Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Every year the National Portrait Gallery holds an exhibition displaying the 60 or so photographs which made the shortlist for the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a leading international photographic portrait competition.

5,717 photos were entered for the 2017 competition, from a total of 2,423 photographers, based in 66 countries. The exhibition of this top 60 opened in mid-November and continues until 8 February.

A first, second and third prize are awarded, along with the John Kobel prize for best work by a photographer aged under 35.

This is the third year when they’ve also had an ‘In Focus’ feature, profiling a specific photographer. This year it is Todd Hido, an American photographer represented by four big studio shots of women.

I guess there are several ways to approach an exhibition like this. Since it happens every year, you could compare it with last year’s and the year before’s exhibitions with a view to spotting changing trends and developments. Alas, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of previous years to do that.

If you’re a photography buff you will be interested in technique or device, for example the use of digital versus film photography, or the use of new lenses, maybe new ways of using light and shadow, of composition etc. Alas, I know next to nothing about cameras. But also, the information panels next to each photo, often four or five paragraphs long, give little or no technical information but instead focus on the psychology, the mood and feel of the photos, and often discuss the ‘issues’ they raise or ‘investigate’.

You can just saunter round seeing what takes your fancy – which plenty of people were doing on the day I visited, including a gaggle of junior school children who were having a great time being asked by their teachers what they liked and why.

Or you could regard it as what Roland Barthes called a corpus, a body of work to be analysed, a set of 60 photographs to be analysed as a group or cohort, finding themes and patterns in it, maybe hazarding a guess at how it indicates ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘Zeitgeist’.

In this respect, it was notable that two of the three prizewinning photos addressed the issue of refugees and war.

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

First prize went to César Dezfuli for his portrait of a migrant rescued in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. His photo is of Amadou Sumaila, a sixteen-year-old from Mali, who’s just been plucked from a refugee boat by an Italian rescue vessel and is looking understandably troubled. César received £15,000 for his photograph, I wonder how much Amadou got.

Second prize (£3,000) went to Abbie Trayler-Smith for her photograph of a girl fleeing ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. Abbie, a former BBC producer, was working for Oxfam at the Hasan Sham displaced persons camp in Iraq, documenting the charity’s work helping people fleeing ISIS. A bus was bringing in people who had, only hours earlier, been in a battle zone. For me this was probably the best photo in the show, in the sense of the deepest and most haunting image, the streaks of sand left by rainwater trickling down the bus window contrasting with the detached beauty of the woman’s face.

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

But these two were the exceptions – there weren’t many other photos from combat zones, trouble spots or areas of distress e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Bangladesh. Periodically I flick through the couple of books I have by war photographer Don McCullin. There was nothing that intense or first hand here. Surfing through the websites of the featured photographers I came across some tough images by Adam Hinton of street gangs in El Salvador and the ruins of Kiev. There was nothing that gritty on display here.

Also, I happen to have recently visited the Tate Modern exhibition about Russian revolutionary art, a lot of which – films, photos and posters – depicts the proletariat and peasants at work, in fields, in factories, driving combine harvesters or sweating near blast furnaces. In this whole exhibition I think there was only one photograph of a person actually working, a black guy in South Africa holding a garden strimmer.

And despite two shots of boys in football strip, there were no shots of sports actually taking place, or in fact of any activities at all. A guy washing his feet in a sink. A mother in a natural pool with her baby and son. Four ladies holding floats in a swimming pool. That’s about as energetic as it got.

Maybe portraits have to be static. But can’t you have portraits of people doing something? Most of the photos here seemed posed and passive, exuding calm and poise. Take the third prize, which went to Maija Tammi from Finland for her portrait of a Japanese android called Erica. Android!? Yes, Erica is a robot made by Japanese scientists. Tammi had half an hour in the lab with Erica and one of her designers to take photos of the (disturbingly lifelike) android. The curators claim the photo ‘addresses issues’ of human versus robot etc, but for me, as an image, its main quality is its supreme calm and placidness.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

Static

Quite a few of the photos just showed people in static positions, posed face-on to the camera or only slightly turned and positioned. Take, for example, the two photos from Owen Harvey’s series of Skins and Suedes. This one combines teenage surliness (‘Who you lookin’ at?’) with vulnerability, a kind of tough helplessness. Fine – except that quite a few of the other photos in the exhibition use exactly the same pose and approach.

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London, from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Some of them were very static indeed, posed with a kind of deliberately geometric sterility.

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

The overwhelming vibe of the show was of this placid, sterile, posed, numb effect. Maybe this is a ‘sign of the times’.

American dominance

This latter photo brings us to the issue of America’s representation in the show.

Since the introduction makes much of numbers –  5,717 photos submitted etc – I did a little counting of my own. Of the 60 or so photos on display, no fewer than 22 are from or about America – starting with Todd Hido’s four studio portraits.

There’s a whole wall of six or so American political photos, including ones of Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton – the latter a worryingly big close-up of the lady in full campaign mode, reminding us of her hawkish foreign policy record, and that she is 70 years old (albeit younger than Trump, 71, or Bernie Saunders, 76: America the Gerontocracy).

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

These figures of power were placed next to a pair of photos of poor women taken against, or rather through, the metal grilles of part of the wall between the US and Mexico, as well as shots of blue collar Trump supporters, a teenage American gun fan, and so on.

The very first photo in the exhibition is by an American of a classic American subject – two drum majorettes caught in a casual moment. There’s a shot of a young black guy posed on a horse, a stylishly dressed black girl on Venice beach, the naked mum in a pool in Idaho. There, in other words, are lots of Yanks in this show.

This latter photo (below) is striking because it is, for this show, an unusually dynamic composition, the outstretched arm and leg making striking diagonal lines and the swimming boy nearly making three sides of an X shape. It is a rare example of a relatively unposed photo, the woman reaching for her glasses (are they glasses) giving it an air of precariousness and risk missing from almost all the other works here.

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water's Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water’s Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Having brought up two children since they were babies, I wasn’t charmed by this image of primal innocence (if that’s the intention): I was mainly worried about the safety of the baby!

Anyway, health and safety aside, my point is: how come so many Americans?

The US population is 323 million, just 4.25% of the global population of 7.6 billion. Why, then, were over 30% of the photos in this international competition by or about Americans?

Maybe because we in Britain are so drenched in Americana, through movies, TV shows, pop and rock and country music and so on, through the voices of academics and journalists on radio and TV, that we half believe these images and icons are ours. We somehow believe that we have a special claim on, or connection with, American culture. Maybe this is why British intellectuals get so very cross about Donald Trump almost as if he’s president of our country, and we hear so much about American domestic policy, about its race relations, or its abortion clinics, or the endless coverage of every new scandal from Hollywood, as if it directly affects us in Clapham and Cleethorpes and Clovelly.

Or maybe America is just so big and rich that it has a disproportionately large number of well-educated graduates of art and photography courses, plus an enormous network of magazines of all shapes and sizes and styles, and competitions and prizes and money – an entire ecosystem which can sustain tens of thousands of photographers. And so the quality of the best American photographers just is among the best in the world, and so they just deserve to dominate every international photography competition.

George S. Texas 2016 from the series "Age of Innocence" Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

George S. Texas 2016 from the series Age of Innocence: Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

Having counted the number of photos with American subject matter, I then turned to examine the list of photographers. I counted 51 photographers, responsible for 62 photographs (see below for a complete list of photographers and how many photos they have in the show). Of those 51 photographers, 31 are British and 9 are American. I.e. 40 out of the 51 photographers in the exhibition (78%) are British or American.

This is a bit disappointing. What about China (pop. 1.4 billion), India (pop. 1.3 billion), Indonesia or Brazil? And although it’s less populous (144 million), I always wish there was more coverage of Russia in shows like this, Russia being the largest country in the world, with its vast Siberian hinterland occupied by all sorts of interesting tribes and ethnic groups.

Considering that China will become the economic powerhouse of the world, and Putin’s Russia presents a distinct threat to the West, in both military and digital terms, I think the more we see and understand about these countries and their people the better; and so – fairly or unfairly – I can’t help thinking that supposedly ‘global’ competitions which don’t adequately represent them are missing a trick.

Maybe the disproportionately high number of British and American entrants is for the simple reason that the competition is well publicised in these countries, which after all have a large cultural overlap. Maybe the competition is just not very well promoted in other countries (even in other Anglo countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which didn’t have any representatives here). Maybe the Anglo bias of the show reflects the difficulty of publicising it elsewhere.

All I know for sure is that, against this Anglocentric backdrop, the handful of colourfully non-Anglo subjects really stood out.

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Cool photo. By an American, though.

Humour

Not many people in these photos are smiling let alone laughing. Just like in last year’s BP Portrait Award show (for painted portraits), happiness seems to be verboten. Maybe it’s a function of the highly posed nature of most of the photos: the subjects obviously felt they had to be on their best behaviour.

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Having recently read a few books about Surrealism my head is also full of bizarre images created by yoking together unexpected juxtapositions, as in the numerous cutouts and collages of Max Ernst.

Only one photo of the 60 or so here really played at all with these possibilities of photography as a medium. Typically, it was not only a) American but b) very earnest.

It represents the experience of Swedish photographer Alice Schoolcraft who visited her American relatives only to discover that they were Bible-thumping, gun-toting Republicans, and particularly fond of their German Shepherd dog. Hence this photomontage which, I felt, was neither as weird or as convincingly photoshopped as it ought to be.

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Women’s bodies

Women appear to be much more interested in their bodies than men are in theirs, as facts and figures from GPs, hospitals, pharmacies, the fashion and beauty industries, and anecdotal evidence suggest. Probably because women’s bodies are so much more interesting than men’s bodies, dominated as they are by the great central Fact of childbirth, which overshadows their lives – from the advent of menstruation to the onset of the menopause, via a lifetime worrying about contraception, with maybe one or more pregnancies to live through, babies to deliver in agony, and then the long, wearing years of child rearing.

All this to cope with before you even consider the non-stop pestering and objectifying by boys and men, and the great weight of social pressure to conform, be polite and submissive, dress well and look good at all times. What a nightmare!

These thoughts were prompted by the fact that buried in the show is an unobtrusive strand about girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and old age. I wonder if the organisers knew it was there – it would be nice to think it was a very subtle piece of thematic planning. But deliberate or not, ten or so of the pictures could be arranged to form a kind of ‘life cycle of a woman’. They kick off with this graphic photo of childbirth.

Sophie's first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

Sophie’s first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

I’ve referred to the photo of the mum swimming with a baby, above, which stands for babies and toddlers. Next in this ‘life cycle’ would come photos showing:

  • a pre-pubescent girl in a swimsuit in a poolside shower
  • a clutch of sulky punk girls from London’s streets (the third photo in this review)
  • the stylish young black woman in torn jeans posing on Venice beach

Then there’s another medical shot, focusing on a specifically female condition – a photo of a woman’s stomach indicating operations resulting from her endemetriosis. In fact it’s the photographer’s own body, Georgie Wileman having suffered from this horrible condition and turned her plight into a photographic project.

Early in my career I produced and directed a dozen medical videos which involved researching some pretty horrible conditions, looking at hundreds of photos of disfigured bodies, and filming a number of surgical procedures (the operation to treat piles was probably the most gruesome). This disabused me of any naive innocence about the human body. All of us, no matter how young and beautiful, are medical patients in waiting.

2014 - 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

2014 – 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

In terms of thinking about themes and trends, this photo made me realise that there is probably a whole modern genre here, the ‘Woman’s body as a medical battlefield’ genre. In the past people wrote books about ‘The Nude’. Nowadays you could fill a book with art photos of women’s bodies after mastectomies, caesarian sections and so on.

Further on in the exhibition, a photo of a family picnic on Southwold beach can be taken as symbolising motherhood and middle age, all making sandwiches and the school run.

And, to complete the cycle, tucked away among other, brasher photos, is an unobtrusive but moving picture of an old woman dying.

I found this hard to look at since it reminded me too much of holding my own mother’s hand as she passed away in a cold, white hospital room. The lifeless white hair. The skin like parchment.

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Once I’d noticed this women’s life cycle – almost like one of Hogarth’s moral tales – the many photos of lads and men alongside them seemed callow and trite by comparison. Maybe these reflect the way many boy’s and men’s lives are indeed a succession of shallow thrill-seeking, dares and accidents. Fast cars, football and fags.

A number of the photographers here seemed to have had the idea of focusing on teenage boys, hanging out, smoking tabs, wondering how much that camera’s worth. I grew up among lads like this, so I liked this strand. ‘Oi mate, want some blow?’ Is he a nice boy who loves his Mum – or is he about to stab you? ‘Teenagers’ was another noticeable theme of the exhibition.

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Artists

And smoking brings us neatly to a little suite of photos of creative types. To be precise, there are photos of two artists and a writer in the show:

The Sunday Times columnist A.A. Gill is photographed in his Chelsea garden in the advanced stages of the cancer that was shortly to kill him. He was a recovering alcoholic who, at one point, smoked 60 tabs a day. He died of lung cancer.

The popular but critically slated painter Jack Vettriano is photographed looking grey-haired and gaunt in his home in Battersea having only recently, the wall label tells us, recovered from his chronic alcoholism. Also a heavy smoker.

But my favourite was a cracking photo of artist Maggi Hambling CBE, aged 72 and still smoking like a trooper. Here she is in the garden of her home in Suffolk. She insisted on smoking throughout the shoot and, apparently, got through a pack and a half of fags before the photographer had the bright idea of setting up a smoke machine to give the surreal impression that her ciggies are blotting out the entire landscape. Maybe I liked it because it’s virtually the only humorous photo in the show.

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

I was mildly interested to read who the judges were:

  • Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Chair (Director, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Dr David Campany (Writer, Curator and Artist)
  • Tim Eyles, Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing LLP
  • Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill (Associate Curator, Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Fiona Shields (Head of Photography, The Guardian)
  • Gillian Wearing (Artist)

50% women – but no black or Asian judges. Blackness is seen via white photographers selected by white judges. But then that does seem to be par for the course for London galleries (see my blog post on Women and ethnic minorities in the art world).

Conclusion

If you’re interested in photography this is an excellent snapshot of work from around the world (well, by Americans and Brits who travel round the world).

All of the photos are technically very finished, well lit, focused, clear and crisp.

A handful (the winners) are really stunning.

I found the American presence oppressive, maybe other people will like it.

I detected a hidden theme of womanhood; maybe other visitors will find other themes. (The winning photo of César Dezfuli suggests the theme of migrants, emigrants and refugees, with quite a few shots of British or American blacks and Asians finding their place in the predominantly white culture and – on the anti-immigrant side – photos of Trump and his supporters – there’s enough material here to write an essay just on this very timely theme – but this review is long enough already).

If my review comes over as dismissive, I don’t intend it to be: I found the show fascinating in all kinds of ways and, more tellingly, I’ve found its effects lingering on. Following up the three prize winners and some of the others via the internet has opened my eyes to the dazzling world of contemporary photography. In this respect the exhibition can be used as a valuable gateway, as an introduction and incitement to explore further.

Having looked, read and thought carefully about all 61 photos, maybe the biggest take-home message is:

Smoking is really, really bad for you 🙂


List of photographers

  • Abbie Trayler-Smith, UK (1 photo)
  • Adam Hinton, UK (2)
  • Alan Mozes, USA (2)
  • Alejandro Cartagena, Mexico (2)
  • Alice Schoolcraft, Sweden/USA (1)
  • Alva White, UK (1)
  • Alys Tomlinson, UK (1)
  • Anna Boyiazis, USA (1)
  • Baud Postma, UK (1)
  • Benjamin Rasmussen, USA (1)
  • Camille Mack, UK (1)
  • Catherine Hyland, UK (2)
  • César Dezfuli, Spain (1)
  • Charlie Bibby, UK (1)
  • Charlie Clift, UK (1)
  • Cian Oba-Smith, UK (1)
  • Cig Harvey, UK (1)
  • Craig Bernard, UK (1)
  • Craig Easton, UK (2)
  • Danny North, UK (2)
  • Davey James Clarke, UK (1)
  • David Vintiner, UK (1)
  • Debbie Naylor, UK (1)
  • Georgie Wileman, UK (1)
  • Hania Farrell, Lebanon/UK (1)
  • Harry Cory Wright, UK (1)
  • Ian McIlgorm, UK (1)
  • Joel Redman, UK (1)
  • Jon Tonks, UK (1)
  • Keith Bernstein, South Africa (1)
  • Kurt Hörbst, Germany (2)
  • Laurence Cartwright, UK (1)
  • Laurent Elie Badessi, France (1)
  • Mahtab Hussain, UK (1)
  • Maija Tammi, Finland (1)
  • Matthew Finn, UK (1)
  • Matthew Hamon, USA (1)
  • Mitchell Moreno, UK (2)
  • Monika Merva, USA (1)
  • Nancy Newberry, USA (1)
  • Natasta Alipour-Faridani, UK (1)
  • Owen Harvey, UK (2)
  • Paola Serino, Italy (1)
  • R. J. Kern, USA (1)
  • Richard Beaven, USA (1)
  • Sean Smith, UK (1)
  • Simon Urwin, UK (1)
  • Thom Pierce, UK (1)
  • Todd Hido, USA (4)
  • Tom Craig, UK (1)
  • Tommy Hatwell, UK (1)

Caveats

1. This list is taken from promotional material given out by the NPG press office; it may not be 100% complete. 2. Nationalities are as per the photographers’ entries on the internet; some of these, again, may not be 100% accurate (i.e. someone might have been born in one country and changed nationality). I apologise for any errors and will correct any, if pointed out to me.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery 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

Malick Sidibé @ Somerset House

‘For me photography is all about youth.’ Malick Sidibé

Somerset House is a rabbit warren of attractions with at least two cafes, several art shops, and a number of exhibition spaces. In the terrace rooms in the South Wing (i.e. overlooking the Thames, next to Waterloo Bridge) are three rooms currently devoted to African photographer Malick Sidibé (1936-2016).

Sidibé was born in Mali. During the 1950s, using a lightweight Kodak camera, he cycled the countryside around the capital Bamako taking photos of weddings and other family occasions, establishing himself as the country’s only travelling photographer.

As the country was winning its independence from France in 1960, Sidibé set up a studio in Bamako and began making scores of studies of Malians, which capture the youthful enthusiasm, creativity and cool of the young nation. The exhibition brings together 45 high quality prints into three rooms arranged by theme:

Tiep à Bamako / Nightlife in Bamako

Contrast of the formal 1960s black and white suits with the exuberance of party

Au Fleuve Niger / Beside the Niger River

Le Studio / The Studio

Why do they work?

  1. Black and white is always better than colour.
  2. It makes the images crisp and well-defined. All the photos are clear and well lit, he’s not interested in shadows, grey or mystery. Everything stands out in clarity.
  3. They’re all of people, there are no landscapes or objects. And young people. Young, vibrant, energetic people, dancing or goofing by the river or pulling poses in the studio. This spirit of youth and energy comes over infectiously. They’re happy pictures.
  4. There are several levels of the ‘exotic’, or of distance, going on in the photos:
    1. The 1960s photos capture that faraway decade when people jived and twisted while wearing narrow-lapelled black and white suits.
    2. They’re all African i.e. black, in both respects a remote culture from the 100% white visitors to the gallery.
    3. Style. The 60s dancers could be white, the lads and lassies by the river could at a pinch be white – but the studio shots could only be African, in the super-confident brashness of their clothes and poses, the clashing styles and big shades and surreal accessories, the stripes and checks and leopard skin patterns of the wild pants and jackets. Much emphasised when he used a strong striped background, to give the sitters even more visual energy.

These explosions and clashes of geometric designs have something in common with the Op Art of the 1960s, for example the work of Bridget Riley. Except that it is real, walking, talking, singing, dancing art, created by the incredible disparate taste and confidence of Sidibé’s sitters and captured again and again in these wonderful photos.

African tracks

Playing on a loop are 31 tracks by African artists selected by DJ Rita Ray, including Miriam Makebe, Boubacar Traoré, Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré. It isn’t in the show, but my favourite Boubacar track is Adieu Pierrette.

This is a video prepared for a different exhibition, but which is very informative.

And here’s a full length documentary about Sidibé by Cosima Spender.

Related links

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