Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Mary Sibande @ Somerset House

Mary Sibande (b.1982) is one of South Africa’s most notable contemporary artists, which makes it all the more surprising that this is her first solo exhibition in the UK.

Sibande calls herself a sculptor but she is also a very good photographer. In fact she mainly works with fabric, sewing her own fabric-based sculpture, and the friend I visited the exhibition with described her as a fabulous seamstress – hence, presumably, the show’s title, I Came Apart at the Seams.

For Sibande hit upon an idea early on in her career and has been producing variations on it for over a decade. The idea was to create life-size mannequins of herself, except

  1. imagined as an alter-ego or avatar, who she named Sophie
  2. to pose these sculptures in striking postures and activities
  3. and to dress them in elaborate, sometimes fantastical, almost science-fiction garments

Over the years she’s used this simple-sounding idea to produce some quite simply staggering works of art. I’m amazed she’s not better known and hasn’t been snapped up by one of the major galleries. This is a FREE exhibition at Somerset House so if you’re passing along the Embankment or through Covent Garden it’s well worth making a detour to visit.

Blue

Long Live The Dead Queen (2008-13) was the series in which we first met Sibande’s avatar, Sophie, conceived as a domestic servant – as Sibande’s mother and grandmother were before her. In various iterations Sophie is seen either as a sculpture or in enormous crystal-clear digital photos, transforming her servant costume (in one iteration she is embroidering the Superman logo onto it) in a series of dreams of escaping her lowly status and gender.

I Put A Spell On Me by Mary Sibande (2009)

Purple

Sibande’s next series was titled The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17). In these Sophie is embodied as ‘The Purple Figure’.

The title is a play on words, making two references, mashing up the opening principle of the 1955 Freedom Charter of the African National Congress stated that ‘The People Shall Govern!’ – with the 1989 anti-apartheid Purple Rain protests.

During these, thousands of anti-apartheid protesters marched on the parliament building in Cape Town and the police sprayed the protesters with water cannon marked with purple dye so that they could be identified and arrested later. However, some of the marchers got their hands on the water cannon and turned it back onto the police and authorities, spraying them and thus symbolically equalising everyone.

Anyway, in Sibande’s hands the colour purple is the inspiration for a series of absolutely wild photos and fabric-sculptures, in which the Sophie figure is transfigured into a force of nature out of whose body and clothes and hair, wild dreadlocks or roots or tendrils cascade and explode in a twirling confusion.

A Terrible Beauty is Born (Long Live The Dead Queen series) by Mary Sibande (2013) Copyright the artist

The above is an enormous digital print which is a) of wonderful clarity and precision b) printed onto fabric not paper and hung across one whole wall and c) is totally wild.

The po-faced seriousness of the political commentary on her works – the references to apartheid and this or that protest – in no way prepares you for the wild, crazed, science fiction pullulation of her imaginings.

It is extravagant, operatic – dreams, nightmares or visions on an epic scale and all the more weird and compelling for having been made, created, carefully and time-consumingly sewn out of fabric.

One entire room in the show consists of an absolutely amazing piece of sculpture – the black woman Sophie wrapped in purple fabric, while her hair appears to be exploding backwards into a huge tangled skein which is itself intertwining to form something like the roots of a tree. It is as if the human being is metamorphosing into an awesome, phantasmagorical force of nature.

It’s one of the weirdest and most powerful works of art I’ve ever seen.

A Reversed Retrogress Scene 2 by Mary Sibande (2013)

Red

Sibande’s latest series is titled In The Midst of Chaos There Is Also Opportunity (2017-). In these Sophie has transformed into ‘The Red Figure’ – red to express the collective disillusionment and anger of many South Africans at the enduring poverty in post-apartheid South Africa.

So blood-red is for anger, but also the power to heal and restore – there’s something of the priestess and healer in the Red Figure. She is sad, she is angry – but she is also empowered by the legacy and memory of all those who gave their lives to overthrow apartheid.

Come, you spirits of the land and the skies by Mary Sibande (2019)

As I say, the commentators, the curators, and Sibande herself, are happy to describe her art in terms of South Africa’s apartheid and post-apartheid history, the struggle for liberation and the long disappointment that came afterwards, and so on.

Maybe that’s where her art starts. But in my opinion where it goes to is somewhere altogether different, somewhere weird, strange and entrancing, to a zone which is disturbing, upsetting, amazing and supremely memorable.

Look closely and you’ll see that Sophie’s eyes, in all her reincarnations, are always closed: she is dreaming, according to the curators, dreaming of freedom and equality etc.

But the way I read it, Sophie is having dreams far bigger than paltry ones about politics and justice – dreams which are far more disruptive and uncontrolled and weird and enthralling, about human nature itself.

A Terrible Beauty and A Reversed Retrogress show humanity morphing into something much bigger and more cosmic than petty concerns about this or that cause or country –  in them the purple and red figures are becoming cosmic, entwining with the natural world, seizing power and going beyond the human into an extraordinary new realm of the imagination.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

Matisse in the Studio @ the Royal Academy

‘What is significant is the relation of the object to the artist, to his personality, and his power to arrange his sensations and emotions.’ (Matisse, 1935)

Upstairs in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy, five rooms are devoted to a beautiful exploration of how Henri Matisse gathered round himself and kept in his studio a rich collection of objects and textiles which he either incorporated directly into paintings or used as inspiration for his work.

I had expected a vague exploration of ideas and themes but in fact the show is extremely practical, displaying actual objects – chairs, tables, rugs, tapestries, statuettes and masks, vases, jugs and pots, classical and non-European sculptures, which Matisse acquired over his long creative life – right next to paintings which directly represent them or are inspired by them.

What’s noticeable about this ‘group portrait’ of objects from Matisse’s studio is how many of them are pretty mundane containers – jugs and glasses and bowls and cups. An indication of the sheer number of still lifes he painted and the essentially static, tranquil nature of his art.

The Object as Actor

‘A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.’ (Henri Matisse)

Using this quote we can interpret Matisse as a director who conceives of the objects in his studio as actors to be cast in different ‘roles’, according to the requirements of different compositions. Among these object-actors the exhibition includes a chocolate pot, a striking antique Venetian chair, and a small exquisitely painted table, plus other objects Matisse owned. All of them are positioned alongside Matisse paintings which incorporate them. Here’s the table:

and here’s the painting, Yellow Odalisque, which it appears in.

Matisse was given this coffee pot, sometimes used for making chocolate, by a friend on the occasion of his marriage in 1898:

Cafetière en argent, France, début du xixe siècle, chocolatière, argent, poignée en bois teinté. Musée Matisse Nice

Cafetière en argent, France, début du xixe siècle, chocolatière, argent, poignée en bois teinté. Musée Matisse Nice

It plays a starring ‘role in numerous Matisse pictures:

The nearly 40 years which separate these two works show the enormous distance he travelled from an essentially realistic to an essentially decorative art. His marriage had broken up a few months before the 1940 work was painted. Is the inclusion of the chocolate pot a sad memento of a much earlier, happier period? And the fierce black of the table top an indication of his mood?

A glass vase:

Vase, Andalusia, Spain, early 20th century. Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernadez, Nice

Vase, Andalusia, Spain, early 20th century. Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernadez, Nice

A painting incorporating the glass vase:

Safrano Roses at the Window (1925) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Safrano Roses at the Window (1925) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Something not mentioned in the catalogue is the way a lot of these containers and receptacles may well be actors which are posed in different sets and compositions; but they also wear different costumes in each role – in the sense that they contain different things in different pictures. Admittedly, these are mostly flowers, but still, the objects are most brought to life when set off against or containing other, organic, flowing and brightly coloured objects (flowers). They are always co-stars.

African art

Two rooms focused on the importance of African art – first bodies, then faces. Matisse acquired his first African artefact in the autumn of 1906 and by 1908 owned some 20 African masks and figurines. (He showed them to his frenemy Pablo Picasso, who also began incorporating them into his work.)

The wall panels inform us that the African artefacts helped Matisse to escape from the traditional Western way of seeing the human figure – not just for the sake of it but because these strangely shaped objects from a far distant culture revealed a completely new reality and a wholly new route to achieving emotional authenticity.

Maybe the entire Modernist movement in art can be summarised here, in this gesture — Emotional impact entirely supersedes figurative accuracy.

I love African art. I love its strong lines, its clarity and definition and solidity. Maybe my favourite works in the entire British Museum are the wonderful Benin bronzes. So I was quite thrilled enough just to enjoy looking at, sizing and weighing in my mind, the wonderfully strange angles, the shiny black wooden surfaces, the uncanny perfectness of the dozen or so African statuettes on display.

Jomooniw male and female figures, Bamana region, Mali, 19th-early 20th century. Private collection. Photograph by Robert Monnier

Jomooniw male and female figures, Bamana region, Mali, 19th-early 20th century. Private collection. Photograph by Robert Monnier

Matisse thought they revealed some ‘truer, more essential character’ lying beneath the superficial surface of things. It was the Edwardian period, after all, when most men and women dressed and behaved with what we would now find unbearable formality. Matisse admired ‘the jutting forms’ and ‘abrupt transition between body parts’. Instead of the lulling smoothness and sensuality of Greek sculpture, these African figurines seem energised and dynamic. New jagged visual rhythms.

The show sets his African collection against the Matisse paintings and sculptures which drew inspiration from their jagged, non-European, unsmoothness. Their ungainliness, squatness, their voodoo blankness and tremendous visual power. Hence paintings like:

Or sculptures like Two women which, while not slavishly copying the African work, clearly use them as a doorway into a chunky, elemental way of handling the human form which is walking away from the Greek and Roman tradition. (To be honest, I much prefer the African originals. Matisse seems to me to be on the way somewhere, whereas the African figurines and masks seem to me beautifully finished embodiments of their traditions and cultures.)

Two Women (1908) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Two Women (1908) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

The portrait

The next room is about ‘the portrait’ and features more African works, specifically a selection of wonderful tribal masks. The commentary points out that Matisse was attracted to the inscrutability of these African masks – they betray no emotions or feelings. This supported Matisse’s feeling that the emotional impact of a work comes not from overt expressions on the faces of his sitters, but from the composition, from the lines and shapes, and from the use of intense colouring.

Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century.Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century. Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

The walls of the exhibition are dotted with quotes from the great man and one stood out for me, where he describes the way these tribal masks bring out

‘the deep gravity that persists in every human being.’

We take other people (and ourselves) so much for granted. Yet we are each as deep and complex and mysterious as the universe. From the deep impassivity of the masks Matisse drew the feeling to create works like:

You can quite literally see how these numerous objects from alien cultures helped Matisse to escape from the Western tradition, to break free, to formulate a new language, using design and colour to express new moods and feelings.

It’s not all African by any means. On another wall is a fragment of a Roman statue of a body, placed next to some of the cutouts from Matisse’s classic collection, Jazz.

The studio as theatre

This little room is the only one that actually feels a bit like a studio, containing as it does a wide variety of artefacts from the Islamic world covering the walls, as well as a huge photograph of Matisse in his fabric-festooned studio with model in ‘exotic’ dress.

Photograph of Matisse painting the model Zita at 1 Place Charles-Félix, Nice, 1928

Photograph of Matisse painting the model Zita at 1 Place Charles-Félix, Nice, 1928

Matisse relocated from Paris to Nice at the end of the Great War and began collecting items from the French colonies of Algeria (which he visited in 1906) and Morocco across the sea in North Africa. This room displays a Moorish tray, table and a big screen which he owned. A haiti is a traditional perforated wall hanging. Matisse owned several.

Haiti, North Africa, late 19th-early 20th century. Private collection, on loan to Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernandez, Nice

Haiti, North Africa, late 19th-early 20th century. Private collection, on loan to Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernandez, Nice

And next to it hang several examples of the innumerable odalisques he painted during the 1920s, showing how he incorporated rugs, tapestries, the tables and so on directly into the compositions.

The Moorish Screen (1921) by Henri Matisse. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950. Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

The Moorish Screen (1921) by Henri Matisse. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950. Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

The commentary points out that, for the previous hundred years or so, the genre of the ‘odalisque’ depicted young women in Eastern harems with an emphasis on their sensual if not sexual quality. What is noticeable in the numerous odalisques Matisse painted is the complete absence of sensuality; instead, they are opportunities for semi-abstract exercises in pattern, design and colour.

Naked they may be, and their pink nipples and black eyes stand out, sometimes – but by and large it is the soft furnishings which are the stars of these paintings. The faces, in particular, are constructed with the minimum of lines and colour, almost like abstract masks.

The Language of Signs

In 1941, Matisse was diagnosed with duodenal cancer. The surgery was successful but led to serious complications which nearly killed him. Bedridden for three months, Matisse developed a new art form using coloured paper and scissors.

This final room is full of the big bright bold abstract cutouts and designs Matisse created in his final period, which he himself described as his ‘second life’. Possibly this is the most impressive and simply beautiful room in the exhibition. Again Matisse put it well when he said:

‘There is no principal feature, only the pattern is important.’ (1935)

In this photo you can see Matisse in bed working on a late paper cutout.

Hanging above Matisse’s bed is an impressive wooden panel of Chinese calligraphy, which his wife Amélie gave him on his 60th birthday in 1929. Well — it is hanging in this exhibition! Sentimental, but this one object more than any of the others, made me feel physically close to the great genius.

Calligraphy panel, China, 19th century, Qing dynasty. Photo © François Fernandez, Nice

Calligraphy panel, China, 19th century, Qing dynasty. Photo © François Fernandez, Nice

And next to it hang a number of brightly coloured cutout works in which you can trace and guess its influence. The Eskimo from 1947, is made up of five separate panels made up of motifs painted with coloured gouache. Possibly the fourth panel depicts a human face, the Eskimo of the title, done in the style of one of the tribal masks, its rectangular frames and triangular wedge completely different from the biomorphic, seaweed design of the other four panels.

There are some more African works, but in a different key, this time fabrics with abstract designs and, again, paintings and works which use the motifs and patterns as inspiration for his own uniquely bright and happy, coloured cutouts. In this final room everything has become subsumed to the search for pattern and beauty.

Summary

This lovely exhibition brings together an unprecedented number of objects from Matisse’s studio to show how (in the catalogue’s words) ‘they offered points of departure to which he could return again and again, appearing and reappearing in his work in different guises and across spans of decades, reinvented afresh in each new setting.’ It is also an entertaining overview of the career and development of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, from the earliest work here, circa 1900, to the final, wonderful, dancing cutouts of the 1950s.

Beautiful.

Inspiring.


The video

No modern exhibition is without its promotional video. Here’s Tim Marlow introducing Matisse in 60 seconds.

Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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