Opinion

Captivated by a truly childlike vision

"Art is not just about art but about looking and thinking – and trying to get beyond the surface of things"

Big Issue founder John Bird

Last week I went to the Royal Academy exhibition on the studio of Henri Matisse. I know his work so well but there were surprises. A 1906-7 painting of his daughter, Marguerite (below), was so simple and childlike and beautiful that I kept going back through the crowded gallery to look at it again.

Nothing to it. A child could do it; or so it seemed. Yet being like a child in its
execution was the idea behind the painting and the career of this great artist.

It’s difficult for me, now not living in London, to get to exhibitions; but the RA consistently produces major exhibitions, even if they are small like the Matisse. So going there is a must for my limited time.

I kept going back through the crowded gallery to look at it again

And I always like reminding myself of the book I published for the Academy some 35 years ago. Or the Summer Exhibition postcards I published of their artists perhaps 30 years ago. Or the art magazine I did called Art Perspectives over 40 years ago that sold hundreds and hundreds of copies at the RA.

In short I’ve been drenching and marinating myself in the Royal Academy for almost 50 years. And it is still a great institution in Piccadilly in Central London among the increasingly manicured and fabulously costly surrounding real estate.

They are blessed with having to only pay a peppercorn rent, so the building is virtually free. But then they have to repair it, fill it with exhibitions, and at the same time run an art school there, as they have done for almost the last 250 years. Next year is their actual quarter of a millennium. And they plan big things.

Marguerite by Matisse

It seems always to be busy and well attended. And so full of a cross-mix of social groups that you can see that art is the great equaliser. And so it should be. It should welcome all; and it seems to.

There was another Matisse that struck me as unknown to me called Portrait of Olga Merson. A beautiful portrait of a woman. Showing smudges and wrong lines it seems to be telling us about something more than portraiture. Perhaps how we should learn to incorporate our mistakes into our lives.

Though that may sound, in fact it does sound, far-fetched, I do like the idea of art teaching us thoughtful things. Matisse described doing a portrait as like having a quarrel. What a brilliant thought. For drawing, in some ways, is about looking and finding something.

I often tell people that to me art is not just about art but about looking and thinking. And trying to get beyond the surface of things. Certainly with drawing you try and get in deep. If it’s a person it’s like getting to know their bones.

If you went to Matisse though to find out about life over the last hundred years you would be lost. There is no mention or suggestion of anything other than the pursuit of the beautiful and the decorative. This is luxury but not necessarily of the over-consumption kind.

Matisse is finding the beautiful and the decorative in pretty everyday things. But life of wars and revolutions that this man lived through, including the Nazi defeat and occupation of France in the Second World War, doesn’t get a look in. The world outside of art does not invade the art. It is a hermetically sealed life in there.

I am not looking for realism in art. I’d go to another media than that of painting

But I am not looking for realism in art. I realise most of that is bunkum. I wouldn’t want to go and see stuff that gets front-page or TV time. I’d go to another media than that of painting.

My favourite RA exhibition must have been the American Abstract Expressionism exhibition that I wrote about when it was on last year. That was big and bold and showed the strengths and weakness of this art group. The great surprise was the work of Clifford Styll. He was and is to me the very best of any US artist.

But you can be worn out by art. I did not go to the Jasper Johns exhibition, which is the major show at the RA at the moment. Having known his work 50 years ago, full of gimmicks and brooms and other objects, as well as American flags, the appeal has worn thin. I can’t raise the slightest enthusiasm because to me his work has not lasted.

Matisse though is eternal. You can’t not be captured by his very limited range of life; splendid decoration and joy.

But you do have to negotiate beggars to get to the RA. There is a harsh reality out on the streets itself, as the ill and needy are left out in the cold. So even though there is joy in the buildings of the RA, and surrounded by plenty, it is punctuated by the casualties of this struggling world. You are brought back and down to earth among the plentiful West End of London.

Now I wish we could do something about that, and me and others work to that. But that’s another story. I bought the catalogue and went home.

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