Thursday, January 31, 2008


NEWS: My stint as prizewinner-editor of Guardian Women for a week will take place beginning June 9th. So, plenty of time to plan, panic, preen and prevaricate. Of course I'll blag about it closer to the time but go ahead and put it in your diary, why not?
ARTVIEWS: I went to the FROM RUSSIA exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday. There's been enough in the press about the diplomatic row between Russia and the UK which threatened to cancel this blockbuster but, for once, I agree with Brian Sewell's diatribe concerning the politics behind the show and I even (shock horror!) share his view of some of the paintings, in particular La Danse by Matisse:
"...La Danse is now a classic example of knowledge so repeatedly received and reinforced that it cannot be challenged...
...the colour (so much over-praised) mere filling without modelling, thin paint scrubbed into the canvas, the surface dull and dry..."
(Brian Sewell, Evening Standard 25/01/08)
When I visit exhibitions of works which have acquired sacred status via endless reproduction and the missionary zeal of art critics, I always wonder how much our responses are influenced by "knowledge so repeatedly received and reinforced" and how much we allow ourselves to think, feel and express outside those boundaries.
To me, the actual La Danse is a big let-down. It's like ordering something which looked great in the catalogue but when you receive it, the fabric, the colour, the style are all wrong. As a poster or a book cover, La Danse is perfect. But stand in front of the real thing and the paint is indeed thin, the surface indeed dull and dry, the shapes and colours filled in like paint-by-numbers. The huge size doesn't help - it just looks like a small sketch enlarged with a projector then traced. I love Matisse passionately but I don't worship everything he does and had I been his pupil (I wish!) I would have told him so. His fabulous Red Room, however, did not disappoint my expectations, the real thing being far superior to the reproductions.
Some of the other paintings which emboldened me to squeeze in front of the crowds and stand my ground for quite a while (being short is occasionally an advantage) were Nathan Altman's Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr.Rey, Chagall's Promenade, Picasso's Dryad , Kandinsky's Composition VII , an early Cezanne Young Girl at Piano , Lyubov Popova's Portrait of a Philosopher, Natalia Goncharova's A Smoking Man and several Cubist-Futurist still lifes. The Gauguins looked dull and pedantic - another instance of the actual not living up to the virtual - and the Monets are like a meal consisting only of desserts: makes me crave either a hearty peasant stew or else total abstinence.
Speaking of total abstinence: Malevich's Black Square . It's like a Rorschach test: you can find out a great deal about the people who are looking at it by the way they are looking at it, more than you can know about the picture itself. In front of it, I am among those who can't decide whether to trust their heads or their senses. My head bows in homage to the saintliness of such a radical rejection of everything we think of as art, and to the courage of making that decision at the time it was made, when it truly was radical. Today the art world is one big Olympic sporting event and everyone competes to be the most radical, ie "new". It wasn't like that when Malevich did it. What about my senses? I can't make them agree with my mind. If that black square was made of silk or metal or marble I could stroke it, if it was dug in black soil I could smell it, if it was a room I could enter it. This is paint on canvas hanging on the wall and yet neither a "painting" or a craft object. I rebel against Malevich's severe dictum that I give up the senses' role in art and enter his Suprematist monastery (I take everything personally). Yet I also think he has a point. A point I am unable or unwilling to reach.