Matisse in the Studio

Henri Matisse, Safrano Roses at the Window, 1925
Oil on canvas, 80 x 65 cm
Private collection
Photo © Private collection
© Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Strange things lurk in artists’ studios, amidst the creative clutter. The Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka kept a life-size mannekin of his former lover Alma Mahler with him for company. Several big names have stored guns in their studios, for no particular reason; certainly not to shoot themselves with (suicides are rare among artists). The slightly mad German Pop artist Sigmar Polke kept a lump of uranium handy, which he used as a quick way of developing photographs. Not good.

How refreshing to turn to the benign and well-ordered world of Henri Matisse.

Transferring to the Royal Academy after a highly praised run at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, this medium-sized exhibition features 65 of Matisse’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints and cut-outs, alongside 35 of the studio objects that inspired them.

Matisse is a very apt subject for this sort of treatment, because like his great rival Picasso he was an inveterate collector, not only of fine art and antiques but also of curios, knick-knacks and what might frankly be described as junk. He called these accumulated objects his ‘actors’, and did indeed arrange them into little dramas in his studio.

Here, for example, you can admire the silver chocolatière given to him as a wedding present by his artist friend Albert Marquet, which found its way into several of his early Chardinesque still lives. Here too is the green Andalusian vase that stands prominently in ‘Safrano Roses at the Window’ (above). There’s also the Venetian rococo chair Matisse acquired in 1942, the arabesque curves of which feature in a number of paintings over the next decade. The contrast between this sinuous chair and Van Gogh’s plain, rush-seated version speaks volumes.

Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century
Wood, fiber and pigment, 49 x 19.3 cm
Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection
Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

Matisse was also a huge fan of African art, particularly tribal masks. As the exhibition demonstrates very well, there are clear echoes of them in his portraits, such as the one of his daughter Madeleine (1907), once owned by Picasso. (Only having seen this painting in reproduction before, I was keen to examine it closely, because of the old story that in idle moments Picasso would throw darts at it. I’m happy to report that this appears not to be the case, although perhaps he used those ones with suckers on}.

It’s suggested here that Matisse’s late cut-outs may have been partly inspired by his collection of Chinese calligraphic panels, Moorish screens and Congoese textiles, though by this stage his take-off points were so diverse that it’s difficult to nail down a particular visual source.

Henri Matisse, The Moorish Screen, 1921
Oil on canvas, 91 x 74 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950
Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Is there any point to all this juxtaposition, apart from the fun to be had from playing ‘hunt the vase’? You certainly gain an insight into an important aspect of Matisse’s creative practice, although by no means all the wellsprings of his art are dealt with by this approach. The inspiration for his early landscapes, for example, or his brief flirtation with abstraction during 1913-17, clearly lay beyond bric-a-brac. Wisely, the organisers don’t overreach themselves by trying to cover everything.

The show is being held in the Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing, completed by Norman Foster in 1991. I’ve long thought this to be one of the best small exhibition spaces in London. As you approach it in the glass lift you can admire the original garden front of Burlington House, exposed by Foster’s clever linking of the Georgian and Victorian buildings on the site. The exhibition space itself – just three rooms, roughly the same size, all fairly small – is satisfyingly spare. It may be obvious, but I think it’s worth underlining the point that the environment in which you see an exhibition can make a huge difference to your enjoyment of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in all the years I’ve been going to the Sackler, I’ve never seen a duff show.


Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy of Arts 5 August-12 November 2017

Trapped in a Smash at Wilton’s

There are some words that make a concert-goer’s heart sink. For me these include “experimental”, “fusion”, “cross-over”, “wunderkind” and – after last night’s concert at Wilton’s Music Hall – “virtuoso harmonica player”.

It’s rare for me to feel trapped at a concert, fervently wishing for it to be over, but last night was such an occasion – the second half at least (the first half was pretty good apart from a horrifically hammered out Bach Passacaglia, of which more later). This was a concert by musicians from Hong Kong’s Music Lab as part of the Hong Kong Music Series. The first item of the second half – ‘Beethoven Rhapsody’ – filled me with dread, and rightly so. It was the kind of music I hate: a “mash up” (or “Smash”) of riffs, motifs and idioms from the rock group Queen (geddit?!), the Beatles and the old radical himself (quotes from the fifth symphony and Pathetique sonata). There followed schmaltzy ballads, film music (by Morricone) and the world premiere of ‘Ideology’ by Hong Kongese harmonica player CY Leo, who has won numerous competitions with his playing. The work was a vehicle for this young man’s staggering virtuosity, displayed in fiendish Baroque-ish figurations and any number of squawks, breathy whispers, bends and myriad other sounds which I couldn’t begin to describe. It was as if Larry Adler himself had been reincarnated at Wilton’s Music Hall…… and I didn’t like it one bit. The concert closed with something called ‘Invierno Fantasia’, which started unnervingly calmly, but, given what had gone before, it was only a matter of time before it exploded into another manic fusion of rock, jazz, classical and “Cantopop“. It was the sort of music which makes me want to set my hair on fire and put it out with a hammer.

It wasn’t that it was badly played. In fact the whole programme was, largely, extremely well played by young musicians from Hong Kong who displayed great enthusiasm and commitment in their music making. Saxophonist, Timothy Sun, modest of stage presence yet immensely resonant and nuanced of sound, and soprano Alison Lau, whose voice had a sweetly searing clarity, were a pleasure to hear, as was pianist Lai Bo Ling, who accompanied violinist Mark Hui, both musicians with sensitivity and mature musicality, despite their tender years (all the musicians were in their twenties, some as young as 21).


I am usually suspicious of concert programmes which advertise themselves as “experimental”. Often it is just a handy term to suggest something edgy and out there, which actually turns out to be a less than well-conceived programme in which the performer or performers have basically been given license to do what they like. This Music Lab concert at Wilton’s Music Hall (the first of two as part of the Hong Kong Music Series) certainly felt like that. It was as if the programme planner had thrown the components of a concert up in the air and simply watched where they landed without any thought for a theme or linking thread throughout the programme. Maybe the intention was not to have a common theme, and the programme certainly felt  like three separate concerts in one evening. What it did do was give a platform to a group of talented young musicians. The pianist and director of Music Lab Kajeng Wong provided a degree of continuity to the evening: he introduced the concert and performed in most of it, and, whether by accident or design, rather stole the show with his versatility and personable stage presence.

The concert opened with Kajeng Wong as ‘Fingerman’ in a solo performance intended to “explore the concept of God in an experimental classical piano recital”. I was not clear exactly what was “experimental” about this. A delicately nuanced  performance of Arvo Part’s ‘Für Alina’ revealed Wong as a sensitive pianist in this work of supreme simplicity and profound meaning. As he played, enigmatic words and phrases were projected onto the back of the stage – “God or no God”, “Could we return to the silence before the first note”. Unfortunately, for those of us in the forward rows of the theatre, these were often obscured by the open lid of the piano (and this continued to be an issue during the second segment of the concert).

From Pärt, he moved into the frenetic realms of Ligeti’s Étude ‘The Devil’s Staircase’, a work of fiendish technical challenges, which Wong managed with ease and panache, brilliantly paced and quite thrilling to watch and hear. The final work in this segment was Bach’s monumental Passacaglia BWV 582, arranged by Emile Naoumoff (one of Wong’s teachers). Originally for organ, this arrangement sought to imitate on piano the expansive resonance and plangent bass of the organ. It started well, with intent, conviction and a clear sense of the music’s architecture and contrapuntal lines, but as the music grew in statue, so Wong’s sound became strident and ugly. It was impressive, if only for the pianist’s attempt to play at full volume, hammering the keys as if his life depended on it, but more subtlety of touch would have been welcome here: it is possible to play loudly without thumping the piano…… During the performance, philosophical quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ were projected onto the back of the stage. I’m not convinced these projections added anything of significance to the performance and since there were no programme notes, I was left none the wiser. In fact, it seemed a rather pointless gimmick to me.

‘Beloved Clara’ was a retelling of the story of the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms in short works by all three composers, performed by Bo Ling Lai (piano), Mark Hui (violin), Alison Lau (soprano) and Kajeng Wong. As in the first segment, text was projected onto the back of the stage comprising quotes from the Schumanns and Brahms and snippets of their biographies. It was rather simplistic and clumsily-translated and was often obscured by the lid of the piano and the violinist, but despite this, ‘Beloved Clara’ was the highlight of the evening for me, the music performed with great elegance, empathy and tenderness.

Certainly, it was an “interesting” concert, but I admit I wanted to leave almost as soon as the second half began. A word too about the printed programme, which was attractively designed and produced. If translating into English from another language, do try and have the text proof-read by a native English speaker. As in the Beloved Clara text, there was some clumsy and unnatural translating which a decent copy-editor could have put right in a moment. Details like these really do matter.


Date reviewed: 10 July 2017

Music Lab at Wilton’s Music Hall



Variations on a traditional programme – Inon Barnatan at Wigmore Hall


George Frideric Handel – Chaconne in G major HWV435

Johann Sebastian Bach – Partita No.4 in D major BWV828, II. Allemande

Jean-Philippe Rameau – Premier livre de pieces de clavecin, IV. Courante in A minor

François Couperin – Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre 12 No. 8 L’Atalante

Maurice Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin, IV. Rigaudon

Thomas Adès – Blanca Variations (UK première)

György Ligeti – Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

Samuel Barber – Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26, IV. Fuga: Allegro con spirit

Inon Barnatan, piano

Wigmore Hall, London



Israeli’s pianist Inon Barnatan’s 27 June Wigmore Hall concert demonstrated the “power of the programme”. Called Variations on a Theme, the first half of the concert consisted largely of single movements from suites, old and new, while the second half was occupied with Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel.

Initially, the first half of the programme could have been a curious mish-mash, a faux Baroque suite cobbled together from movements cherry-picked from works by Handel, Bach and their French contemporaries Rameau and Couperin, Ravel and Ligeti, and contemporary composer Thomas Ades. In fact, when I posted a picture of the programme on Facebook, a couple of friends commented that it “looks a bit Classic FM” and “how bizarre”. These comments in themselves are interesting, suggesting that a “proper” concert must consist of complete works, not fragments or single movements. Meanwhile, the Telegraph reviewer cites “shorter attention spans” as a reason for creating programmes like this.

This programme worked for me, and I admit that I selected the concert purely on the basis of the works by Ravel (the Rigaudon from the Tombeau de Couperin), Ligeti (two movements from Musica Ricercata) and the Ades Blanca Variations. I felt the concept was imaginative and witty – exploring the notion of variations in music through multiple approaches – and the selection of works created the similar ebb and flow of energy, rhythmic vitality, lyricism and repose as one would find in a Baroque suite, and the mixture of Baroque and modern/contemporary music allowed one to draw intriguing parallels between the individual works. Common motifs, such as filigree figurations and contrapuntal writing within the individual movements, created a sense of continuous throughout the first half, and each work gave Inon Barnatan the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility, switching with ease from the grandiloquent opening Chaconne in G by Handel to the poignant lyricism of the Allemande in D from Bach’s fourth keyboard partita. In addition, there was plenty of very elegant jeu perlé playing and crystalline passagework to savour, and a clear sense of the individual characters of each work.

Adès’ Blanca Variations, a set of five variations upon a traditional Sephardic song ‘Lavaba la blanca niña’, were delicately coloured and rhythmically complex, with much Baroque ornamentation in the later movements, thus connecting the work back to Bach’s Partitas or Couperin’s Pieces de Clavecin. This melancholy work had a sweeping virtuosity which Barnatan approached with understated panache.

The first half closed with a rollicking performance of the final movement of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, Op 26, a fugue whose strict construction reflects the composer’s love of Bach.

The programme was played without as an uninterrupted sequence, with no applause until the end, which further reinforced the concept of a suite of pieces and made for a most absorbing hour of music. Not everyone could pull off a programme such as this, but Barnatan clearly relished the challenge of these interesting juxtapositions and gave a most convincing and absorbing performance.

I regret that tiredness forced me to leave before the Brahms, but I look forward to listening to the entire concert on the BBC iPlayer.


Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017

The RA Summer Exhibition has been part of my cultural landscape for years. As a teenager I used to go to the members Private View with my parents, enjoying an illicit glass of fruit-laden Pimms while perusing the weird and wonderful of the world’s most democratic art exhibition (yes, anyone can submit work for inclusion in the show, from leading international artists to shy Sunday painters) and marveling at the volume and variety of art on display. In 1998, my artist mother had three of her prints selected for inclusion in the exhibition which gave me a more personal connection to the exhibition.

Every year it’s the same – a curious mix of art jamboree and jumble sale all crammed into the elegant airy rooms of Burlington House. In fact, in recent years, efforts have been made to rationalise the displays, with a far less crowded hang and greater thought about themes and how the exhibition “flows” from room to room. This year’s show is curated by painter and printmaker Eileen Cooper, and I liked it better than last year’s, mainly because of the care taken in how to display the works to their best advantage. Thus, one doesn’t feel “overloaded with art” when walking round and the more spacious displays allow the works to be appreciated on their own merits and in the context of the works around them.


The main theme of this year’s exhibition is one of welcome, and this seems particularly apt, and a touch poignant, in the light of the Mayor of London’s assertions that despite terror attacks, London is open and welcomes everyone. This celebration of welcome and diversity is most evident in the first room in which paintings, photographs, sculptures and even performances (if you’re lucky) are brought together in a vibrant and colourful visual display. There are works by international artists including Marina Abramovic (‘The Cleaner’) and Romuald Hzoume’s ‘Petrol Cargo’, modelled on vehicles used to smuggle petrol from Nigeria to the artist’s native Benin. There are also several neons by Tracey Emin, characteristically forthright. The works chosen confirm that art is a universal language that connects across borders and cultures.

Returning to the theme of the democracy of the Summer Exhibition, it’s wonderful to see large oil paintings by Sean Scully (elected to the RA in 2012) alongside works by amateur artists. And what a privilege and inspiration it must be to find your painting hung next to the work of one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. The display is such that there is no room for lengthy captions for each work and so one must refer to the list of works (a bulging little handbook) to discover the names of the artists. Of course, some are easily recognisable – Ken Howard’s views of Venice are like old friends, as are Anthony Green’s irregular canvases featuring acutely personal subjects. My personal favourites tend to reside in the print room – Elizabeth Blackadder’s elegant flowers and Norman Ackroyd’s storm-tossed seas. Elsewhere, there are works by Cornelia Parker, Michael Craig-Martin, Wolfgang Tillmans, Anish Kapoor (his vast, visceral, shocking ‘Unborn’ which elicited some pretty visceral reactions from visitors) and even Anselm Kiefer (an honorary Royal Academician).

In a way, it’s the Summer Show’s regularity (it’s been held for 249 years without interruption) that make it both reassuring and appealing: the format is largely the same each year, the exhibition opens a couple of weeks ahead of that other stalwart of the English summer season – Wimbledon – and one visits knowing one is likely to find at least 10 works one would happily have at home. There really is something for everyone in the RA Summer Exhibition, and this year an abundance of colour makes it especially enjoyable.



For reassuring continuity in these uncertain times, look no further than Burlington House. Ken Howard’s contre-jour views of Venice, Gillian Ayres’ sub-Matisse lyrical abstraction, Artistic Director Tim Marlow’s ‘yoof’ haircuts: no one does comforting timelessness quite like the Royal Academy.

As a practicing artist myself, the Summer Exhibition is always the perfect opportunity to check out what other people are up to and, yes, to pinch (or, as we artists prefer to say, ‘appropriate’) ideas. As Lucian Freud put it, artists go to galleries for the same reason that other people go to the doctor: to get help.

Exhibition co-ordinator Eileen Cooper is known for her Magic Realist paintings and there’s a distinctly New-Age-y and World Art vibe to the show this year. Room VI in particular, curated by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, is a positive riot of colour, featuring works by such highly-regarded African artists as El Anutsui and Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, as well as more local talent. For me the standout was the lavish digital study of bikers in turbans and djellabas by Hassan Hajjaj, ‘the Andy Warhol of Marrakech’.

Rather different is the slightly creepy Room VIII, curated by sculptor Ann Christopher. The centrepiece is the totemic ‘Croce (Cross)’ by Mimmo Paladino; I also liked Tim Shaw’s zombies on rockers and Lee Wagstaff’s crouching, porcupine-quilled figure, ‘The Art of Being Right’.

As usual, throughout the show there’s a good selection of works from the heavy hitters of the contemporary art world, including Marina Abramović, Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel and Royal Academicians elect Gilbert & George. Schnabel isn’t an artist I’ve ever warmed to that much, but I loved his gaudy ‘Rose Painting (Near Van Gogh’s Grave) XVIII’, constructed from his trademark broken plates.

Finally, a word on Isaac Julien’s mesmerising and immersive film ‘WESTERN UNION: Small Boats’ in the last room (X). Shown across five screens, it’s a riff on Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ and combines ravishing Sicilian landscapes with a narrative highlighting the perils of transcontinental migration. Please don’t wait for the DVD or Blue-ray, though; it’s an edition of three, yours for £200,000 apiece.


Royal Academy Summer Exhibition to 20 August

The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!

Grayson Perry at Serpentine Galleries (until 10 September 2017)

Britain’s favourite transvestite potter and national treasure Grayson Perry RA once again casts his astute eye over contemporary society, its exigences and preoccupations, in a new summer show at the Serpentine Galleries in the heart of London’s Hyde Park.

I am in the communication business and I want to commnicate to as wide an audience as possible

– Grayson Perry

Perry is a sharp observer of contemporary life, using his art (or rather traditional crafts of pottery, metalwork, tapestry, and woodcut print) to comment on class, gender, sexuality, galleries and the art market, and notions of populism and popular culture. A benign modern Hogarth, his observations are insightful and witty, but never cruel. He is interested in people and the “tribes” and classes of Britain, the small differences and identifying markers which are unique to each group, while reminding us that we are not so different from one another after all. Central to this in the new exhibition is a pair of beautifully-crafted decorated pots, Matching Pair (2017), which featured in a recent Channel 4 tv programme about responses to Brexit. The pots are decorated with images supplied by the British public themselves, those that voted Remain and those that voted to Leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. The images were sourced via social media and Perry charted the progress of the creation of the pots via his own Twitter profile, which I follow. The amount of work and craftsmanship which has gone into these pots is remarkable: in addition to photographic transfers, they include sgraffito drawings, handwritten and stencilled texts, and other decorative elements. The two pots are identical in size and shape, mostly blue, and contain images of typically “British” things such as the seaside, bacon and eggs, the local pub, and walking the dog. The figures, whose models are real British people, on each pot are remarkably similar, yet they represent the most bitter political debate in our lifetime. Through these vessels, Perry demonstrates that despite being on opposing sides of the argument “we all have much more in common than that which separates us.”

What endears Perry and his art are his benign wit and humour and his ability to observe but never patronise. He also turns his gaze on himself and his gender in his examination of masculinity and male stereotypes, explored in this exhibition through tpically “male” pastimes and objects, such as a skateboard (which becomes the “Kateboard” with Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and baby depicted like a Medieval brass) and a gaudy motorcycle, specially made for Perry and painted in childish ice-cream colours.



The role of art and the artist in today’s culture, in particular the celebrity status of the contemporary artist, has long been one of Perry’s preoccupations, and the exhibition title is a playful provocation encouraging visitors to consider what makes art popular and how such populism threatens the “exclusivity” of art. Perry is an enthusiastic advocate of art for all and believes galleries and exhibitions should be places where people feel welcome and comfortable, rather intimidated by “international art speak” and obfuscating captions and displays. The works in the first room of the exhibition explore the relationship between the artist, gallery, the public and the critic. The large woodcut Reclining Artist (2017) examines the artist’s relationship to the public and their interest in him. It is a powerful monochrome contemporary homage to Goya’s ‘La maja desnuda’ and Manet’s ‘Olympia’, with an androgenous Perry at the centre, surrounded by his stuff.

Other works look at contemporary British society,  the mores and markers which define its class structure and the status anxiety of, for example, the middle classes. These aspects are explored in large, colourful tapestries, once the cloths which adorned the walls of the great houses and palaces of the aristocracy. Throughout these works, it is not the differences between us but our shared fundamental values which come across most strongly.

It is not a large exhibition but it is satisfying, enjoyable and humorous. Perry appropriates traditional crafts for his own ends and creates artworks which are colourful, playful and entertaining. I walked round the show with a permanent smile on my face – and goodness knows we need some good cheer in these troubled times.

Interestingly, whether by deliberate design or coincidence, the exhibition opens on 8 June, the day of the General Election, an occasion when once again sharply defined differences and similarities between us are exposed and rejected, embraced and befriended.


Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! Serpentine Galleries, London

Further reading

Grayson Perry: “I am nostalgic for a time when art galleries were empty”


Matching Pair (2017), Victoria Miro Gallery

Grayson Perry, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (08 June 2017 – 10 September 2017). Image © 2017 Robert Glowacki

A Messiaen double bill at the Barbican

Messiaen L’Ascension
Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo
Steven Osborne piano
Cynthia Millar ondes martenot

Wednesday 24th May 2017

The authors of ArtMuseLondon must confess to a certain fascination with the Ondes Martenot, that strange early electronic instrument which stars in Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony. We first encountered the instrument at an earlier performance of the same work at the Proms a couple of years ago, but found it hard to hear its swooping, Sci-Fi sounds in the cavernous, acoustically-dodgy Royal Albert Hall. So we were pleased to have another opportunity to hear the work, and the instrument, in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s all-Messiaen concert at the Barbican this week.

Although Turangalila is probably Messiaen’s most popular and accessible work, a whole evening of the composer’s music is clearly too esoteric for most people: the hall was less than half full. A great shame because the first piece, L’Acension, was very beautiful and also very accessible, and provided the perfect foil to the excesses of Turangalila.

I don’t agree with The Times’ reviewer, who declared Turangalila “silly” and “sexless”. I find the work excessive, but not in a bad way. It is exuberant, enthusiatic, ecstatic, celebratory and uplifting. And yes, I do find it quite sexy – or rather sensuous – too…… For me, it’s one of those works where you just have to surrender to the music, a little like Scriabin’s later piano sonatas. And perhaps being a fellow grapheme synaesthete with Messiaen, the colourful blocks of sound, which are most significant than melody in Messiaen’s music, appeal to my sensibilities.

Composed for Yvonne Loriod, a student of Messiaen’s and a remarkable pianist who became his second wife, Turangalila was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but was actually premiered with Leonard Bernstein at the helm. Listening to the exuberant jazzy rhythms and brass fanfares, one can well imagine what Bernstein made of this work. Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO brought vibrancy and colour to this sprawling work. The gleaming brass section, first heard, magnificently, in the opening bars of the first work, were complemented by haunting woodwind and sparkling percussion. Add to this lush, silky strings, the spooky sounds of the Ondes Martenot, and tinking celesta. Steven Osborne, a pianist remarkable for his clear affininty with Messiaen’s music (seek out his Hyperion recording of the Vingt Regards – it will leave you reeling, I guarantee), brought crisp articulation and glorious timbres and textures to the music: with him at the piano, Turangalila becomes almost a piano concerto.

In contrast to the exuberant excesses of Turangalila, l’Ascension, composed in 1932 and one of Messiaen’s most important early orchestral works, was reflective, meditative and absorbing. Performed on the eve of Ascension Day, appropriately, it is a work which reflects the compsoer’s deep Catholic faith and each movement is prefaced with a quote from the Gospels or Psalms. The opening movement, scored only for brass, set the tone for the rest of the piece and immediately revealed the BBCSO’s precision and control, and Oramo’s understanding of this carefully crafted music.

The Ondes Martenot does rather sound like something from The Clangers” remarked NM as we walked back to the station from the Barbican. It certainly is a strange instrument: whether it makes any real contribution to Messiaen’s music is of course open to question.


(picture: Cynthia Millar at the Ondes Martenot, BBCSO)


Giacometti at Tate Modern

Alberto Giacometti Woman of Venice V 1956 Collection Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Tate Modern is billing this exhibition as the first major retrospective of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) for 20 years. That’s a bit rich, given the substantial shows devoted to his work at the National Portrait Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich only last year. Neither of those institutions, though, has Tate’s clout when it comes to dealing with the key collection and archive, the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris. Not surprisingly, then, there are some eye-popping loans here, including previously unseen or recently restored works, even a chunk of wall from Giacometti’s Swiss studio.

Early rooms cover Giacometti’s involvement with Cubism, and later Surrealism, after his arrival in Paris in 1922. The pivotal work is ‘Suspended Ball’, which caused a sensation when it was exhibited at Galerie Pierre in 1930: Dali wrote an article extolling it as the prototype Surrealist object. Five years later Giacometti was summoned before the group for making ‘realist’ work; he walked out in the middle of the interrogation.

By the end of the 1930s Giacometti had began to produce his famous elongated figures, which seem to epitomize post-war alienation and despair, although their main inspiration was in fact Egyptian art. The centrepiece of the show is the series of six plaster sculptures, ‘Women of Venice’, created for the 1956 Venice Biennale and reunited here for the first time in 60 years.

Nowadays Giacometti is considered the archetypal existentialist artist, his work situated ‘halfway between nothingness and being’, as Sartre put it. With his wild hair and rugged good looks, and a cigarette permanently dangling from his lips, he certainly looked the part. Seldom getting up before midday, he would spend long hours trawling the cafés of Montparnasse before returning to his near-derelict studio, usually with only his devoted brother Diego for company.

James Lord’s 1985 memoir gives a vivid description of Giacometti’s working methods, which would involve intense scrutiny and endless re-working. Before resuming work on Lord’s portrait he would announce: ‘It’s hopeless!’ or ‘I don’t know why I’m even trying!’ or ‘It’s impossible! I can’t make portraits, no one can’.

Alberto 5
Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the Venice Biennale, 1956 Archives of the Giacometti Foundation

Another aspect of Giacometti’s art that emerges very clearly from this show is his preoccupation with scale. One of the most arresting exhibits is a huge, stand-alone plaster leg, which reminded me a bit of the giant foot of Constantine on the Capitoline Hill. At the other extreme are tiny figurines, some only a few millimetres high, said to have been inspired by a sighting from afar of the artist Isabel Rawsthorne on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in 1937.

Giacometti’s life, like his art, was a gradual paring-down process. In his later years he mostly used just two models, his wife Annette and Diego, although from 1958 he did employ a third, the young prostitute known only as ‘Caroline’, who would become his mistress and muse. Stanley Tucci has just made a film about their relationship, yet to be released in the UK, with Clémence Poésy as the enigmatic Caroline alongside Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti. (I only mention this because I spotted Tucci at the press view).

I have a couple of reservations about this otherwise exemplary show. First, it felt rather cramped. How the organisers managed to fit 250 works into just 10 rooms I can’t imagine. By contrast, the 2013 Klee show at the Tate had just 132 works – and Klee worked small – in 17 rooms.

I would also have liked to have seen a bit more artistic context. There are hardly any works here by other artists, for example, unless you count copies of André Breton’s books. In particular, I think something could have been made of Giacometti’s connection with Francis Bacon. The two artists met in the early ’60s and shared models, although because of Giacometti’s early death they never became close friends. Both worked in filthy, confined spaces and were fond of containing their figures in cage-like structures. I suppose somebody has already written a PhD thesis about the existentialists and their boxes. Rothko too, of course, was very fond of squares and oblongs.


Giacometti at Tate Modern until 10 September 2017

Tate Modern

Alberto 3
Alberto Giacometti The Hand 1947 Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti Stiftung © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017