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February in Paris – Part 3: Sonia Delaunay at MAM

Anyone having a quick peruse of my own personal artwork will know that I am a huge lover of colour. As far as I am concerned, what point is there in having colour available if it is only to be muddied and diminished with blacks and browns? No doubt sharing my opinion were some of the boldest expressionist and modernist painters of the 20th century, whose bold use of colour was at first seen as terribly scandalous but which eventually came to characterise an entire generation of art, when the boundaries of accepted aesthetic values were pushed to new extremes.

Chief amongst them were a tremendous twosome – what today may be termed a “power couple” – two of the greatest proponents of modernist expressionism and of the power and glory of pure colour: Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Together, these two artists, who married in 1910 and in 1912 proclaimed the birth of Simultanism, refocused the attention of the art world on the dynamic power of colour, using the strength and unique characteristics of colours as an end in themselves rather than a means of expressing something else. The paintings and other artworks which resulted are progressively abstract explosions of structured colour which, by virtue of their use of a full panoply of rainbow hues, are full of expressive happiness and boundless energy.

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Of course as is often the case with a power couple, there is often one of the two who history overlooks, and few could argue that it was Sonia who remained in the shadow of her husband for many years during and following their successful careers, a fact which is not ignored by the Museum of Modern Art in Paris (MAM) who were therefore determined to stage a bigger and even more significant Sonia Delaunay retrospective when they opened their Sonia expo a few months ago.

The result is an exhibition which is every bit as full of the Delaunay dynamism and energy as the paintings themselves. It is a show which demonstrates that although it was Robert Delaunay who conceptualised abstraction as a universal language, it was Sonia who experimented with it in all sorts of media, including posters, clothes and objects, and much of the MAM show comprises Sonia’s dapple in fashion, for which she designed countless zany fabrics and original outfits, as well as her determination to include abstraction and colour within the household, and as a backdrop to theatre, parties and other everyday recreational activities.

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For me, the main success of the MAM show is its collection of Sonia’s paintings which, when seen as a group, vibrate full of the energy and exhilaration which results from bringing together so many electric colours in one room. I particularly love how her consistent use of coloured circles is occasionally adapted to more figurative imagery, such as her abstract image of flamenco dancers, where the use of circles adds to the feel of fast sweeping dance movement. I was also interested to see how the genesis of her work was so much more figurative than it was abstract, but that even from the very beginning, her use of colour remained strong, so that even the simplest of portraits contain a face or skin tone loaded with a palette full of colour.

And it is for this unyielding uninhibited use of colour that I love the work of both Sonia and Robert Delaunay. But right now Sonia’s work is hogging more of the spotlight, an quite rightly too – every person deserves their place in the sun.


Sonia Delaunay: The Colours of Abstraction is only open for another few days at the Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris, closing on 22 February 2015. But worry not, for come April the retrospective will reopen in London’s Tate Modern, running until August.

Late Turner at Tate: Repetitious repertoire with moments of genius

I think I may be almost alone amongst my British compatriots when I declare that I am not a huge fan of J M W Turner. In fact I’m fully expecting to receive a raft of hate mail when this review goes live on my blog and I conclude that Tate Britian’s latest exploit of this undoubtedly revolutionary British Artist is all a bit insipidly, uninterestingly “pastel”. Now don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that Turner was a master of his times, and likewise that he was crucial in the development of the impressionist, and then expressionist art movements that changed the world of art history. I do not doubt that without him, the whole revolution of modern art may never have seeded in quite the way it did, if at all. And I recognise that in so far as great British artists go (of which there are few), he is almost certainly one of the best. Yet when I am faced with a painting by Turner, I cannot help but feel depressed, and a little uninterested, my attention somewhat wondering away from the smudged colour palette, the greys and the pastels.

Tate Britain’s new Turner exhibition has opened with considerable fanfare. This is insuperably the case when any Turner show is opened in the UK, but the problem is, we’ve seen so much of the work before. Such is the result of an exhibition of Turner being shown at Tate, the very same museum which was bequeathed hundreds of Turner works a short time after his death. Since the exhibition focuses on “Late Turner” (works produced between 1835 and his death in 1851), it almost certainly features the lion’s share of the Turner Bequest, meaning that there is very little new to be seen by we London regulars. Still, one cannot doubt the scale and ambition of the show, which ably demonstrates that Turner was perhaps at his innovative best in this final period of his life. While the artwork is still trenched in the rigid tradition of the prescribed artistic and aesthetic tastes of the time (antiquity, pastoral landscape, naval scenes and the like), Turner was presenting canvases which aimed to capture more of an effect than a historical narrative. Even his history and antiquity paintings (of which there are many) focus more on the breathtaking light of a sunrise or sun set, or the moody effect resulting from a foggy encounter, than the story itself.

Regulus (1828)

Regulus (1828)

Peace - Burial at Sea (1842)

Peace – Burial at Sea (1842)

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus (1839)

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus (1839)

So to give the show its dues and focus in on the “good”, one cannot help but be stirred at times by some of Turner’s more atmospheric works, such as his paintings of stormy seas in Snowstorm (1842), so cyclical like a washing machine drum that you feel as though you are swept out at sea yourself – an effect which just can’t be captured from a postcard reproduction of the work. Mention also has to go to the stunning effects of light achieved by Turner – for example the burning glow of the Fire at the Houses of Parliament, and the incredible blinding light captured in his painting Regulus (1828) – an effect so well captured that I felt compelled to look away from the painting, as though I was staring into the sun itself.

Snowstorm (1842)

Snowstorm (1842)

The Blue Rigi Sunrise (1842)

The Blue Rigi Sunrise (1842)

Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1834)

Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1834)

For me though, the success of the show – its scale – was also its downfall, as with so many Turners from the same period exhibited all together, one couldn’t help conclude that it was all a bit samey, and repetitive – a feeling also engendered by the RA’s Monet show a few years back, when one water lily after another began to look like a single mesh of watery wobbly lines so that you could no longer distinguish between them. This feeling is proliferated at Tate’s show by the unfortunate decision to paint the walls in the same predominant colour as the paintings, so that in one room, a gallery full of dull yellow paintings feels even duller and more dated thanks to the same colour having been painted on the wall. If only the whole show had been curated like the middle room, where Turner’s square and round paintings were hung on dark walls and spot-lit to magnificent effect. Under those conditions, the works really came alive.

So coming out of this exhibition, my conclusions were as follows: Turner left me flat, not so much because of his work, but because of the way the show had been put together. Too much, too samey, and horrible decisions regarding wall colours. What Turner was brilliant at was capturing light, and it is this, set against dark backgrounds, that Tate should have concentrated on, to give Turner’s final years the kind of exhibition they perhaps deserve.

Fishermen at Sea (1796)

Fishermen at Sea (1796)

Late Turner: Painting Set Free is showing at Tate Britian until 25 January 2015

Matisse at Tate: Colour Cut-Out to a Career Climax

The new Matisse blockbuster at London’s Tate Modern is a show of inexorable joy: of that there can be no doubt. With its whimsical vivid colouration, and playful motifs of sea algae and birds, dancers and blue nudes, it is an exhibition which is full of the happy spirit of the Mediterranean. And yet all of this was created during and immediately after a time when Europe was caught up in the ravaged turmoil of the second world war. How Matisse then managed to create such spirited works, not only during a time of such cataclysm, but also when he was himself frail and confined largely to his bed or to a wheelchair, is one question poised by this exhibition. The answer? Colour was Matisse’s escape from the horrors of war, and cut-outs the vehicle with which he entered the last great hurrah of his groundbreaking career in art.

In bringing together this show of over a hundred of Matisse cut-outs, Tate has managed a real coup. For these works, which dominated the last period of Matisse’s creative output, are merely gouache-painted paper, brought together with paper, sizzors and glue. The result are pictures which retain the same vibrancy that they had when they were first made, but are nevertheless so fragile that few ever leave the national art galleries which they now call home. Yet here they all are, together, many for the first time since they were created.

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The result is an exhibition which can not fail to please. Starting with the original artwork and resulting first edition of Matisse’s best known artist book, Jazz (which I often paused over in Chelsea’s Taschen store but never purchased before they stopped the reprint, much to my regret), the exhibition moves onto what is essentially the genesis of what is to follow – the Oceana works. With one of the vast works, which originally acted as wall decoration in Matisse’s Paris apartment, featuring figures of the sky, and the other of the sea, these works were inspired by a visit to Tahiti 16 years before. But more importantly, the sea work was pretty much the first time that Matisse used the cut out image of coral, an image which was to become iconic of much of his cut-out works thereafter.



That coral is indeed prevalent in the works that follow, as are the vivd range of colours cut from sheets painted by his dedicated studio assistants. I loved room 5 of the exhibition, which attempts to recreate Matisse’s studio in Vence in Southern France, whose walls were decorated, floor to ceiling, with cut-out works. Seeing the cut-outs grouped together like this makes them come alive as a collection. The variety of colours and shapes and sizes make the corals almost vibrate with the energy emanating from the collected cut-outs, and together the colours sing like an hallelujah chorus.

Coral cut-outs

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As satisfying as these collected colours undoubtedly are, I could not help but admire Matisse’s famous blue nudes, all four of which are brought together for the first time. Intrinsically simple in both colour, and the seamless way in which they are cut from a single sheet of painted blue-paper, they really are images to be admired – and as a set they never worked better.

The exhibition ends with Matisse cut-outs on a grand scale, from Tate’s famous Snail (which was the closest Matisse comes to abstract, and in my opinion perhaps the least successful because of it), to The Mermaid in which Matisse intended, through use of bird, coral and fruit motifs, to bring the outside into his studio, something which he surely achieved with all-encompassing effect.

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I wasn’t expecting to love this show. I’m not a huge fan of Matisse’s oil paintings which too often appear to me badly executed and fussy. But the simplicity and vibrancy of the cut-outs really appealed to me. It demonstrates the power of composition and the effect which simple colours can have when laid alongside each other. Many have criticised the cut-outs as mere child-play. But that’s a very easy observation to make when the idea has already been generated and all the behind-the-scenes work and planning exhaustibly executed. Masterpieces, perhaps, these works are not. Some may even pass them off as mere wall-coverings. But as a collective they are full of an inherent and enticing energy and joy which fewer more “masterful” artworks will ever be able to generate with such consistency or strength.


Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on at Tate Modern, London until 7 September 2014

Picasso at Tate – highlight of London’s exhibition year so far

The new exhibition at Tate BritianPicasso and Modern British Art, is a triumph. In analysing Picasso’s complex relationship with the UK and his influence upon Modern British painters and sculptors, the Tate approach a well-trodden artistic oeuvre with a new, fresh perspective. The exhibition not only shows off some wonderful Picasso’s, including many lesser known works from the beginning of his career, but it also places the spotlight on some lesser known British artists such as the superb, prickly and moving work of Graham Sutherland, promoting them to the undisputed limelight enjoyed so regularly by Señor Picasso.

The story of Picasso’s relationship with the UK runs throughout the exhibition, both through the works on show and by way of useful curator commentary placed alongside the canvases. Who would have thought that the artist, so universally  accepted as a leading genius of modern art, and whose paintings comprise the top three most expensive paintings ever sold at auction, should have once been so inexorably spurned by the British art institution? When his work was first exhibited here in 1910, one critic, GK Chesterton described one of Picasso’s cubist paintings thus: “a piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots”. 

Picasso, Flowers (1901) - Tate's first conservative Picasso purchase

This sort of reaction was by no means unique, and with his few British fans stemming almost universally from groups of budding artists such as the Bloomsbury group with the exception of a few steadfast collectors, it was many years before one of Picasso’s works entered the public collections in Britain. In fact when Britain did at last buy a Picasso work, they made the purchase of probably the most innocuous and dull painting Picasso ever created – Flowers (1901) – which was purchased in 1933 by Tate.

Picasso’s popularity in England did increase in the inter-war period, with works entering the private collections of collectors such as Douglas Cooper, Roland Penrose and Hugh Willoughby, as well as the stir caused as the worldwide propaganda tour of Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, passed through the UK in 1938 in support of the Spanish Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Nonetheless, it was not until post-WW2, when, numbed to the horrors of war, a newly optimistic peace-time Britain was ready to truly accept and celebrate the talents of Pablo Picasso. Shortly after the end of the war in 1945, the Victoria and Albert museum held an exhibition of Matisse and Picasso, and in 1960, Tate held the largest exhibition of Picasso’s work to date, an exhibition which proved popular enough to attract some 500,000 visitors.

Picasso, The Three Dancers (1925)

It was only after this time that Picasso agreed to sell what he regarded to be one of his most important works to the Tate Gallery in Britian: The Three Dancers, a sale which was agreed in 1965. The work remains one of the masterpieces of Tate Modern’s collection.

Perhaps it’s not all that surprising that Britain was slow to accept Picasso. Historically, the Brits have been a bit slow in adopting anything which causes a disturbance of the traditions which they have always held to be dear. Just look at House of Lords reform – the labour government tried to reform the upper house of Parliament in 1999, but clearly found the disturbance of tradition so ultimately unsettling that they have left the reforms only half completed to this day, a house of semi-herditory peers suspended in history. Even in his time, Turner’s later, more impressionist works proved to be somewhat controversial, even though, by the time the French Impressionists rose to the fore, Turner, cited as a huge influence for the likes of Monet, was held dear to the hearts of the British public. When Picasso came along, the Brits were only just swallowing the new craze of impressionist work coming over from France. Picasso’s cubism and misplaced faces proved a little too radical for most. It is for this reason that Britain, by contrast with the likes of MOMA in New York, holds comparatively few Picasso’s in its public collections (Perhaps this is why Britain is trying to make up for it’s past vacillation by so readily accepting crappy modern art work like Tracey Emin and Martin Creed (you know – lights on, lights off) into its folds? Yes, once again, Britain is out of touch it seems).

Picasso, Weeping Woman (26 October 1937)

Wyndham Lewis, A Reading of Ovid (Tyros)

But despite all those years when Picasso was conspicuous by his absence in the UK’s public galleries, this did not do anything to prevent our budding young artists from being heavily influenced by his work. The second thread of Tate’s exhibition demonstrates how comprehensively Picasso influenced the works of British artists of the time. Duncan Grant, for example, saw many of Picasso’s works when he was in Paris mixing with the likes of Leo and Gertrude Stein. Grant quickly adopted the African-style works which predominated in Picasso’s work around the time of Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, as well as responding to the collages pioneered by Picasso and his Cubist colleague, Georges Braque. So too was Wyndham Lewis, leader of the Vorticist movement, influenced by Picasso’s work, although he actually sought to criticise Picasso who he considered to be overly sentimental and putting the modern movement “under a cloud”. In fact Lewis’ painting A Reading of Ovid (1920-1) (one of my favourites from the exhibition, sought to criticise Picasso’s return to large curvaceous classical figures at that time (such as The Source, below).

Of other artists influenced by Picasso over the years, amongst them Ben Nicholson (whose first abstract works were notably cubist in style) and Francis Bacon (who readily adopted Picasso’s screaming figures from the Guernica era), one of the most strikingly influenced is British sculptor extraordinaire, Henry Moore. The exhibition proficiently sets up direct comparisons between many of Moore’s sculptural forms and drawings and Picasso’s work. For example in his 1936 Reclining Figure, you can see a direct reference to Picasso’s classical work, The Source. Meanwhile, Moore’s incredibly unsettling and violent work, Three Points (1939) appears to reflect the screaming mouths of Picasso’s Guernica figures, painted two years earlier.

Picasso, The Source (1921) and above, Henry Moore's Reclining Figure (1936)

Henry Moore, Three Points (1939-40)

Picasso's Screaming Horse (1937)

Probably my favourite of the British artists on show was Graham Sutherland, whose works had largely escaped my radar before I saw some of his works a few months back at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Sutherland, who acknowledged his debt to Picasso and in particular to Guernica as he set about painting a number of unsettling works during wartime Britian, particularly in his images of the bomb-damaged English cityscapes and his thorn-like figures, is probably best known for his Crucifixion which he was commissioned to paint for the church of St Matthew, Northampton. One such work related to the commission was included here – a blue-backed crucifixion which I just adored.

Graham Sutherland, Crucifixion (1946)

Some critics who have been to this exhibition had derided the British artists included in the show, pointing out that next to Picasso, their works fall by the wayside. I disagree. Of course it is clear that many artists owe a great debt to the superbly imaginative, constantly changing oeuvre of Picasso (me included), but this is what artists have always done throughout history – borrowing from one another – just like Picasso himself did when he worked relentlessly on reimagining Las Meninas by Velazquez as well as works by Manet and Delacroix. Nonetheless, all of the British works show an originality and vibrancy of their own, from the undisputed sculptural genius of Henry Moore, to the next level of cubism – photographic cubism, advocated by David Hockney. Of course the true star of this exhibition is Pablo Picasso, but then, that kind of is the point of the show.

Picasso and Modern British Art runs until 15 July 2012 – well worth a visit!

PS Other works I loved…

Picasso, Woman Dressing Her Hair (June 1940)

Picasso, Girl in a Chemise (c.1905)

Picasso, The Frugal Meal (1904)

Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) - the most expensive painting ever sold at auction

2011 – The Daily Norm’s top five (and floppy five) exhibitions of the year

When looking back on any year, it’s very easy to concentrate on what a rubbish year it’s been. And this year is no exception, what with economic gloom, a projected double-dip recession, euro-zone gloom, riots and unemployment gloom. Lot’s of gloom basically. But for that reason alone, I, ever the optimist, try to look back on the highlights of the year. And these tend to consist of two main categories – holidays (of which, sadly, there are not enough to fill a review such as this) and art exhibitions (of which there have been plenty). I am lucky enough to have attended the lion’s share of the exhibitions which London, and further afield, had to offer in 2011, and therefore, in a season when all the papers seem to be doing “roundups” of the year, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the best (and worst) exhibitions I’ve seen this year.

No.5 | Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge – Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, c.1892 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

This small exhibition at London’s superb Courtauld Institute at Somerset House was no less brilliant by virtue of its size. Taking up space in only two of the Courtauld’s many galleries, the show was an intimate but atmospheric examination of the Absinthe-tinted shadowy underworld of the Paris cabaret-scene so emblematically captured in the works of post-impressionist master, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is thanks to him that seminal movie moments such as Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge have been able to capture the essence of 1890’s debauched Pigalle social scene, filled with wonderful personalities such as La Goulue (the Glutton), Grille d’Egout (Sewer-grate) and Nini les-Pattes-en-l’air (Nini legs-aloft) as well as other characterful prostitutes, drunks and dancers. One such dancer who became synonymous with the Paris dancehall spectacle was Jane Avril, one of the stars of the Moulin Rouge, who undoubtedly played the role of muse to Lautrec’s portrayals of that same infamous nightclub. Such was her prominence in his work that her flame-red hair and exotic dance moves became symbols of the Moulin Rouge spectacle, as her fame was assured by a series of dazzlingly inventive posters in which she was the central attraction. However, her influence on Lautrec went further, and this exhibition features a number of stirring, more emotional portraits of Jane Avril which show the dancer off the stage, in private moments of introspection.

At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-95 © The Art Institute of Chicago

Such was the importance of this artistic coupling between aristocratic Lautrec and courtesan-born Avril (née Jeanne Beaudon) that the Courtauld placed the relationship at the centre of its show, including photographs of both the Artist and the dancer, and examination of the peculiar “St. Vitus’ Dance” disease which gave Avril her unique, disjointed dancing style, and an attempt to explore Avril’s persona, both in public and in private. This core objective was explored effectively by the Courtauld, but for me, the real winner of the show was simply the basic exposure it gave to this wonderful atmospheric Parisian world of the 1890s. Therefore for me, the star of the show has to be this piece leant by the Institute of Chicago, At the Moulin Rouge, a scene which perfectly depicts the atmosphere of the dancehall, complete with a self-portrait of Lautrec himself, the emblematic red hair of Avril, and the looming ghostly green face of May Milton, one of the performers, imbued with even more Absinthe-green hallucinogenic mystery than the melancholic daze induced by the green fairy in Manet’s masterpiece, L’Absinthe.

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