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Body or Brain…

An impossible question but something to ponder following last Saturday’s study visit to Henri Matisse The Cut-Outs and the Richard Hamilton retrospective at TATE Modern. Gerald Deslandes, Art History tutor, and I knew we were setting up a challenging day as in total there are 32 rooms to look at. I want to congratulate the students on their stamina and I hope some of them will offer their experiences in comments on this post.
What was striking about many of Matisse’s cut-outs was how much they were inspired by sensual memory. In Oceania, a room full of cut-outs based on his visit to Tahiti 16 years earlier, birds, fish, coral and leaves float across the walls. He says ‘With my eyes open I absorbed everything as a sponge absorbs liquid. It is only now that these wonders have returned to me, with tenderness and clarity’. For Matisse, necessity drove invention, when recovering from surgery he needed a way to make work more quickly and easily. Despite his failing health, Matisse could cut out shapes free hand with impressive speed and certainty. His body held the memory of decades of practice and all his visual references were stored within him.
What we cannot see from reproductions is that the cut-outs are far from perfect; all the physical evidence of making is on show. Edges overlap, there are scissor marks, glue residue and masses of pinpricks where he carefully arranged and rearranged pieces on the wall to achieve his final composition. The lack of neatness and precision and the incorporation of accidents give the work movement and dynamism, to which we respond with our own bodily memories.
Toboggan, 1947, (from the book Jazz)
Hamilton’s innovations were driven by intellectual curiosity and the desire to question the popular culture around him. With his use of everyday objects and the language of advertising and mass media much of his reference material was in everyday use. One can be irritated by Hamilton’s ‘knowingness’, he makes very obvious references to art history and contemporary brand design, but I think you have to admire his commitment to an idea. He will use everything, indignation, humour, uneasy combinations of materials and considerable technical skill to try and communicate his concerns.
In the series Fashion-plates, we see a photographic studio with a selection of women, whose fragmented faces are a collage of magazines and painted features. These pieces veer between the seductive and the grotesque as they highlight how women’s faces in popular culture are so ubiquitous that eyes, noses, mouths and hair are interchangeable.
Fashion-plate (cosmetic study) 1969
Hamilton’s attention to technical and conceptual detail is evident in this group of works. He photographed a studio in Milan to create the photographic setting used for each image, and this was silkscreened onto sheets of paper. His painting is skilled, the collaged elements precisely cut and the series is generously framed in elegant white. Like Matisse the compositions are extremely considered, unlike Matisse they are still, almost frozen. I think it may partly be this silencing of the body that gives these pieces their emotional charge. Hamilton’s dismantling and reconstruction creates insight and Matisse’s produces sensation. Let’s value both.

Posted by author: Angela Rogers
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7 thoughts on “Body or Brain…

  • Is it a weakness that the appreciation of Matisse’s work has to be viewed armed with knowledge about the artist? (knowledge that is not essential part of the work). ie that the work in the cut-outs is imperfect because of his fragile health? Is the implication that Matisse deliberately left the imperfections, knowing that they did indeed give the work emotional energy?
    Hamilton’s work on the other hand, is, as you suggest, technically precise and elegant and could be viewed and critiqued as stand alone works of art. There is power in both, I agree, but maybe what bothers me is something I often find a little irritating – the willingness to ascribe a great artist ‘leeway’ – whilst viewing the individual work of other artists with less sympathy and, with the benefit(?) of an unbiased eye.
    I guess what I’m struggling to ask is, would the same piece of work, with another name beside it be so sensitively interpreted?

    • Good points Nicky.
      I think it’s almost impossible to view art without thinking about what we already know or even assume about an artist. As 21st century viewers of art we probably wouldn’t comment on scissor marks and glue stains in themselves because we don’t see them as imperfections, but in the context of mid-twentieth century they are significant. As students I think it’s important to know about Matisse’s physical and emotional state because it shows how innovation can be the result of something very pragmatic like ill health.
      With regard to leeway, at the time Matisse produced his cutouts I think you’re right it would have been difficult for a less successful artist to have had that kind of work accepted and appreciated. The Hannah Hoch collages, seen on a previous study visit at the Whitechapel Gallery earlier this year, pre-date Matisse’s cut-outs. Hoch’s pieces are on a much smaller scale, carefully constructed and often make pointed political or social comments. We know that as a Dadaist she has never been given the same recognition as the male artists in the group, which just goes to support your point.

  • I haven’t seen the shows but I have heard the Matisse cut outs are very large and that you have to move your eyes, even your head, to experience them. It is very hard to appreciate them from reproductions or computer images. I was wondering what scale the Hamilton collages were?

  • Hamilton’s Fashion-plate series are 100 x 70 cms. Much of the Matisse’s work in the exhibition is on a large scale, but not all, the cut-outs for Jazz are only 30/40 – 50/70 cms.

  • Matisse’s cut-outs lose a lot in their reproduction. In the current exhibition there is his original work and a print of the ‘same’ cut-out. There is a tidying up evident in the reproduction – an evening out of colour between two cut-out pieces of paper, straightening of irregularities and even the addition of some smaller elements or their removal when compared to the original, and of course the scissor irregularities eliminated.
    However, I for one will be going again to see it.
    As to the scale of the pieces – they are sculptural in scope and scale. It’s like Henry Moore on paper.
    Thanks Angela and Gerald for insight and advise on the day at the Tate.

  • I went on the Matisse/Hamilton study visit and found quite a few things that surprised me.
    Firstly in the Matisse exhibition the sheer scale of his work was quite astonishing as was a photograph of an elderly Matisse standing drawing on a wall with charcoal on a stick maybe not as frail as some would have you believe. It is a great exhibition and well worth a visit if you are in town, my favourite pieces were the charcoal wall drawing and “Zulma” who is blue and almost a nude and seemed to me to be the precursor of the blue nudes.
    Hamilton’s was mostly along the same scale, some pieces filling an entire room with perhaps the biggest surprise being the smallness of “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different , so appealing” This too is a great exhibition and not too be missed if only for “Untitled 2011”, Hamilton’s last painting that harks back to the Renaissance.
    I think the link between the two exhibitions is that they both chart an artist’s development through time and it is fascinating to see the flashbacks across the whole of each artists work.
    The day was most enjoyable not least for the wealth of knowledge imparted by Angela and Gerald . It was especially nice to meet other students, who although on other courses seemed to be struggling with similar ideas and concepts and I am looking forward to going on another study visit.

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