Fortuitously, my recent trip to France was bookended by visits to exhibitions that showcased Matisse at the beginning and at the end of his career. Towards the end of the first day I visited the Musee Matisse in his home town of Le Cateau-Cambresis, which houses an astonishing collection of his work, including striking examples from his younger years. Then, on my way back through London, I went to Tate Modern to see Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, an unparalleled gathering of 130 of the joyous, exuberant works made by Matisse in the last decade of his life: a period which he regarded as a second life, a gift of time. A period in which he turned to painting with scissors. Continue reading “Painting with scissors: Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate Modern”
We visited Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition, but while we there I decided to take a look at the current installation in the Turbine Hall – Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds. I have my doubts about this work. It consists of 100 million porcelain, hand-painted sunflower seeds that took an entire factory of workers in the city of Jingdezhen, once famous for its production of imperial porcelain, more than two years to produce.
Most critics have been appreciative of this work. I certainly appreciate Weiwei’s position as an artist experiencing state restrictions (for example, being prevented from leaving China during the week that Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And I appreciate the interpretation placed on the exhibit by many art critics, perhaps best expressed by Andrew Graham-Dixon:
Why seeds of stone? A certain grim irony may be intended, a comment on life as it must be lived by most Chinese people. These are seeds that can never open, never grow into the million forms of life their form promises. Each represents a kind of stillborn existence, while it is the fate of the whole mass of them to be – literally, in the act performed daily by the work’s audience – downtrodden.
But I can’t help visualising the dreadful daily monotony of those two years during which the female workers of that Chinese factory laboured at their hand-painting. That certainly seems like a grim irony.
Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo during the award ceremony in Oslo, December 10, 2010. This was the first time in 74 years the award was not handed over to the winner or a representative, because Liu is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges for urging sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system.
- Nobel Peace Prize 2010: presentation speech
This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008. I was reminded of this stunning installation, perhaps Liverpudlians’ favourite from the Biennial, reading an informative piece about its creator, Ai Weiwei in today’s Guardian.
The article notes that Tate Modern has commissioned Weiwei to fill its Turbine Hall later this year, but goes on to focus on his delicate relationship with the Chinese government, resulting from his angry and sustained denunciations of officialdom through interviews, documentaries and the internet. The article explains that his attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:
“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.
Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”
Ai Weiwei says his father’s experiences have left him with a sense of duty
To speak for the generation, or generations, who didn’t have a chance to speak out … And I also have to speak out for people around me who are afraid, who think it is not worth it or who have totally given up hope. So I want to set an example: you can do it and this is OK, to speak out.
‘My dear master, explain red to somebody who has never known red.’
‘If we touched it with the tip of a finger, it would feel like something between iron and copper. If we took it into our palm, it would burn. If we tasted it, it would be full-bodied, like salted meat.If we took it between our lips, it would fill our mouths,. If we smelled it, it’d have the scent of a horse…’
– Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
This morning we all went down to the Tate to see the Rothko Seagram Murals, that have returned to Tate Liverpool after 21 years. In 1988 Tate Liverpool opened for the first time with a display of the Seagram Murals, and we remember our daughter, four-years old, on the floor with paper and crayons in front of them.
The story of the Seagram Murals is well-known: how they were originally commissioned for the select Four Seasons restaurant of the Seagram Building in New York; how he stated his intention was to paint ‘something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t. People can stand anything these days’; how he later pulled out of the project and donated the paintings to the Tate; how the paintings arrived in London on the morning after he had bloodily killed himself.
Rothko told John Fischer, editor of Harper’s magazine,
“I accepted this assignment with strictly malicious intentions…I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room. [He wanted to make them ‘feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall’.
From Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E.B. Breslin:
Sometime after his return from Europe that summer and after the restaurant had opened in late July, Rothko decided that he and Mell should have a meal there. Rothko believed that it was ‘criminal to spend more than $5 on a meal,’ but he did like to eat; and he could, now that the restaurant was complete, see how and where others would eventually see his work. After passing a Miró tapestry hung in the travertine lobby, walking up the short stairs to the smaller lobby where the Picasso stage curtain hung, turning left and walking down the dining room vestibule, past the concierge, past the glass-in wine cellar, through the French walnut doorway and into the main dining room, Mark and Mell Rothko entered a sumptuous, high-ceilinged room… The two interior walls, divided into a grid of vertical panels, were covered with natural rawhide. Beyond the marble pool, nine steps rose to the smaller dining room, where Rothko’s murals would be installed and Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles now hung…
Seated in ‘Brno’ chairs designed by [Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe] himself, Mark and Mell Rothko contemplated a menu which offered them a cuisine ‘derived from many of the cuisines of the world’… Rothko had hoped to paint something that would ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever ate in that room. Instead, the concrete reality of the restaurant probably ruined his appetite, and certainly ruined his project…
When he got home that evening, he called Katharine Kuh ‘in a state of high emotion’ to say he was returning the money he’d received and withdrawing his paintings. ‘When he was working on the project, his imagination plus a dash of wishful thinking projected an idyllic setting where captivated diners, lost in reverie, communed with the murals. I’m afraid it never entered his head that the works would be forced to compete with a noisy crowd of conspicuous consumers.’ But ‘real transactions’ were not on the Four Seasons menu. The next morning, arriving at his Bowery studio, ‘he came through the door like a bull, as only Rothko could, in an absolute rage,’ said Dan Rice. ‘He said quite explosively – no good mornings or anything… slamming his hat down on the table and pounding, ‘Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine.’
TateShots Issue 16: Rothko
In autumn 2008, Tate Modern presented an exhibition of the late works of Mark Rothko. In this video, the show’s curator, Achim Borchardrt-Hume, takes us on a tour featuring the iconic Seagram Murals, Black-Form paintings, and the Black on Grey paintings - the last series made before Rothkoâs death in 1970.
Afterwards, we adjourned to the Buddleia restaurant in the Contemporary Urban Centre (CUC) on Greenland Street, where all members of the party were deeply impressed by the superb Sunday roasts. Two of us had the veggie option – a nut roast – which was, as the waiter promised, outstanding. The quality of the food was superb – the vegetables were just right – al dente – and the roast potatoes were to die for. Definitely coming back here to eat in the evening!
- How Rothko’s Seagram murals found their way to London (The Guardian)