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


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


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.

A Visionary Modernist: Helena Roy reviews Ibrahim El-Salahi’s retrospective at the Tate Modern…

Ibrahim El-Salahi laments that ‘for decades African artists have been working in a vacuum.’ Worse than being criticised, they have been ignored. Hopefully, though, things are changing. El-Salahi is the first African artist to get a retrospective at the Tate Modern. His work is a heady mix of paintings, illustrations, drawings and critical writing, drawing upon African, Arab and Western traditions. With his evocative, but identifiable, African surrealism, El-Salahi’s work makes for a fresh and challenging encounter.

Sudanese El-Salahi learnt Islamic calligraphy at a young age, which formed a major technique in later work. He studied at the Slade in London, where he discovered Western modernism. His style betrays a mix of academic training and traditional Sudanese practices; and the exhibit traces his artistic journey through Sudan, his international arts education, political imprisonment and consequent self-imposed exile.

Ibrahim El-Salahi at work today

El-Salahi deconstructed calligraphy to shape his work, mixing it with Islamic symbolism: ‘Animal forms, human forms and plant forms began to emerge from these once-abstract symbols.’ He wanted to bring out a recognisable element for an Arab and African audience – calligraphy can be found everywhere on the continent. Inspired by the technique, he applies it to different mediums – creating a perpetually free-flowing stroke. He doesnt differentiate between drawing and painting: ‘It’s all art, works of art.’

The context El-Salahi is placed in is immediately reflected in his work. With such a diverse background, the retrospective shows his style is a fusion of cultures. A recent trip to Alhambra in Granada, Spain, resulted in huge canvases of sinuous flamenco dancers captured in Moorish lines. His signature tones of burnt sienna, ochre, yellow ochres, whites and blacks, he attributes to ‘the colour of the earth in Sudan’.

Between 1957 and 1972, he travelled around Sudan, looking to reinvigorate himself with cultural inspiration. The result is a mélange of mammoth ink drawings and earthy shading. The colours of the Sudanese landscape are heightened to primaries in some areas. Funeral and the Crescent (1963), hints a crescent moon in the corner – an Islamic motif that recurs throughout El-Salahi’s work. The painting is a tribute to the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, whose assassination in 1961 was a pivotal event in the African struggle for decolonisation. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5) compromises huge contours – lending shape to the confusion of El-Salahi’s earlier works – and shades that mesh with greater calm. Suggestions of calligraphy and dripping paint echo earlier angst, but El-Salahi’s distorted faces are blended and hidden – masked and mask-like in their form.

Funeral and the Crescent (1963) – the crescent moon visible in the top left-hand corner
Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5)

El-Salahi’s paintings are organic. He extracts natural forms out of the man-made medium of calligraphy, to give his portraits a cell-like nature. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams II (1983) encompasses embryonic sinews to create the winding sense of scientific diagrams. This piece is more controlled and sparse than his first. Female Tree (1994) fuses the natural with the human through biology offering a vibrant but simple synthesis.

Female Tree (1994)

His earlier work shows a confusion of ideas. His pieces, in process and outcome, are puzzles – unsolvable to the viewer, or even the artist himself. El-Salahi reveals: ‘To tell you the truth, when I am working, I’m not at all aware of what it is going to look like.’ The final piece ‘shows me things possibly in my subconscious mind.’ His paintings have spontaneity about them, but also an inadvertent complexity. He creates gigantic ink drawings, alongside Freud-esque portraits. His work reveals a backdrop of inspiration from Pissarro, Cézanne and Seurat, to Islamic manuscripts and Renaissance paintings. An early work, Self Portrait of Suffering (1961), shows a tribal mask-like face pained and confused with a mass of infinite, dizzy spirals. The earthy tones of the distorted visage are etched physically with sgraffito, and emotionally with suffering.

Self Portrait of Suffering (1961)

In 1972, El-Salahi returned to Sudan to take up a job as Director General for Culture at the Ministry of Information, despite Sudan being under a military dictatorship. In 1975 he was accused of anti-government activities and held without trial at the infamous Cooper Prison for six months. El-Salahi consequently entered a self-imposed exile from the country, commenting: ‘terrible as it was, I learned a great deal.’ The experience replaced his murky, philosophical tones with bold, introspective black and white. His drawings embody his view that ‘in the end all images can be reduced to lines.’ This powerful shift resulted in The Inevitable (1984-5), which greets the visitor to the exhibition with an imposing and intense collection of lines: modernist and lithe, displaying an angular emotion.

The Inevitable (1984-5), placed at the entrance to the exhibition

El-Salahi’s diversity of experience has calmed to a more reflective spirituality in his most recent work. He now lives in Oxford, and has turned to British countryside for inspiration (resulting in the series The Tree). His work is clearer and more ordered. Lines are sparser, and less curvaceous – perpendicular replacing the swirls. The Day of Judgement (2008-9) uses the blank white of the paper as much as ink – contrasting stark white to black filigree. The bold two-tone forces you to focus on emotion and shape, as colour is not there to overwhelm them. Here, shapes reign supreme, conveying emotion in contorted faces and mismatched bodies, as much as Giotto does through colour and storybook vibrancy in The Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel. One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008), is the final piece in the exhibition. The triptych depicts an authoritarian ruler, commemorating the day he took the throne. But El-Salahi undermines his unjustified rule by portraying him naked before his subjects – human as much as they are. Elaborate constructions of shapes parody crowns, displaying false pomp and materialism, and airy, ethereal colours highlight the tenacious nature of his power.

Part of the series The Tree, one of El-Salahi’s more recent series
One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008)

El-Salahi is well aware of the lack of direction he experiences when starting a piece. But this need not make his work void of a message. He addresses the visitor thus: ‘What the work means to you is, for me, far more important.’ The pressure on this exhibition to engender interest in African Modernist art is high. To me, this exhibition was an organic offering of another culture – one of vitality, complexity and beauty – and I can rest assured that El-Salahi would be happy with my conclusion.

With thanks to The Guardian, The Independent, and Cornell University for photos.

‘Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist’ is on at the Tate Modern until 22 September 2013. Details can be found at

What Drives People To Deface Art? AHA alum Charlie Whelton discusses.


On Sunday afternoon, Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon joined the long and varied list of artworks that have been vandalised, when Vladimir Umanets wrote on the mural with black paint. The list of defaced works includes such seminal pieces as the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s Pieta and David. But what drives people to partake in the willing destruction of works of art?

There are often psychological reasons to blame for art vandalism; the man who attacked Michelangelo’s David claimed to have been acting under the orders of  ‘Veronese’s beautiful Nani’ – a model for the sixteenth century artist, while the Pieta vandal believed himself to be Jesus Christ. In 2007, a man put his foot through Ottavio Vannini’s The Triumph of David, having been unbearably disturbed by the sight of Goliath’s severed head.

Sometimes, a vandal will find a piece of work so objectionable that they are driven to deface it, to express their disgust and hinder it from being seen. This is what happened with Marcus Harvey’s controversial Myra, which depicted the serial killer Myra Hindley constructed out of children’s handprints. The gallery in which it hung had its windows broken and the work itself was vandalised twice with ink and eggs. Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women was likewise attacked in Washington’s National Gallery by a woman who claimed Gauguin was ‘evil’ and that the painting ‘should be burned’.

It may appear counterintuitive, but a large number of attacks on artworks are committed by artists themselves, supposedly in the name of engaging with, or even improving the piece. In 1996, Canadian artist Jubal Brown famously vomited primary colours on works by Raoul Dufy and Piet Mondrian to make a statement about ‘oppressively trite and painfully banal’ art, claiming that the former work was ‘just so boring it needed some colour’. Similarly, French artist Rindy Sim, upon leaving a lipstick kiss on Cy Twombly’s Phaedrus claimed it would make the work more beautiful, and Pierre Pinoncelli argued that his destruction of Duchamp’s Fountain with a hammer was performance art that the Dadaist would have approved of.

Umanets would place himself in to this group, having claimed afterwards to have ‘increased the value’ of the painting by using it as a platform for his ‘Yellowist’ art movement. However, it is a persistent argument that for all of the talk of artistic motives, the primary consideration of these vandals was to draw attention to themselves.

Though the vandal-artists above may reject the ‘attention-seeking’ tag, art is often openly targeted for attention, in the form of political protest. In 1974, Tony Shafrazi sprayed ‘KILL LIES ALL’ on Picasso’s Guernica as a protest against the release on bail of William Calley, who took part in the My Lai massacre; in 1987 Robert Cambridge shot a Leonardo da Vinci cartoon in the National Gallery to draw attention to ‘political, social and economic conditions in Britain’; and in 1989 a man slashed ten Dutch works in the Dordrechts Museum to protest against immigration in the Netherlands. Most famously, in 1914 Mary Richardson attacked Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver to protest the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, saying:

I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.


Though the above may seem like separate, varied reasons that people deface art, it can all be distilled down into one very important point: art is powerful. Artworks hold the power to shock and enrage people to the point of smashing them; they inspire people to the extent of physically ‘engaging’ with them, and enrapture people to the point that a protest that encompasses the works cannot be ignored. Each attack on a piece of work, as sad as it might be, is also a shining validation of the enduring power of the painting in our modern world.

As for my interpretation, I believe that the worst attack on Picasso’s Guernica did not come from Shafrazi’s spray can, but the blue curtain which covered it up while Colin Powell spoke to the UN in favour of war in Iraq. To hide a painting of such immense power just when the world needed to be reminded of it most, is to me the greatest act of vandalism.


‘A potential piece of yellowism’? More a pointless act of vandalism

Yesterday afternoon I received a phone call from a friend and fellow art lover exclaiming “we have just been evacuated from Tate Modern because someone has defaced a Rothko!”. It was a rather exciting yet upsetting piece of news yet the first thing that came to mind was “why Rothko?”, his paintings often criticised by those who don’t favour their abstraction, but rarely deemed politically or socially motivated to a point that they might provoke vandalism. It now transpires that there was no distinct reason, but that Vladimir Umanets, co-founder of a contemporary movement in Russia named ‘Yellowism’, believes he found “the perfect choice” after arriving in the gallery with intent to write on a painting but without a plan of which painting it would be.

Tim Wright who was in the gallery tweeted this image and wrote: "This guy calmly walked up, took out a marker pen and tagged it. Surreal"

The canvas in question, Black on Maroon, was painted in 1958 as part of Rothko’s Seagram murals,  which were intended for Manhattan’s Four Seasons Restaurant but were instead presented to the Tate by the artist in the late 1960s. On the same day that they were received by the gallery in 1970, the death of the artist was announced. The paintings in the series all use the same sombre palette of dark reds and black, and adopt the compositional feature of uniform rectangular patches. They are displayed together in Tate’s Rothko Room.

The Rothko Room, Tate Modern

Umanets, who has admitted to the act but denies he is a vandal, believes the writing, which says ‘a potential piece of Yellowism’, has “added value” to the piece but the public have been quick to demonstrate their disgust via social media, as one BBC journalist tweets “The defacing of the Rothko is not a work of art – Duchampian or otherwise – it is an act of vandalism.”. However one cynical comic commented, “Defacing Rothko painting more difficult than painting it”.

Some have already formed the opinion that ‘it could be worse’, especially when compared to a woman punching, wiping her bare bottom and attempting to urinate on a $40m Clifford Still in 2011, or the man who in 1972 took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta in belief that he was Christ himself.

Image showing Mary's damaged nose after a Laszlo Toth attacked Michelangelo's Pieta with a 12 pound hammer in 1972

This incident reminds me of something I once read about the artist Edvard Munch, whose life works incidentally are currently on display in the same building. He had expressed the wish for his paintings to live organic lives – to be taken wherever they must be taken and to display the effect of the journey on their physicality, rejecting any conservation and restoration. An art historian commented at a time of similar outrage, when the Scream was famously stolen from Oslo’s Munch Museet, that perhaps the artist would have been quite excited by the event! Yet however there is something much more upsetting, disturbing and offensive about scribbling over an artist’s completed work than the theft of a canvas in tact. Despite his best intentions, it appears to me that Mr Umanets might be just a little mad, and has only wasted his and the gallery’s time. Fortunately, Tate announced today that the work can be fully restored.