Three Days in London (Part 3 of 3)

By Marc Mayer, Director, National Gallery of Canada on June 02, 2014

Part 3 of 3—to read Part 1 and a visit to William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain at the Victoria and Albert Museum, click here. To read Part 2 and visits to Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice at the National Gallery and Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna at the Royal Academy, click here.

Tate Modern, London © Tate Photography

A friend had invited me to dinner on my second day, and one of the other guests suggested that, given my interest in William Kent, I might enjoy seeing The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714–1760 exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. This year marks the three hundredth anniversary of the Hanoverian dynasty on the English throne. I was indeed looking for something to do after the Matisse cut-outs show—a visit I’d already planned for the following morning—so the suggestion was doubly fortuitous.  

The conversation at dinner was broad ranging and interesting enough to keep me up past my bedtime—then again, it was Saturday night. The next morning, having lingered in bed with the Kent biography, I didn’t get to the Tate until around 11:30. Service disruptions on the Circle and District Lines caused me to walk a good part of the way, but despite plenty of construction, the path along the south bank of the Thames is quite pleasant, especially for people-watching.  

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

Because I have known Matisse’s cut-outs since as far back as I can remember, it was more out of Modernist duty than burning anticipation that I went there, and I had already seen the excellent Richard Hamilton show on a previous trip. Yes, yes, I am as crazy for Matisse’s work as the next guy, but surely there is life after Fauvism, and the cut-outs are old news. Given my attitude, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional clobbering that this faultless show had in store for me.

Trailer for the June 3, 2014 screening event, Henri Matisse Live from Tate Modern. The exhibition Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on view at Tate Modern, London, until September 7, 2014

Like Veronese, Matisse owns colour. It is as if their respective eras knew nothing about colour before them. In fact, they are sort of equivalent artists in my imagination, with Picasso standing in for Titian. Unlike the last gallery in the Veronese show, however, where we witness the extinguishing of genius, the entire Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern—co-curated by the Tate network’s uber-Director Nicholas Serota and Nicholas Cullinan of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with colleagues from the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—celebrates the artist’s inexhaustible psychic energy, defying old age, illness, frailty and gravity. We watch in awe as the momentum of Matisse’s sensibility keeps building and building towards ever more radical form . . . and then he dies. Very moving.  


Henri Matisse, Memory of Oceania (1952–53), gouache and crayon on cut-and-pasted paper over canvas, MoMA. Digital image: © 2013. The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala Florence. Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

It is not exactly fair to say that Matisse reinvented himself when, bedridden, he switched from paintbrushes to scissors. In fact, I recognized one of his most brilliant early ideas in the giant Zulma, 1950, near the end of the show.  Even though I’ve seen this big collage countless times, only now did I finally flash back to his iconic The Green Stripe, 1905, painted almost a half-century earlier. It is the same idea, but in reverse; in both cases, colour stands in for Veronesian shadow. The insight gave me goosebumps. 

Back outside, I had yet another quick lunch: a plate of fish and chips that I soon regretted. No matter, I made my way back along the south bank to the Hayward Gallery, where I caught the last day of the Martin Creed show, organized by Canadian Cliff Lauson. One of the U.K.’s most brilliantly inane artists (he has tough competition), the first thing you see as you enter is the word MOTHERS in giant white neon on an steel I-beam rotating with frightening speed just above your head. Now I understood the headroom warning at the entrance to the show. Had I been six-foot-two, the concussion from this thing would have been fatal.

 

Installation view, work no. 1092 (2011), Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? Hayward Gallery. ® the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

Many of the works were familiar to me from previous shows, notably Vancouver’s Rennie Collection exhibition in 2011. Visitors to the NGC last winter will recall his funhouse installation, Half the Air in a Given Space, made up of hundreds of black balloons that are well over your head. Fighting your way through the balloons is a dry variation on swimming underwater. For the London show, the balloons were white, and a bit depleted on that last day. Having already experienced the blue, black and pink versions, I let the many small children visiting the show enjoy it without me.

Paul-Emile Borduas would have scowled at Creed’s art. When it came to working in the studio, his motto was “Never begin with an idea.” Each of Creed’s works starts from an idea that probably came to him well away from the studio: a white baby grand rigged out to slam shut with alarming euphony at regular intervals; a similar interval of room lights going on and off; a very large series of prints made from halved broccoli in never-repeating colours; videos of various bodily functions (off limits to the swarming children); a striped wall of bricks in various colours and course styles, etc. Actually, the outside terrace where that last piece stood was closed temporarily. According to the guard, “Someone is being sick back there.” Given my sketchy lunch, I knew better than to venture into Creed’s notoriously nauseating video room. Despite clear warnings, someone may have overestimated their tolerance for contemporary British art.  

Installation view, Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? Hayward Gallery. ® the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

Creed, a Turner Prize winner in 2001, seems very fond of taunting people who think the art being made today is mindless nonsense. So many of his works give the impression that he wants to pick a fight with the uninformed, as if he were building a catalogue of things your kid could do, but would never think of. Whatever his intentions, I usually get more than just a good laugh out of him, though a good laugh is good enough in this short life.

By the time I got to the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace to see The First Georgians, William Kent’s erstwhile patrons, there was maybe an hour and a half left before closing, but I took my time with the audioguide and read all the labels I could. Put together by Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, this informative show, although dedicated mostly to the material legacy of the line that ended with Queen Victoria, is more than just an homage to limitless wealth. The early Georgian rulers were careful people, uninterested in squandering their great luck. They were relatively frugal, and actively assimilated to the ways of their new homeland. Within the context of the more generously funded and adventurous sensibilities on the Continent, English art and design was somewhat rustic in these early years of the eighteenth century, but guardedly ambitious. I was particularly struck by the intelligence and cultivation of Queen Caroline, an astute politician and knowledgeable patron not only of art, but also of science. She seems to have been the brains in that shrewd family.  

William Hogarth, David Garrick and his Wife, Eva-Maria Veigel (1757–64). Image copyright of Royal Collection Trust/c Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Perhaps the most interesting moment in the show for me was the story of Hogarth’s suites of prints, of which Queen Elizabeth has a great many. Biting and wonderfully drawn satires on modern life, they were so popular that illicit copies of them began popping up relentlessly. Hogarth had funded his work by subscription, promising to limit the edition, so integrity prevented him from reissuing the prints. I was reminded of the problem that vexed Cranach and Dürer before him with their chiaroscuro woodblock prints. Hogarth’s lobbying of government to protect his interests soon led to the first copyright laws, thus beginning the intellectual property struggle that has only increased in complexity and frustration with every technological advance.

After a good night’s sleep, my first (and last) in that time zone, I made my way to Heathrow and flew back to Ottawa a bit less ignorant than I had been when I left, weighed down once again with new art books, and recharged from a three-day mini-vacation filled with beauty, knowledge and general delight.


By Marc Mayer, Director, National Gallery of Canada| June 02, 2014
Categories:  Features

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Marc Mayer, Director, National Gallery of Canada

Marc Mayer, Director, National Gallery of Canada

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