Matisse in the Studio

Royal Academy

until 12th November 2017

This is a niche show, and it’s a very good niche from which to look at Matisse. It’s not a show of greatest hits. And unlike most studio shows it doesn’t feature brushes and palette knives and other painterly memorabilia. Instead, alongside paintings and drawings there are displayed some of the items that went into Matisse’s paintings over a number of years – chairs, pots, vases, hangings (haitis). These objects were dear to Matisse. He took them with him from lodging to lodging. He had them photographed by the niece of his studio assistant. He even had them catalogued by the poet Aragon. Consciously following Rembrandt, Matisse piled these items up into stage sets for his work, and visitors often commented that to go into his studio was to enter one of his paintings. That might have pleased Matisse since he tried to make his work not so much stand-alone or imitative in the Western tradition, but a form of decoration which was a response to his surroundings and a part of them.

The key theme which Matisse explored in this way was that of the odalisque, the erotic harem girl. In the 1920s and early 30s he compulsively painted and drew women in Moorish gear, lounging Alhamabra-esque against a background of haitis. Many commentators have seen this as a turn against Modernism and an embrace of slightly old-fashioned Orientalist fantasy. The curators are properly censorious of Matisse the colonial, but they argue successfully from Matisse’s own words and the works on show that these pictures are not cheesy and sentimental but an important stage in his artistic development. Matisse was never a man to hold back on the erotic, but in the paintings and the worked-up drawings of this period he takes techniques from Islamic art to explode the classic elements of the Western tradition. Thus, the odalisques are rarely the sole focus of the painting. Rather the focus is continually moved around by the placement of objects (some on show in the exhibition), the flattened perspective and above all the riot of colour which harks back to the Fauves and which binds the picture together. The eroticism of these pictures, as Matisse wrote, comes with the merging of objects and colour schemes, not their featureless women.

But even if critics have sometimes misunderstood these paintings, they are not wrong to see them as a trough in Matisse’s output. The more realist drawings of this period are twee. And too often the paintings are just too much. They have more in common with French wallpaper than North African æsthetics. As Matisse’s final turn to simplicity showed, it had been a case of Moor is less.

Simplification was also the strength of Matisse’s early work. This is implicit from the other type of studio objects in this show. African masks, Chinese porcelain and Belle Epoque porn were all used by Matisse in the 1900s in his new type of painting. Astute contemporary critics recognized that Matisse took these objects and the traditions they came from as ingredients to be put in the pot. Matisse never worked within a West African or Ming tradition, but took elements from those traditions to add a depth of feeling which he believed was lacking in Western art. At its crudest, this belief was an echo of contemporary ideas about race, especially supposed differences between White Caucasians and Black Africans. It is exemplified in an early female nude. This is based on a photograph of a white woman in pornographic pose, her sexuality heightened by African techniques of accentuating different parts of the body.

In this show the most successful of these borrowings from other artistic traditions is ‘Buisson ardent’ (burning bush)(1951) derived from an early seventeenth century Ming vase. Both vase and drawing are excellently displayed to show the development of Matisse’s imagination and for our enjoyment.

And yet, for all the radicalism of Matisse’s art and his struggle with the Western tradition, the most beautiful work in the exhibition is the cut-out ‘Forms, Plate IX,’ for his ‘Jazz’ series, developed from and close in spirit to what was, originally, a Greek sculpture of a female nude. The line is sensuous, the form both ravishes the senses and draws us in. It is breathtaking. Well worth a visit.

Owen Higgs


Open Treasure

Durham Cathedral

The members of Worksop Priory Church made their annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral on Saturday 2 September. At the end of the service we took the opportunity to visit the recently opened Open Treasure exhibition housed in the Monks’ Dormitory and Great Kitchen of the cathedral, which was last used in the 1940s. We were impressed by the high standard of the alterations and improvements to the building which gave full access to the treasures for both able and disabled people via lifts and staircases, very much a visitor friendly exhibition space.

The permanent exhibition in the Weston Gallery (formerly the Monks’ Dormitory) covers the spread and growth of Christianity in the north of England. The exhibits tell the story of monastic life, up to the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the formation of the Church of England. There are interactive exhibits and activities for visitors of all ages, there was even the opportunity to put on a monk’s habit and take a photograph or a selfie!

We passed from this extensive and interesting exhibition into the environmentally controlled Collections Gallery which showcases different collections of changing exhibits, some part of the cathedral and some on loan. The exhibition we saw was the Magna Carta and The Forest Charters, all six documents in celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charters. We understand the forthcoming displays in the Collections Gallery for 2018 are to include the Tudors and miners which looks to be very interesting also.

On leaving this gallery we made our way down to the Great Kitchen, which is one of the only two surviving medieval monastic kitchens in England. Its octagonal plan and high-ribbed vaulted ceiling has been beautifully restored, creating a stunning space housing the Treasures of St Cuthbert. These include his original seventh century wooden coffin and the gold and garnet pectoral cross which was discovered in his clothing some 1100 years after his death. We had to read this several times to grasp the amazing fact that his beautiful cross, along with his ivory comb, portable altar and other exhibits, could be found some 1100 years after he had died! The Treasures are some of the most significant surviving Anglo-Saxon artefacts in the UK.

Continuing from the Great Kitchen you enter into the Pilgrimage Gallery which explores the nature of pilgrimage past and present and future, what it means to be a pilgrim together with the long tradition of pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Cuthbert. Finally, we arrive at the Community Gallery dedicated to showcasing local groups, schools, and outreach projects of the people who work with the cathedral the exhibition in this space will change on a regular basis.

The whole experience of visiting the treasures was interesting and enthralling throughout. The high standard of the design, materials and craftsmanship used in the conversion complimented its surroundings and the exhibition itself is a credit to the cathedral. I do hope that our visit to this great place will inspire you do the same one day.

John Palmer worships at Worksop Priory



Memoir of a Syrian Architect

Marwa Al-Sabouni

Thames & Hudson 191pp £8.99

ISBN 978-0500292938


Unless you believe that, if left alone for long enough in the hot, sticky places they inhabit, foreigners will eventually start killing each other, the war in Syria needs explaining. We know its consequences well enough – principally the arrival in Europe of many of its citizens – but the cause is hidden behind the mess it created. That so few in the West ask the question ‘why?’ is because it seems inevitable that such things will be happening somewhere; and because, even if we could find out, we couldn’t stop it, and given the disparity between Europe and the Middle East, will gain nothing from finding out. In short, it happened there because it happens in places like that; it could not happen here.

The Battle for Home destroys both assumptions like the mortars from which Marwa Al-Sabouni has been sheltering with her children since 2011. She is a Syrian architect, and she argues that the condition of her country is the fault of her profession. The buildings of her own city of Homs, and nearby Baba-Amr, are the focus. Why was a city where ‘people lived peacefully for centuries with diverse beliefs and customs’ destroyed by their children? The book holds responsible the builders of the ‘soul-destroying, monotonous, isolated boxes thrown up on the outskirts, away from any city-related activity’ and the corrupt politicians that let them do it.

The decline of Syrian architecture in the twentieth century is illustrated in the expansion of Homs. The old city, where the ‘humility and harmony’ of the buildings matched that of the people that lived in and used them over centuries, was encircled by bland, middle-class housing estates, and overlooked by concrete sky-scrapers. The towers then went up in the old city, which was simultaneously being ‘improved’ by the Governor’s decision to force out the carpet weavers and blacksmiths to an industrial area on the outskirts.

Previously, Christians and Muslims lived together, and rich and poor likewise; now where you lived was determined by what you were. Inserted among these new parallel communities were refugees from the countryside, shoved in to work in factories, but unwilling to change their allegiance from tribe to place. Indeed, why should they have done so, when the places they found were inadequate or temporary?

A major cause of the tensions between communities that provoked civil war was thus, Al-Sabouni argues, the decline of urban architecture. The population lost confidence in their settlements. It was not just that the accommodation was inadequate, but that it failed to provide its residents with what they valued. Syrians came to feel so little for their buildings that they were content to blow them up to harm those they held responsible for the fact they had to live in them.

At this point, I should make clear that the author is not discussing shanty-settlements. Even structurally robust civic buildings made the problem worse, whether by their imitation of Western styles, or by a pastiche of Islamic architecture that deferred to local culture by topping off a concrete box with a dome.

So much for the case she makes, but Al-Sabouni’s book is more than an argument. There are many pen-and-ink illustrations of the buildings she is talking about, some of which show her own plans for what could have been done differently. This is also a memoir, of an idealistic young woman, disillusioned by the corruption of intellectual and political life of her country. Surprisingly, it is not a depressing book. By the end the author has shown us the importance of neighbours, family, and home. As the title suggests, however, these must be striven for.

The battle for home is also, ironically, that in which those who oppose the entrance of Syrian migrants into Europe believe themselves to be engaged. The invasion of an alien culture, disrupting the continuity of Western Civilisation is frightening. What this book suggests is that what it is feared Syrians will cause in Europe is in fact what they are fleeing in the first place.

They will find it well established already ‘in the northern British cities, and in Paris and other major French conurbations’ where Al-Sabouni recognises ‘the beginnings of the kind of instability we have witnessed so disastrously here in Syria’. In such cities, where the segregation of classes and cultures is a decades-old fact, and between whom resentments persist – and where the same kind of architectural mistakes are still being made – it would be a foolish person to say that what happened in Syria was inconceivable.

Tom Carpenter


A Handbook for Explorers

Andrew D. Mayes

BRF 2017 176pp £8.99

ISBN 978 9857465825

I read this book on pilgrimage to Lourdes, so its theme of God revealing Himself in caves chimed in with my experience there; although the book is built around pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The title is not primarily an invitation to introspection. The journey it recounts is God’s: to the caves of Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, and Christ’s empty tomb lightening our darkness. As God is all-present, seeking him in things below rather than above is a refreshing ‘subterranean spiritual adventure, an odyssey of the soul’ led by the ever-creative Andrew Mayes.

Superficiality is the curse of our age, the author declaims; and he opens up rich seams of Christian spirituality to assist our transformation from the inside out. An experienced spiritual director versed in Christian authors, Fr Mayes is well-equipped by his knowledge of the Holy Land to bring Scripture alive in contexts which reach the unreachable parts of us. As I viewed the Lourdes Grotto where St Bernadette unearthed the healing stream I found myself, in Fr Mayes’ words, ‘slipping into the abyss of God’s love [for] Christ is abiding, residing at the centre of [my] being. He is in fact the very centre of the soul!’.

Journey to the Centre of the Soul has ten chapters, each ending with questions for reflection, useful for groups as well as individuals, and a prayer exercise. I liked the Eckhart quote about the Spirit of God as a great underground river and the question: ‘What is the evidence, outer or inner, in your life that indicates the hidden, secret presence of the Spirit deep within?’. The associated prayer exercise builds expectation on Jesus as giver of the Spirit. The chapter on ‘Facing the dragons: the dark side’ ends with a meditation on the demoniac of Mark 5:1-20, and what it is to ‘live among the tombs’, with a reflection on a Richard Rohr quotation: ‘The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.’

The power of the book is its rooting of Christian spirituality in the Bible, and provocative spatial images with appeal to wisdom across traditions ‘from Hadewijch to Soelle, Rolle to Rohr, Meister Eckhart to Moltmann, and Angela of Toligno to Rowan Williams’ (BRF press release). It ends with a helpful and typically provocative examination of spirituality itself tackling the persistent dualism between the holy and the profane, the other-worldly and the worldly. As a spiritual handbook it is imaginative, well-structured, and easy to read.

John Twisleton