophecy of the priest Simeon in St Luke’s Gospel: ‘Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’. In the Deposition she takes her son’s right arm in the same way she supported the right arm of the cross, hands covered, wary of defiling the body (Christ and the Cross are one). John the Evangelist, looking even more than usually effeminate, stands across from Mary in the Crucifixion at Christ’s left, as is traditional, and in the Deposition supports his left arm. The two images are further united by the continuation of the cross as a bold horizontal from one painting to the next, and despite the lowering of the body the knees remain equally bent – Christ buckles up in front of our eyes.

 

Unknown Constance Master The Way to Calvary and Crucifixion

Other characters appear and disappear. In both scenes one of the other Maries stands just behind the Virgin, to the left. In the Crucifixion we see the Centurion, whose realization that, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God,’ would originally have been written on the scroll that curls behind John’s head.  He is replaced in the Deposition by the figure of Mary Magdalene, who takes the foreground and kneels at the feet of Christ, and by Nicodemus, who gently, affectionately lowers the body, the yellow of his sleeve cutting a swathe across the lifeless torso.
Sadly, this is where the cycle breaks up – of the next scene we can just make out the edge of the tomb, and appearing above a bubble of paint loss, the top of one of the witnesses to the Entombment. We know the story, but it would be wonderful to see how this unknown, uncelebrated artist depicted the ending. And I suppose that is just one of the reasons I would save Giotto over Masaccio or Michelangelo: his story telling in the Scrovegni Chapel is so brilliant, so carefully timed, so beautifully and movingly depicted, and so complete. However, if you can make your way to Landschlacht you will not be disappointed. And unlike Padua, you won’t have to book in advance, pay, or wait. It’s just there, in an unassuming chapel in a small, country village, near a beautiful lake. And you’ll probably have it all to yourself.

Unknown Constance Master The Crucifixion and Deposition