Sunday, March 25, 2012


MATISSE  Drawing Life
Gallery of Modern Art  Brisbane
3 December 2011 – 4 March 2012

Gosh, time flies! We had hoped to see this exhibition before it closed and thought we had plenty of time. Well, we did have until we realised the weeks and months had passed, prompting the usual comment: “Why do you always leave it to the last minute?” We were left with only four days to see this Matisse exhibition at GOMA. We were not interested in going on the last Saturday or Sunday. Even the last Friday seemed too terminal, so we selected the last Thursday. It was really the only option left for us. We drove to the Art Gallery and were pleased with ourselves for being able to drive directly to the car park through the city maze, only to discover that the option of hourly parking no longer existed. It was all-day parking for $15.00 or nothing, with an enigmatic notice advising that the car park closed at 1:00pm. It seemed that the nearby city demand for parking must be just too tempting a money-raiser to ignore. We were left to find our own parking in the surrounding streets. We were lucky! We found a park only a block away, four hours for six dollars.

We strolled to GOMA, but crossing busy roads did not remove us from the hazards of traffic. Unfortunately, the area that could have – should have – become one of Brisbane’s great riverside civic spaces now contains a roundabout, dragging vehicles deep into the courtyard formed by the Queensland Art Gallery and Museum, the Queensland State Library and GOMA. This area would have formed a marvellous civic square connecting the axial strip of Southbank’s Stanley Street to this cultural heart of Brisbane, complete with the possibilities of sculpture, shade, water, city views and more. Alas! – this is Brisbane, a ‘most liveable’ city dominated by freeways and busways, leaving ‘peds,’ (the traffic engineering term for pedestrians), to fend for themselves, as best they can. Vehicles reign! Even bicycles are relegated to tiny lanes beside white lines broken with cycle graphics that frequently also define the spaces for parked vehicles.

It was not until we had by-passed the bus stop and strolled along the pedestrian path linking the surrounding buildings that we felt safe; but it was extremely hot on the open pavement in the blaze of the mid-day sun. Finally, after passing crowds of students on educational excursions, we reached the flash, flush automatic GOMA glass-door entry. Would the gallery be crowded, crammed with groups learning from loud, analytical descriptions of the works? At the Matisse counter, money exchanged hands for tickets that went through the process of presentation and tearing prior to being allowed entry into the exhibition spaces that were the same as every other ordinary display area – frames on white walls with blocks of large text establishing the theme and with small cards describing each separate piece, all ‘artistically’ arranged. The only surprise was the pretty QR – quick reference – codes, but these were few in number.

We had been seeing these interesting little graphic squares more frequently in all strange places, so had explored the Internet to discover just what they were. We even downloaded the appropriate app so that the codes could be interpreted, and tried out one code on a bookmark that very disappointingly gave us an Internet address with the same information as was printed on the piece of card that displayed the code. It seemed pointless, but we impressed ourselves with our digital skills.

As with any commonplace display, the lighting was basic and average; the spaces uninteresting, and the texts bland. “Nude Standing - charcoal on XYZ paper with an ABC watermark: 1924 – loaned from LMN,” etc. told very little beyond what was obvious and not much that was relevant to the ordinary viewer. Yes, it was a standing nude in black and white. Why is this detailed, explanatory information so uselessly excessive? Or, to put it another way: why is there not more useful information to enrich the experience of being there with the work? A QR square was decoded to see if there was better information in this reference. Crikey, it worked! Four blue squares glowed in recognition of something, a GOMA web site was referenced, and when opened, it started a video presentation of – well, too much information! Can we never be pleased? We should have remembered to copy these codes and spent more time later, away from the gallery, watching and listening to these facts and stories. Maybe the gallery could have published a small set of cards containing these codes for this purpose, as a handout? The system is potentially excellent, but one does feel a real dork standing in the gallery trying to get the image decoded. ‘Smarty-pants’ glimpses give others’ thoughts away. Then one has to cope with the listening to/watching of the content as though one is using one’s mobile telephone in the centre of this public space, in the midst of visitors who continue to flick accusatory glances at the apparent impertinence. But it was not always a simple matter of holding one’s smart phone over the image. I watched one fellow try and try, and try again, until he gave up with no result other than frustration, a shrug and the lacklustre acceptance of failure. Maybe there is a little tweaking needed? The codes seem to be an excellent beginning for gallery displays and for many other possibilities too, but perhaps with some development? As for lighting: this was indeed pretty ordinary, general exhibition lighting. Nothing amazed or surprised. Looking at one’s own shadow spread over the exhibits on the tables that were trying to be viewed became more than aggravating; and the usual problem with reflections had not been addressed. Had it even been considered?

We gave up on the QRs and decided to just enjoy the drawings – information free, away from those frowning eyes. To be bluntly honest, some early drawings, (and a few later ones too), were pretty ordinary. But one is not able to say this because they are ‘Matisses.’ Such is the world of art. Then, out of the array, one would see a miracle – lines dancing from two dimensions to three, effortlessly, with simple charm and vigour, even though the spaces these works were in remained constantly boring and bland, truly uninspiring. The height of these spaces was used only as empty volume because it was there, with a few Matisse quotes pasted at about four metres above the floor onto a few walls. Why? Why not use the height creatively, even if only to negate it? Indeed, why not use colour? Ideas are needed.

While, at face value, the exhibition looked to be assiduously arranged, the rude carelessness of the organisation of the display kept catching one’s eye. Visually heavy.- about 400mm thick - fake plasterboard partitions that shaped the theatre for display had been constructed over parts of the air conditioning vents in the floor, as though the grilles were not there. Likewise, the coloured rectangles of carpet – were the curators confused with Mondrian? – had been placed at apparently random angles with no obvious necessity, to cover vents and parts of vents, all when there appeared to be some simple options to avoid these clashes. It seemed an astonishing neglect or arrogance that the vents – their forms, articulations and presence – had been so ill-treated. It was not as though the space was too cold, for it was chilly, even with some vents, or parts of them, blocked off. The offence was that any considered articulated relationship between the introduced display parts and the main fabric of the building, had not been given any importance in a place where one is expected to enjoy subtlety of form, line and juxtaposition. Visitors were being asked to appreciate the style of the drawings and to ignore these clashes in the order of the designed exhibition areas and the elements of the original undivided/undecorated space. One was left wondering if this was a series of spaces designed for another earlier exhibition with more rigorous spatial requirements, as it seemed to have no specific tie to things Matisse, or any particular reason to be so articulated. It all looked very poor - ill considered - with its apparent ad hoc parts that had been so carefully contrived through what appeared to be, perhaps at best, self-interested neglect.

Collectively, the drawings were stunning, but one can really only enjoy so many sprawling nudes with their armpits exposed to the world. Maybe the narrowness of the subject matter of this exhibition has forced the curators to try too hard to give it substance with just too many drawings. Was there too much of the same thing being drawn out to develop a story with the scale expected for a major ‘block buster’ exhibition? Maybe it was this that made things a little boring. Or was it the bland spaces containing frame after similar, almost identical frame?

One lady was overheard exclaiming: “Colour at last,” as she moved into the final space that displayed the beautifully bold JAZZ illustrations. It was odd that these coloured plates had been lumped together as a large rectangular grid on the wall when all other drawings had been dragged out linearly. Had the gallery run out of wall space to continue the horizontal theme? One did indeed eventually get distracted with the sameness of everything else and started looking at the frames, their mitres, and their subtle differences in size, profile and timber colour and species. Architecturally, it was sad to see the great opportunity to reconstruct the space of the Matisse chapel at Vence in this exhibition get wasted. It is Matisse’s only involvement in things architectural. Such a space could have enlivened the exhibition by forming a stunning and memorable centrepiece – a core zone – around which the other display spaces could gather.

After parading through the boxed exhibition spaces complete with their interesting links roped off as no-go ‘EXIT’s where supervisors in adjacent zones could meet and chat, one came to food and drink without having to exit the exhibition. What a blessing! Here pencils, paper and tablets, complete with still life exhibits, were provided for all to indulge in the wonder of drawing. Yes, we can all draw. As Coomaraswamy noted many years ago: an artist is not a special kind of man; every man is a special kind of artist. This space appeared to promote this concept that our modern world so easily forgets as heroes are promoted and praised as superhuman – a little like Matisse.

So after sustenance and scribble, the exhibition was re-visited, just to see it again in another light, refreshed. Matisse has shown us all how to draw. He has also shown us how to see things. He has had an important impact on the photographic eye as well as the sketching hand. His drawings repeatedly take parts, angles and positions to reveal surprising aspects of forms. Ignoring the little challenges and disappointments with the exhibition - we had seen many pieces before in other places, but these became as friends, good to see again – one can only agree that Matisse had a great eye, hand and feel. It gives us all hope that he was so productive to such a good age.

But how can one get away from the over-familiarity of reproduction? When we see the real work, we frequently recall the reproduction and our feel for it; our memory of it and its context. The ordinary backgorund of this exhibition did not change this. It did not enliven or add vigour. There was no epiphany. Sadly, it was all a little flat, a little like flicking through the main catalogue, which was well-produced; but it does lack the QRs that would have been so easy to print as a little package of easily-accessible information, and more too. These little squares are far more than attractive graphics. I prefer to recall the wonderful Matisse lines and their elusive yet bold images, but this miniature digital code is authoritatively impressive.

Does our technology change us? A trial of the sketch tablets after completing a pencil and paper drawing highlighted the difference – the unusual feel; the difficulty of achieving a smudge; the unforgiving immediacy of the marking in instant time that limits feedback. The finger was easier to manage than the blind pen called a stylus. The tactile sense of the screen gave a better feel and flow, but a thicker line. Yes, there is a significant difference, but it is just another tool to become familiar with. Just as well the competition was not to be judged on the quality of the drawing. It was apparently just a lucky dip – like exhibitions have become. This exhibition leaves much for one to ponder, as does Coomaraswamy’s interesting question: Why exhibit works of art? Attending to this query might make curators a little more aware of the implications of their decisions. It is too easy just to see exhibitions as fund-raisers, like the associated parking facilities seem to have become, and to forget about the real priorities.

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