Category Archives: Art

Henri Matisse – “Jazz”.

I was lucky enough to have a close look at Henri Matisse’s collection of prints “Jazz” recently. I’ve seen prints from it before – they’re well known images – and when the opportunity was provided by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to look at their copy, I took it.

The images from Jazz were made late in Matisse’s life, after illness had stopped him painting and he’d started making his highly coloured cut outs and collages.

Seeing the printed up close was startling: the vivacity of the colours and the energy present in still representations of movement were impressive. Matisse was very particular about the colours and moaned at length about it to the publisher.

Learning the context of the prints was interesting too: images that I had thought abstract were representational. The collection started off as being about the circus, but the current broadened out. (Jazz refers to the vibrancy and liveliness of the images; none are about jazz.) The leaf-forms used by Matisse in a lot of his cut outs stood in many objects – faces, hands, bodies, waves – as well as leaves.

Matisse apparently said that there were no hidden depths or interpretations of the prints: what you saw is what you got. The thing is, I saw all sorts of things. The images were created at the end of and just after the war (the book was published in 1947), and he had been estranged from his family, sound of whom had joined the French resistance and suffered at the hands of the gestapo. Many of the pictures seemed to be open to interpretation: the curator said that three sword swallower was clearly simply that, but I saw a screaming mouth, reminiscent of the horse in Picasso’s Guernica.

The red on the chest of Icarus plummeting to the ground may be his heart; but maybe it’s a bullet wound instead. Or both.

My own experience was reflected in my interpretation, too. After a week of looking at Renaissance art in Florence, the first thing I saw when I looked at Destiny was the silhouette of the Madonna and child.

“Running Under Bridges”, Again. Edinburgh, May 2015.

I went back to see the last improvised performance of Running Under Bridges, a week after I saw the second. (I wish I had seen the first, too.)

This time, joining saxophonist (and co-creator of the project) Raymond MacDonald and guitarist George Burt was harpist Catriona McKay. Taking as their “score” the same images by Jo Ganter as before, with the same instructions and direction (and, indeed, some passages were recognisable between the two performances), it was a very different experience.


I can’t remember having seen an improvising harpist before, certainly not one playing steel bottle neck or tupperware on the harp. (There are a couple of jazz recordings I have which feature a harp, I think – one by Alice Coltrane, for instance.)

Having spent some more time looking at the exhibition of Ganter’s artworks and the images from which they were derived, as well as her fascinating animations of some previous performances of Running Under Bridges and a couple of improvisations by MacDonald and pianist Marilyn Crispell (a couple of videos are at the end of this post), it was easier to follow the way the musicians translated the abstract “score” into music – maybe to grasp what their process was.

DSCF3162 bw DSCF3197

DSCF3194 DSCF3211

This performance felt more intimate, as if the audience was watching something very raw and personal going on. Like we were eavesdropping a private conversation between the musicians. There is an openness that improvisation brings to an event – shared by the audience, too, because we need to be open to experiment (and, at times, disappointment) – and you never know what is going to happen.

Another fascinating experience.

Parallel Moments | Longing from Ganter MacDonald on Vimeo.

Running Under Bridges: improvisation at Talbot Rice. Edinburgh, May 2015.

I spent an hour or so this afternoon in the Talbot Rice gallery, listening to the pictures. Well, listening to improvisers interpret the graphic images, which represented the scores around which they improvised. The pictures they had on their music stands were copies of the art on the walls.

The project, Running Under Bridges, is a collaboration between musician Raymond McDonald and visual artist Jo Ganter. The musicians – McDonald was joined by longtime collaborator George Burt on guitar, Stu Brown on drums, and (I think) Emma Smith on bass – used the pictures to set the rules and then took the improvisation from there.

(c) Jo Ganter, from the Talbot Rice Gallery website.

It was a fascinating experiment, clearly not free improvisation, but intriguing.

Created on a grid, some of the artworks produced a strong sense of time, with a strong melodic line from McDonald’s saxes; at other points, Burt’s choppy, abstract guitar provided the industrial noise required by the score.

The artist and musicians answered questions from the audience between the four or five pieces. It was clear that the audience were trying to understand both the music and the process – how they translated images into sound. Did the colours have meaning? (To an extent.) How were the patterns turned into music? (Through the musicians improvising skills.)

There is another concert next Saturday, with McDonald and Burt and a harpist (possibly Corrina Hewat, but I couldn’t catch the name!), working with the same pieces, and I have every intention of going back to see how it works out. (I’m thinking of submitting a photo of the Forth Bridge for them to play, too…)

Edinburgh Art Festival. August 2013.

I did a bit of the Art Festival today.

I went to Wind Pipes for Edinburgh, an installation in a former church (a wonderful space off the Royal Mile which I didn’t know existed!). An organ playable by visitors, made of bits of waste pipes. The deep notes had a very breathy sound, almost alive. It was driven by huge bellows, and I thought it was just wonderful.

I then went to Rose Street to see Kenny Watson’s The Days, a humorous installation of a year’s worth of Edinburgh Evening News hoardings. Taken out of context, the headlines take on a surreal meaning, illuminating the paper’s obsessions (crime, sex, perverts and dust bin collections).

What I hadn’t realised was that in an annex were videos of Complaints Choirs around the world. I had heard the Edinburgh Complaints Choir on the radio, but I hadn’t bothered to seek them out. (They were singing complaints on the Royal Mile.) Coming across these videos, I wish I had. I found them funny and illuminating. I watched four, I think: Tokyo, Birmingham, Helsinki and Hamburg. Those in foreign languages had more impact – particularly Tokyo – I think reading the words and contrasting the sounds to the complaints brings more poignancy. That said, I am completely ear-wormed by the Birmingham choir.

I loved these videos. They were so unexpected, surprising, challenging AND ordinary that they changed my perception – certainly about choirs!

Here are the videos.




Hamburg (not on YouTube!)

Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. February 2012.

I’ve just been to the Lucian Freud retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, and I have a lot of somewhat contradictory views about his work. This isn’t surprising, since the exhibition spans seventy years – the first painting, a self portrait, dates from 1940 (when Freud was only 18), the last, an portrait of his studio assistant, unfinished at Freud’s death in 2011.

The early-early pictures are very detailed but somewhat distorted portraits: even then, he painted what he saw rather than what others would have liked to see. What he saw was attractive, though: over time, that changed, as if he saw people as meat – living meat, perhaps, but meat nonetheless.

He was very good at painting eyes, however: the eyes were always alive, reflecting the light, in contrast to the flesh he painted later on.

His later pictures seemed uncomfortably voyeuristic, perhaps because I knew that he was painting his wives (he had several), his lovers (many more) and his children (from both wives and lovers). Many of his nudes appear quite sexual despite also appearing like dead meat – quite a feat, I think.

He painted several composite pictures – two or more people in the same picture, but sitting at different times; and frankly he wasn’t that good at stitching them together… The dimensions are wrong: in “Large Interior, W9”, the nude behind his seated mother just looks really out of proportion, whilst the harlequin in “Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau)” looks outsized, misshapen and contorted.

The way he painted nudes – sexual but dead – creates a strange tension. The knowledge of his relationships adds to this. He seems to have had sex with a great many of his models. (He painted the Queen, too. I wonder…) The pictures can be disturbing. There is real sense of mortality in a lot of his work – perhaps because the nudes so often look like corpses. (It may, of course, just be me.) Even the self portraits look a bit dead.

There are several photographs shown as well – most by David Dawson, his last studio assistant, but also images by Henri Cartier Bresson and photographers from Freud’s Soho drinking circle. These said more to me about Freud than his paintings, perhaps because I relate to photographs. Which is again a little disturbing. Was he really so hidden? (In his self portrait “Interior with Plant, Reflection, Listening” he disappears – only part of his body is painted: so perhaps his painting was all about hiding.)

A Sweet Time at Tate Liverpool. November 2010.

I spend a couple of hours at Tate Liverpool today. It is over a decade since I last visited.

It is a great gallery: a wonderful building, and a very good size – there’s a lot there, but you can cover it all in an hour and a half or so.

There were two exhibitions on: Touched, part of the Liverpool Biennial, and displays from the permanent collections – three different views, each curated by a different artist – Carol Ann Duffy, Wayne Hemingway, and Michael Craig Martin.

I wasn’t too impressed by the quality of the art in Touched – but it really made me think, which I guess means it worked, at least on some level. I didn’t like the art, but instead I liked the ideas. Is the art the artefact or the idea?

There were two pieces – both installations – that grabbed my attention. One, by Eva Kot’atkova (I hope I got that right!) was all about stories we tell: it was called “Stories from the Living Room”. Everywhere I go, stories and the ongoing narrative seem to dominate. Yesterday I ran a workshop for a client to establish the story for an individual customer – that was their language, not mine. Narrative seems to be the driving idea – the narrative, even – for our time.

The other piece I liked was by Jamie Isentein. “Empire of Fire” featured lighted candles, safety equipment, and the set of Jean-Paul Sartre’s stage play “No Exit”. And Ms Isenstein’s hand. It was full of humour, but really disturbing – positively spooky.

The curated displays from the permanent collection were full of school visits. Loud, but not unruly – they were very well behaved. Carl Andre’s “144 Magnesium Squares” was surrounded by kids. Most pieces were protected by signs prohibiting use touching or markers to make us keep our distance; not the Andre. But no one went too close: it was surrounded by kids keeping their distance. This was strange. I asked one of the many Tate staff if one could walk on it, and he said yes – he was amused by the way no one dared step onto the metallic squares. So I did – to the horror of the schoolkids. Suddenly I, rather than the art, took their attention. It felt like I was participating in the art.

The permanent collection has pieces from many of my favourite artists – Richard Long (two pieces on display – a word-piece and a slate circle), Anthony Gormley, lots of Picasso, Donald Judd. It was wonderful walking around looking at these works. Magic.

“Sutra”. Sadler’s Wells, London, March 2010.

The weekend finished off with a visit to Sadler’s Well to see Sutra, a display of marshal arts by Shaolin monks, designed by Antony Gormley and set to music by Szymon Brzóska. The set was magical – simple boxes which allowed the monks to appear and disappear across the stage, the monks building new structures for them to perform on. The music was excellent – percussive and minimal. This was a really enjoyable performance – part dance, part installation, part acrobatics. Great stuff.

“How It Is”: Miroslaw Balka at Tate Modern. January 2010.

Back in January, we went to Tate Modern where we walked into a black box. We went back a couple of weeks ago, just to see the box again. It is an installation by Miroslaw Balka: essentially, a giant container wagon, unlit. Walking in is like walking into black; an unknown darkness; it changes one’s perception, the way you sense people around you, and how you relate to space. It feels vast and unending – until you walk into the back wall. Turning, the entrance – the only source of light – is dimly illuminated from windows in the Tate’s end wall. Framed by the darkness, the windows themselves became a work of art – like a washed out Rothko. The whole effect was amazing; we stayed in the box for perhaps twenty minutes, whilst other people came and went. (The experience wasn’t heightened by shouting, running, fighting teenagers.) Despite the signs banning it, I snuck a couple of pictures – other people had their phones out taking pictures, some using flash (ffs!), and I thought I could hardly cause more disturbance than the kids running about. As it was, my partner, sitting in the dark, was unaware that I had taken any pictures, so the shutter seemed not to disturb at all. (I must write a post about the taking photographs in art spaces and concert halls sometime: institutions responses seem so contradictory.)

DSC_2214 DSC_2215

“Still”, an altar piece by Alison Watt.

This morning I went to see Alison Watt’s installation of four paintings, “Still”, an altar piece in the chapel of remembrance of Old St Paul’s Episcopal Church in the Old Town of Edinburgh.

I have been a couple of times before, and I always find it a very moving experience.  This time, I was prompted by a recent programme on BBC1 Scotland about Watt’s current exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

“Still” is set in a side chapel; it is barely lit by a window to its right, and a small candle flickering directly below the painting.  The left wall is a war memorial, a list of names of those who died – presumably parishioners – in the first and second world wars.

The painting is of hanging cloth, I suppose, and the luxuriant folds suggest loss and absence.

The combination of the painting the long list of names is deeply moving.  The whole really is still; I had to sit a while, just looking.  The light, the painting and the names are very affecting.

It is very, very beautiful.

DSC_0015 bw


DSC_0018 bw

DSC_0012 bw DSC_0013 bw
DSC_0011 bw DSC_0014 bw

Alison Watt is represented by the Ingleby Gallery.