Dalí/Duchamp: What is Art?

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Robert Descharnes, Duchamp and Dalí playing chess during filming for A Soft Self-Portrait, directed by Jean-Christophe Averty (detail), 1966.

The first major exhibition of its kind, the Royal Academy is exploring the artistic and personal relationship between two of the world’s greatest 20th-century artists. Although their artwork may appear to be total opposites – one rejecting painting whilst the other excels at it – Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp bonded over their mutual interests, humour and scepticism, which provided the basis for a lifelong friendship. Most importantly, however, were their unconventional views of art; and this is the reason why the RA is honouring the two artists with a joint display of their work.

Although a lot smaller than other exhibitions the RA has curated, the Dalí/Duchamp attraction is structured thematically into four components: Identities; The Body and the Object; Experimenting with Reality; and Playing Games. Despite their obvious contrariety in terms of artistic style, the RA aims to show Dalí and Duchamp in a new perspective and provoke the question: what is art?

Salvador Dalí (1904-89) was a Spanish painter, designer and filmmaker who was initially influenced by various art styles such as Cubism, Futurism and Metaphysical Painting. By 1929, however, Dalí had joined the newly created Surrealism group.

Dalí liked to be in the limelight and his resulting celebrity status rapidly earned him the recognition as the face of Surrealism. Surrealism, however, was a revolution led by the French poet André Breton (1896-1966) who wanted to challenge the conventions of society. Largely influenced by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the group of writers, poets and (later) artists were interested in expressing the subconscious mind rather than the reality of everyday life.

Adopting many Surrealist ideas in his artwork, Dalí developed them further in an attempt to make them more positive. One method he titled “Critical Paranoia” which involved the combination of imagery based on his dreams and fantasies with the natural appearance of the world. It is this notion that most of Dalí’s iconic paintings stemmed, full of optical illusions that appear dream-like or hallucinatory – what Dalí termed “hand-painted dream photographs”.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was a French-born artist and art theorist who spent the majority of his life in the United States. In contrast to Dalí, Duchamp was a more private character, sometimes disappearing from the art scene for lengthy periods at a time. As a result, his artistic output was small in comparison to other creators of the era.

In 1915, along with Man Ray (1890-1976), who also features in this exhibition, Duchamp formed the movement known as Dada. This movement was established shortly after the First World War and was initially politically oriented.

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.” – Tristan Tzara, poet, 1896-1963

Dadaists were often referred to as creators of “anti-art”, combining collage, poetry and other visual methods full of satirical nonsense. This was their attack on the beliefs and values imposed upon society, which they emphasised through their use of non-traditional materials.

Duchamp’s main contribution to Dadaism was his collection of “readymades” – objects consisting of mass-produced articles isolated from their intentional function and displayed as a work of art.

Later, although he never created any art for the movement, Duchamp became an advocate for Surrealism. Members welcomed him into the fold in appreciation of his controversial readymades, which resonated with their ideologies. It is from this connection that Duchamp and Dalí met and formed a long-lasting friendship.

“Is it possible to make works, which are not works of art?” – Duchamp, 1913

The first two sections of the exhibition (Identities and The Body and the Object) contain some of the lesser known works of the two artists. It took a while for Dalí to establish his iconic style of dreamlike, surreal scenes, beginning his career by copying old master paintings. He proved himself to be a talented draughtsman but felt that by appropriating styles from other artists, he was not producing original art. Dalí went through an experimental period before settling on the technique for which he became famous.

Duchamp, on the other hand, experimented with identity in a more literal sense. Although Marcel Duchamp (born Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp) is the name he is remembered by, he operated under a selection of pseudonyms. The most significant of these is the alter ego he began assuming in the 1920s, Rrose Sélavy [misspelling intentional]. Going as far as cross-dressing, Duchamp switched between his two identities throughout his career, frequently altering his persona to fit with a particular piece of work. “I wanted to change identity … suddenly I had an idea: why not change sex? It’s much simpler!” (Duchamp, 1967)

Although it was Duchamp who become famous for his readymades, both went through periods of creating assemblages rather than paintings. Many of these are displayed in glass cases at the Royal Academy, including Dalí’s Lobster Telephone (1936). Some, if not all, of these examples are contentious, provoking the viewer to question what art is. But, more significantly, these objects create a sense of unease within the gallery.

Both Dalí and Duchamp openly expressed erotic themes in their creations. Whilst these may not be explicit, created by combining everyday objects, they are suggestive enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable. And for those who do not discern the references, the RA has provided captions and information to enlighten you.

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Fountain, 1917 (replica 1964) Duchamp

Amongst the collection of readymades is Duchamp’s most controversial work – perhaps the most controversial artwork of the 20th-century. Apart from the addition of a signature, what people initially see is a basic porcelain urinal positioned horizontally (on its side), however, this is actually the influential Fountain (1917) that sparked the debate about what can be considered art.

In order to remain anonymous (at least at the time), Duchamp signed the urinal with a pseudonym, R. Mutt and submitted it to an exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Despite paying the $6 entry fee, the organisers remained unimpressed and were convinced Duchamp was (to pardon the term) “taking the piss”.

In his defence, Duchamp wrote an unsigned letter to The Blind Man magazine titled “The Richard Mutt Case” in which he argued, “Whether or not Mr Mutt made it with his own hands has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an everyday article, placed it so that its usual significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – and created a new thought for that object.”

The Royal Academy provides a copy of the article but says no more on the subject, leaving it up to visitors to form their own opinion. It is possible to argue both sides of the is-it-art-dilemma and, being a subjective topic, there is no right answer.

It is Salvador Dalí who steals the show in the final sections of the exhibition. Perhaps because it is easier to understand and appreciate a painting as art, opposed to a readymade, you are immediately drawn to the large-scale canvases adorning the brightly lit walls of the Weston Galleries. The range of artworks span Dalí’s career and include his first undertaking of the Surrealist style. Les premier jours du printemps or The First Days of Spring (1929) was painted within the first few years of the movement’s inception, however, says more about Dalí’s persona than it does the doctrines set out by André Breton.

The empty landscape is an allusion to the beach-like area in which Dalí grew up in Catalonia, Spain, which he has filled with motifs that would eventually become a key feature of his iconography in future paintings. Amongst these mythical creations are a fish emerging from a tree and a grasshopper attached to a human head.

Centred in the middle of the painting is a photograph of Dalí as a young boy, implying that the painting is about him and not, as the title suggests, the literal beginning of spring. It has been suggested that the figures of man and boy represent the growing distance between Dalí and his father who was displeased with his son’s choice of profession. On the horizon, a man and child can be seen holding hands, but further forward on the left, a man sits with his back to the scene behind him.

Other paintings produced later in Dalí career are more recognisable than his first surrealist endeavour. Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938) conforms to the optical illusion style that Dalí is renowned for, in which the entire composition is made up of components that produce more than one scene. This cleverly constructed painting appears to be both a dish of pears and a phantasmal face floating above a beach (possibly another reference to Dalí’s home country). However, this is not the only illusion; what could be rocks or mountains becomes a dog’s head with a bridge and beach making its collar and nose. There are also a handful of motifs typical in a Dalí painting.

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Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí, 1951.

One large painting that catches the eyes of visitors as they enter the room is Christ of Saint John of the Cross completed by Dalí in 1951. Still appertaining to the style of Surrealism (despite Dalí having left the group in the 1940s), this artwork is remarkably different from his other works. Although it is not the only Dalí painting to contain religious iconography, it is not a theme usually associated with the artist.

Dalí has based the painting on a drawing by the 16th-century Spanish friar John of the Cross. It depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in a darkened sky, looking over a body of water in which fishermen are working – a reference to his disciples, perhaps.

Many artists have painted the crucifixion but Dalí’s version is quite different. Ignoring the placement of the cross and scenery, which is, of course, unusual, the painting lacks any nails, blood or crown of thorns. Dalí claimed to have a dream in which the importance of the lack of these features was revealed to him, as well as the exaggerated angle of the cross.

“In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!” – Dalí

Apart from its striking tones and realistic imagery, Christ of Saint John of the Cross attracts attention because it is one of the least expected images to see in an exhibition about Dalí and Duchamp. The movements they are associated with – Dada and Surrealism – both rejected systems of belief including religion, therefore to see an image of Christ on such a grand scale is very surprising. This may reflect back to his childhood, being brought up by his devout Catholic mother, and slowly becoming estranged from his atheist father, but this is only speculation.

Visitors may have preconceived ideas about what they will see at the Royal Academy’s Dalí/Duchamp exhibition. They are the type of artist people either like or do not, and there is the added issue of whether their work can be understood. Those expecting to see disturbing, disquieting or surprising “artworks” will be correct in their prediction, however, there is more to see than expected.

By presenting the artworks by theme, the Royal Academy takes the visitors through the different stages of thought the two artists went through during their careers. The beginning conforms to the preconceived ideas of the artists – satire, eroticism, readymades – but by the time visitors leave, after studying Dalí’s paintings, learning more about Duchamp’s Fountain and watching a couple of videos, chances are opinions would have changed. Perhaps on leaving, Dalí and Duchamp will go up in people’s judgement and appreciation, and possibly – although, maybe not – be better understood.

The Royal Academy of Arts will be continuing to display the Dalí/Duchamp exhibition until 3rd January 2018. The exhibition has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and The Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, Florida, in collaboration with the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation and the Association Marcel Duchamp. Tickets are £16.50, although Friends of the RA can go free. Please note, this exhibition contains some adult content.

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Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth

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Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958.

“One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.” Jasper Johns, 2006.

Jasper Johns (b.1930) is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker recognised for his iconic representations of the US flag. The Royal Academy of Arts in London has produced a thorough exhibition that provides insight into the artist’s life as well as his distinctive art style. Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ contains over 150 paintings and sculptures that Johns has completed throughout the past 60 years. Beginning with his earliest existing work (he destroyed everything prior to 1954), the exhibition explores the techniques and purposes behind his artwork and documents the gradual changes Johns employed as he developed as an artist.

At the beginning of Jasper Johns’ career, the art world was in the midst of the Abstract Expressionism movement where artists were vibrantly communicating their inner selves to the public through symbolic paintings. Johns, on the other hand, avoided all forms of existing art factions by painting things exactly as they are seen, destroying the idea that art must have a hidden meaning. By producing images of universally familiar objects, Johns wanted to represent things that are often seen but never really looked at in great detail. His idiosyncratic ideas have helped to raise him to the status of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

To say Johns was interested in painting the American flag is an understatement. Already this year, one of Johns’ flags has featured in an exhibition at the British Museum and the Royal Academy have collated a handful of different ones. In total, Johns painted the flag 27 times, used it within ten sculptures, drew it 50 times and produced 18 prints. He claims that “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” This suggests that his interest in the flag was originally nothing more than an urge to paint it, however, it later garnered a much stronger purpose and role within his artwork.

Beginning with the flag, Johns began a series of paintings that question things the mind is already aware of. He appropriated objects that the majority of people, at least in America, would have been familiar with since childhood. However, despite the lack of a symbolic meaning, Johns attempted to make the known unfamiliar to its audience. Flag (1958) is a realistic painting of the American flag (the one they had at the time before Alaska and Hawaii joined in 1959) with the stripes and stars exactly proportionate to the real thing. What Johns was interested in was whether other people saw it as a painting or as a flag – perhaps both. What is the expectation of a painting? Being presented on a stretched canvas, Flag cannot be raised on a flagpole and therefore cannot function as a true flag, therefore, one can argue that it is only a painting. On the other hand, if someone were to ask what the American flag looked like, showing them a Jasper Johns version would be just as good as showing them a photograph of the real thing – does that make the painting a flag?

To think too much about the function of Flag causes a lot of confusion and can never truly be resolved – there is no right or wrong answer. One thing that cannot be debated is its material; it truly is a painting. The brushstrokes produced by the artist’s hand are still evident when standing in front of the canvas. Johns uses a technique called encaustic, which he found much more beneficial than more traditional approaches. Encaustic painting involves mixing colour pigments with molten wax, which, although rather laborious to make, is quick drying and resists the effects of ageing and other damaging elements. It is easy to layer paintings using this medium and this can be seen in the majority of Johns’ paintings around the gallery. Today, Johns is one of the only remaining artists to employ this method.

As well as tangible objects, Jasper Johns painted other everyday motifs prompting similar questions about perception. Again, there were no hidden meanings behind these artworks and they could often function in the same way as their original counterpart. The RA displays painted maps and targets by the artist that, although evidently painted, can also function as a map or a target. Another interest of Johns are numbers, familiar figures that are seen all the time but rarely thought of as more than a piece of information.

Johns strips these numbers of their function in his charcoal drawing 0 Through 9 (1961) in which he has positioned each number on top of the other until left with a mess of lines and shape. It is still possible, by studying the artwork, to detect each individual number, but they have effectively been rendered purposeless. They neither inform or function as a number is traditionally meant to do. But, has that stopped them from being numbers?

As Johns continued to consider what a painting was rather than what it represented he began to move away from the traditional usage of the canvas. Often using collage as well as paint, the various layers in his works are obvious to the viewer and reveal how the piece was made. To draw attention to the canvas, Johns cuts, crops or extends it to make its presence more obvious. This is a technique he has employed in creating Painting with Two Balls (1960). By splitting the canvas and wedging in two wooden balls, Johns reveals the wall behind the painting. This emphasises that the viewer is seeing a painting on canvas, attached to a wall; there is nothing more meaningful about it.

Johns’ visual perception of everyday objects extends to his experimentation with sculpture, however, this is where the idea of the function becomes obscured. There’s no doubt that Johns was skilled at what he did, particularly in the case of Painted Bronze (1960) – one of the highlights of the exhibition. In a glass case, almost concealed amongst all the other art in the room, is what appears to be a selection of wooden paintbrushes in an old coffee tin – something that would be typically found in Johns’ studio. However, it is actually a hyper-realistic representation of brushes and a tin sculpted and cast in bronze, and then painted in oils. It is only by looking closely at the tin that the oil paint becomes noticeable. The words “Savarin Coffee”, for example, have demonstrably been painted by hand.

Unlike his flags and maps which could function as both a painting and an object, Painted Bronze has no physical purpose. Despite it looking like a tin full of paintbrushes, it would be impossible to pick one up and use it. This may be why Johns opted for the title Painted Bronze as opposed to Savarin Coffee Can or Tin of Paint Brushes.

Not only did Johns’ coffee can move away from the form and function theme, it was one of the first artworks that revealed something about the artist himself. Whereas his previous works had focused on everyday objects familiar to all, these brushes were more personal to Johns and were something he needed in his life to be able to live an artistic lifestyle. This sculpture marks a turning point in Johns’ career.

Until 1961, Jasper Johns had been in an intimate relationship with the artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), another pioneering artist of the time. The end of the seven-year romance resulted in a strong sense of emotional loss, which began to become evident in Johns’ work. Struggling with his personal feelings, he turned to language and words and began to incorporate these into his paintings. As a result, he became particularly interested in the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) who put forth the opinion that conceptional confusions surrounding language are at the root of most philosophical problems. Writing about semantics, Wittgenstein suggests that the meanings of words are in how they are used rather than what they are supposed to describe.

A couple of paintings in the exhibition may remind visitors of a particular brain game in which the task is to say the colour a word is written in and not the world itself. For example, if the word “black” is written in the colour red, one must, therefore, say “red”. In Jasper Johns’ False Start (1959) paint has been wildly splattered over the canvas in the primary colours: red, yellow and blue. Layered over the interlocking patches are the words “red”, “yellow” or “blue”, however, never on their respective colours. This explores Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and the meanings of words. What we see and what we read are two opposing details. Many people have been intrigued by this painting, and in 2006, it became the most expensive painting by a living artist, selling at $80 million.

During the 1980s, Jasper Johns became more personal with his works and his paintings began to include symbolism and meaning. However, this did not revert to the thought processes of Abstract Expressionism; it was still a unique endeavour on Johns’ part.

“In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly to do with my feelings about myself and partly to do with my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while, but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve.” Jasper Johns, 1984

The paintings Johns produced in this era are more meaningful for himself than anyone else viewing the painting. Johns was having trouble sleeping because he had too much on his mind. In order to sort through these thoughts, he painted six canvases titled Racing Thoughts in which he places his mental pictures onto a representation of a bathroom wall – implying he is thinking whilst taking a bath – to create a form of mood board.

The personal iconography in these paintings reflects on Johns’ past, his memories and his artistic influences. Occasionally they are metaphorical items, for instance, a skull which may represent death, but many are direct references to specific parts of his life. In one painting, located at the very beginning of the exhibition, Johns has combined a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and photograph of an art dealer, Leo Castelli, with other artistic allusions. This suggests that Johns admired the artist Leonardo Da Vinci, and the inclusion of Castelli is obvious since he was the man who gave Johns his first art show.

Despite the change in Jasper Johns’ artwork, he has not rejected the idea of perception and illusion. Within the six Racing Thoughts, he has experimented with trompe-l’œil with the inclusion of a commemorative vase for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. At first, all that may be seen is a white vase, but on further inspection, the negative space reveals the profiles of two faces: the Queen and Prince Philip.

These instances of optical illusion feature in later works, including Spring (1986) (pictured above) which was part of a series of four depicting the seasons. These are also the nearest Johns has got to a self-portrait, using a tracing of his shadow to make his presence known. Each painting contains objects, colours and trompe-l’œil that Johns associates with the four different times of the year.

As suggested by the title of the exhibition, Something Resembling Truth, the relationship between reality and illusion is Jasper Johns primary concern that he tackles in his paintings. Although he did not intend to conjure any subliminal meanings, many have wandered the gallery attempting to interpret what they saw before them. Each spectator may have produced their own subjective opinion based on their own knowledge and experience. However, no opinion is wrong when it comes to art. Johns may have been trying to paint something in reality with no emotions attached, but if it evokes something else in its audience, that is no less of a reality.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy has come to a close, but it has been well received by many visitors and friends of the academy. True to their typical style, the curators provided written information around the gallery to explain some of the artworks and also provide an insight into Johns’ life and thought process. With an audio guide that was included in the price of the ticket, the RA excelled themselves, producing something that was as informative as it was entertaining. This is something that remains consistent throughout the exhibitions hosted by the RA. Some people may not be moved by the artwork, however, the background information and knowledge make it worth a visit.

Many exhibitions take place throughout the year at the Royal Academy, so keep checking the website to see if there is anything that takes your interest.

Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with The Broad, Los Angeles.

Matisse in the Studio

I have worked all my life before the same objects … The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a different role in ten different pictures.

-Henry Matisse, 1951

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As well as the annual Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy of Arts has been exploring some of the work produced by one of the leading artists of the twentieth century. On 5th August, the Sackler Wing was opened to the public with an exhibition titled Matisse in the Studio, which, rather than being a general showcasing of the artist’s most famous work, concentrates on the relationship between Henri Matisse and his studio.

Throughout his life, Matisse obsessively collected objects that caught his eye in junk shops and places he visited on his travels. These items accumulated on shelves, on walls and in cabinets around Matisse’s studio, creating a self-constructed place of retreat from the rest of the world. These same articles were constant features in Matisse’s artwork and inspiration for future projects. With carefully selected paintings and sculptures, the Academy endeavours to impart the incentives behind Matisse’s art.

Henri Matisse was born in France on 31st December 1869. Unlike many artists of his age, Matisse was a late starter, having embarked on a legal career until 1891 when he abandoned his professional aspirations in favour of enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts. As a result, it was not until the 1920s that Matisse became internationally known, however, he still managed to achieve the status as one of the most illustrious painters of the twentieth century, alongside his friend, and fellow painter, Picasso (1881-1973).

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Yellow Odalisque, 1937

Unlike Picasso, who embraced the Cubist and Surrealist movements, Matisse developed his own style, which initially resembled art that could be categorised into the Neo-Impressionism movement of which Georges Seurat (1859-1891) was a founding member. Neo-Impressionists were drawn to the sensitivity of line and the beauty of colour, often encompassing a full palette.

Matisse’s work is also associated with the Fauvist style, which was predominantly in practice during the first decade of the 20th century. This, similarly, had a strong focus on colour, as well as wild brush strokes, and simplification or abstraction.

Matisse deviated from any traditional methods and movements, preferring to experiment with different principles and processes to create unique outcomes. He also took great interest in sculpture, which not only did he produce, he painted into his compositions.

Matisse in the Studio is divided into sections that group together works involving a particular genre or process. The paintings in the gallery span the years from his initial experimental phases during the First World War all the way up until the years preceding his death in 1954.

Essential objects from Matisse’s eclectic collection have been sought out by the curators to feature alongside the paintings in which they play a significant role. Rather than painting still-lifes of the actual items in question, Matisse likened them to actors who take on other personas. Instead of drawing a chocolate-pot, for example, the one gifted to him as a wedding present, Matisse used it as a vase to hold flowers. This same object featured in many paintings but never representing the purpose for which it was originally intended.

Another article in his collection that Matisse was completely enamoured with was a Venetian Chair that he stumbled upon whilst travelling in Europe. It is of a baroque nature with a silver gilt and tinted varnish. Matisse was particularly drawn to the scallop shell-like body work, which provided plenty of lines and angles to experiment with.

It was not only these found objects that made their way into Matisse’s paintings, he produced his own items too. Matisse was a versatile artist who often turned to sculpture whenever he reached a mind block in his painting. Sculpting help Matisse “to put order into my feelings” – a form of organisation rather than a means to an end. Due to his extensive travelling, Matisse fell in love with African sculpture.

Unlike traditional European statues that stay true to form, African art used simplified shapes to resemble the human body rather than portraying a lifelike representation. Between 1906 and 1908, Matisse accumulated over twenty masks and statues from Central and West African countries, and by studying them, developed his own in a similar style. The disregard of accurate physical forms was a significant turning point in Matisse’s artistic career. He began to challenge the attitudes of the Western world’s notion of beauty.

The strong, linear lines of African art worked well with the style Matisse was already becoming known for. The exhibition displays some of the paintings of the female nude that Matisse experimented with, however, quite a number of these are based upon sculptures he had made, rather than a live model. In the instances that he did have someone sit for him, the final painting resembled the African figures more than the physical person in front of him. Matisse believed that by stripping someone down to the bare lines created a truer character and avoided any risk of superficiality.

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The Italian Woman, 1916

African design also found itself entering Matisse’s portrait paintings. Again, rather than producing a lifelike picture, Matisse simplified the features as much as possible. In order to evoke a sense of his subject’s true identity, Matisse believed that accurate features would distract from this purpose.

An example hanging in the RA is a portrait of an Italian woman called Laurette, who Matisse allegedly painted fifty times in less than a year. With no photograph to compare it to, it can only be assumed that the flatness of the face and sharpness of the nose and eyebrows was not a precise representation of the model. This goes to show how fixed Matisse was on the concept of African art.

African masks, rather than sculpture, were the inspiration for the faces Matisse painted. He was particularly intrigued by their stylistic designs and lack of realistic human features. A few of his collection has been located by the exhibition curators and are on display for everyone to see. These date from the late 19th to early 20th century.

Interestingly, the majority of Matisse’s paintings of the human figure were not solely based on his sitter. Matisse painted in his studio surrounded by his accumulation of foreign artefacts, which he then used as part of the setting for his paintings. The photograph at the top of this page shows Matisse in his studio with a model. There are a number of other objects surrounding the woman, patterns in the background and many different materials. Once all this has been painted, the model becomes merely a part of the artwork, rather than the main focus. The particular scene in this photograph was for Matisse’s Odalisque on a Turkish Chair (1928), which can be found towards the end of the exhibition.

During the final decade of Matisse’s life, his ability to produce art was severely debilitated after a near-fatal operation in 1941 for duodenal cancer. During this period, he was mostly bedbound, however, this did not prevent him from continuing with his work, but his method of execution needed to change.

Rather than painting directly on to canvas, Matisse turned to gouaches découpées, which involved cutting out shapes from painted or coloured papers. Many of his studio workers assisted with the cutting and pinned the pieces in place following Matisse’s precise instructions. Some examples of this latter work clearly retain the evidence of the pins.

The paper cut out allows me to draw in the colour. It is a simplification for me. Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it – the one modifying the other – I draw straight into the colour.

-Henri Matisse, 1953

From African art to collage, Matisse’s work had always been about simplifying. Even his use of colour was made plainer with the lack of shadow and tone. This does not mean to say that Matisse’s work lacks colour – they are most certainly vibrant – but he leans more towards blocks of colour rather than a natural pigmentation. Apparently, Matisse’s doctor, whether in jest or seriousness, advised the artist to wear dark glasses to counteract the intensity of the paint.

Matisse is the type of artist that spectators either love or hate. His work is often child-like and unimpressive, however, as an artist, he introduced new ideas to the world. His Fauvist style established the notion of simplifying the human figure in order to focus on character rather than appearance. He also challenged the rule that the human figure should be the focus of an artwork. Instead, he gave surrounding objects and decorations identical treatment.

Although he relied on his art as a means of livelihood, Matisse appeared to be quite reclusive, preferring to hide away in his studio than spend time in the outside world. Rather than working for other people, Matisse was creating art for himself. With his collection of interesting objects, he generated a safe and comfortable retreat where he could focus on painting rather than the negative experiences in his life. Instead of pouring his emotion into his work, he let the paint bring himself some peace and happiness. If anything, it can be said that Matisse’s paintings have an air of positivity about them, regardless of whether the viewer finds favour with them.

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject-matter … like a comforting influence, a mental balm – something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.

-Henry Matisse, 1908

Matisse in the Studio is running until 12th November 2017 and is open to the public between 10 am and 6 pm on Saturdays to Thursday, however, extends to 10 pm on a Friday. Friends of the Royal Academy are, naturally, free to enter, although, are advised to book a timed ticket. Everyone else is required to pay a fee of £15.50 (includes donation). It does not take long to walk around the exhibition, but if you choose to follow the audio guide, be prepared to be there for at least an hour.

We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or an extremist undertaking: Matisse’s art is eminently reasonable.

-Guillaume Apollinaire in an article published in La Falange (1907)

l4fh1dyvt9x4cntwc7x0A final note –
The eagle eyed amongst visitors to the gallery will notice the numbers in the bottom right-hand corner next to Matisse’s signature. This is (quite obviously, in my opinion) the date in which the painting was completed and NOT, as my friend Martin thought, the artist’s self-analysis score!

America After the Fall

Painting in the 1930s

Art exhibitions can have various purposes: to show case an artist’s work, to explore a certain style or art movement, to inspire others, etc; but they can also educate you on a variety of subjects. The Royal Academy of Arts is currently running an exhibition that focuses on a particular timeframe and location: 1930s America. Titled America After the Fall, the curators have sourced a large display of paintings from various artists who depict the visual and economic climate during that period. To the ignorant spectator, the choice of artwork may have little significance, however, knowing the historical importance turns them into a perfect illustration of the life of Americans at that time. The academy helpfully supplies a written account and timeline of events around the gallery.

As the title suggests, America had fallen.  On 29th October 1929, the US stock market crashed causing a severe drop in the prices of goods and crops. This was the beginning of what is now labelled the Great Depression, which America took over a decade to start to recover from. These price drops, unfortunately, did not make consumer items cheaper to purchase. Instead, it made them more expensive to produce. Millions of people lost their jobs because their employers could no longer afford to pay them. People were living in poverty, often homeless or living in hand-built communities.

To complicated things further, the population of America was increasing dramatically, principally due to the inrush of Europeans escaping conflict and hoping to find jobs in the rising industrialised cities. As a result, the President and fellow politicians had to step in to resolve the devastating issue. America eventually recovered, but it was not easy. America After the Fall reveals the effects on the common people during this most dramatically changing era.

American Gothic

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This famous painting by Grant Wood (1891-1942) is the poster painting for America After the Fall, and arguably the main attraction. American Gothic (1930), as it is titled, has become one of the key icons of American art due to the principles it symbolises. The late nineteenth century-style house, along with the appropriately dressed, conservative couple represent the importance of family, manual labour and landscape for Americans at the time.

The placement of the two figures says a lot about the way farmers felt about the threat of industrialisation. Filling the canvas from left to right, the man and woman block the path to their home as though they are trying to prevent the viewer or the rest of America from infiltrating their land. The gripped pitchfork and stern faces evoke feelings of hostility and opposition. These are people who have worked hard to achieve results and do not want this taken away from them. Notice, however, only the man directly staring out of the painting. This suggests male dominance and demonstrates the inequalities befalling women at that time.

Daughters of Revolution daughters-of-revolution-1932

Two years after American Gothic, Grant Wood painted another icon of American art. Daughters of Revolution shows a contrasting scene to the rural one above.

Presumably, the three women are mother and daughters and, as the title suggests, were born after the American Revolution. DAR or Daughters of the American Revolution was a group founded in the nineteenth-century for decedents of soldiers who fought in the American War of Independence. Immaculate outfits, neat hairstyles, and a cool gaze emphasise the group’s claim to privilege and superiority.

The framed image in the background is a replica of Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Leutze. The year 1932, when Wood painted Daughters of Revolution, marked the bicentenary of George Washington’s birth. Placing the frame behind the women, in what is presumably their home, implies they truly believe in the greatness of their bloodline.

Wood, however, may have been mocking DAR in this painting, giving them plain, simplified faces, rather than features that evoke strong personality. Also, the inclusion of a tea cup is ironic in that it symbolises Britain, the empire they fought to break away from.


There are, of course, plenty of other paintings and artists to see in this exhibition. Additional works by Grant Wood are included amongst similar and contrasting images. What is easily noticeable is the range of styles portrayed across a small timeframe – something that would not have occurred during an earlier period of time. This gives visitors to the Royal Academy the opportunity to understand varying points of view about the crisis in America, as well as view the physical changes and developments of the land and industry.

Some artists, such as Stuart Davis (1892-1964) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967)  concentrate on city life, recording the fast-changing world through their independent styles. Whether these artists were successful at the time is irrelevant to today’s exhibition, what matters is their educational value. By painting an urban scene, artists are not only documenting the changes in physical appearance of the cities, they are reflecting the character of the population.

In constrast to the metropolitan landscapes are the country life focused paintings. Grant Wood is one of the key artists in this area, although as already mentioned, American Gothic and Daughters of Revolution were far superior. While the towns and cities became more industrious, the countryside had to adapt to create suitable roads to connect them together, or even to build new towns. This would not have helped the unemployment situation – the demolishing of farms would mean the termination of jobs and the loss of homes.

Although the landscape paintings show the changes and destruction of the countryside, it is arguably American Gothic that truly captures the effects on the rural population. The despondent feelings are far easier to capture in a face than in a farmland illustration.

Cityscapes and landscapes are not all that the exhibition has to offer. Some artists, instead of focusing on the world around them, looked to the future, producing dystopian scenes of doom and gloom, almost as if they believed the Great Depression a sign of the end times.

Some of these paintings follow a similar style to the previously mentioned, however many take on surrealistic themes, or are expressed in the form of abstract expressionism. Not everyone appreciates or understands these modern art techniques, but it exposes a confusion of feelings and anxieties Americans had at the time.

With hindsight on our side, some of the dystopian ideas may seem farfetched or laughable, but it makes us realise the seriousness the effects the stock market crashing had on an entire nation. Add that to the war brewing in Europe, and you have got yourself a very daunting situation.

America After the Fall is less about who painted what, or how so-and-so achieved such an effect, but rather a history lesson using imagery. The Royal Academy of Arts has achieved a museum-like effectiveness that teaches as much as it entertains – although, in a far more interesting way than a generic textbook or presentation would manage.

With artistic and historical appeal, America After the Fall is worth the visit, however it will not be on display forever. Closing on 4th June 2017, you have a couple of months to see the exhibition before it is too late.

Eastward Ho!

Not long ago, I visited the Museum of London with a friend because … why not? Whilst we were discovering the history of London (from prehistoric eras to the present day), we were both drawn to a particular painting hanging on the wall in the Expanding Cities – 1670s-1850s gallery. Neither of us were familiar with the artwork, nor the artist, but the bright colours were powerful and enticed me to have a closer look.

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Eastward Ho!

The painting, I learnt, was called Eastward Ho! by a man named Henry Nelson O’Neil, and was completed in c.1857/8. A minuscule notecard was situated to the left of the frame, providing an inadequate explanation and description of the artwork:

Soldiers are shown boarding a ship at Gravesend, leaving to fight in the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – the first Indian war of Independence. They are saying their final farewells to their loved ones. This immensely colourful and vibrant painting was Henry Nelson O’Neil’s most popular work.

The basic scenario has been explained, but who was Henry Nelson O’Neil? Why did he choose to paint this particular situation? How comes, if this work was so popular, I have never heard of it, nor him?  Let’s find out. Henry Nelson O’Neil, who are you?

Henry Nelson O’Neil

Henry Nelson O’Neil was born in Russia on 7th January 1817, however he spent the majority of his life in England, where he moved with his parents in 1823. Despite his origin of birth, his parents were British nationals, therefore his brief Russian beginnings had very little impact upon his future. Nothing is known about the O’Neil family, nor his childhood, until he entered the art scene in 1836 after enrolling at the Royal Academy.

The year 1838 saw O’Neil’s first exhibited artwork on display at the academy. Simply titled The Student, this picture – sadly unknown today – sparked off his career, resulting in almost 100 of his paintings adorning the academy’s walls during his life time. O’Neil produced a new painting almost yearly, experimenting with a range of subject matter. Art historians can assume the artist was an educated and cultured individual on account of his interest in painting scenes from literature and the Bible, as well as historical incidents.

O’Neil opted for striking colours, however his compositions were often criticised as faulty. It appeared that O’Neil was averse to demonstrating negative emotion in his artwork, resulting in unrealistic contexts. A particular example is titled The Parting Cheer (1861) which showed the emigration of British and European families at a time when this would have caused heartbreak, worry and despair. However, as the title suggests, O’Neil painted a cheerful atmosphere, implying that emigration was a cause for celebration rather than a time of uncertainty.

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The Last Moments of Mozart

More popular were O’Neil’s romantic scenes, particularly ones portraying the deaths of Mozart and Raphael. The Last Moments of Mozart (1849) shows the composer, moments from death, listening to a performance of his Requiem.

O’Neil also had a go at writing, publishing Lectures on Painting delivered at the Royal Academy containing a selection of talks he gave to students at the academy. Moving away from art, O’Neil also attempted a few pieces of literature, however he supposably was not all that successful in this venture. He also had a passion for music and enjoyed playing the violin. It may be assumed that O’Neil continued working until his death on 13th March 1880. His body is interred in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Compared with other artists of the era, O’Neil does not stand out amongst the greats, and today remains virtually unknown. The most significant endeavour during his lifetime is arguably his connection to the group of artists known as The Clique.

The Clique

Formed by Richard Dadd in the late 1830s, The Clique was a group made up of an assemblage of British artists, Henry Nelson O’Neil being amongst them. Not much evidence remains of The Clique‘s existence, however it is supposed that the group met up to sketch and receive opinions on their artwork.

The Clique apparently rejected academic high art in favour of genre painting – a term associated with the celebrated William Hogarth, who was probably a great influence to the group. They believed, like Hogarth, that art should be judged by the public, not by preexisting academic ideals.

Hopefully the Museum of London will continue to display Eastward Ho! as part of the exhibition, not only because it represents a particular event in London, but because it is one of the only remaining evidences of O’Neil’s existence. Although he may not have made himself known to the world, it would be a great shame to lose all recognition in the future.