Snogging at the BFI – Matisse and the digital revolution

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern, London, from April 17 to September 7, 2014 (image courtesy of
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern, London, from April 17 to September 7, 2014 (image courtesy of

In the BFI lounge, you can get a cocktail for just over £8. For an extra £1.10 you can get someone to bring it over to you while you lounge around in the overly comfortable settees. If you’re stuck opposite a couple who are tongue deep inside each other, then you only have two possible options: order more cocktails. Or join in. Frankly, the chances of being welcomed into someone else’s make-out session in a public venue is unlikely. It’s all look but don’t touch. Everything is a challenge and there are social norms of acceptable behaviour for everything. I’m not a fan of couples who insist on stopping barely short of a public finger-bang, especially at the BFI. Those guys work hard to maintain the history of cinema as a living, breathing entity for generations to come. And they probably want to avoid the dark thought that some of those generations may have been conceived in their cocktail bar.

I’m at the BFI for a short interlude between two exhibitions. The one, Digital Revolutions at the Barbican (curated by Conrad Bodman). The other, Matisse at Tate Modern (Flavia Frigeri curating). Starting with the future, ending with the past.

Matisse is a glorious, technicolour blockbuster exhibition that approaches this vast collection of work chronologically. Working through the last few years of Henri’s life, with him developing his cut-outs: first as a solution to resolving issues of layout and colour and then he just started to actually use the cut-outs in their own right, as works of art. Bold choice!

Matisse - The Cowboy (1945)
Matisse – The Cowboy (1945)

Matisse’s 1943 work, The Cowboy, made me think of some of Francis Bacon’s later work, like his Self Portrait, 1973. All strong shapes and almost-silhouettes. What was Bacon exhibiting around the time of The Cowboy? Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was painted in 1944, and exhibited in a joint exhibition at Lefevre Gallery, London, in April 1945. I can imagine that when The Cowboy was first seen, people had calmed down a bit after the shock of Modernism and were happy to believe that any shapes could be art, then along comes Bacon and everything gets turned upside down again: because they want post-war nostalgia and happiness. What was going on in the art world back then that such different work could appear and both be art? Maybe it was just sincerity, before irony and pop-art came along? They’re both in Tate Modern now, so they’re all part of the establishment.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)

So is digital art! When did that happen? The Barbican has also gone for a sort of chronological view of what is digital art, but like so many exhibitions in galleries (with the exception of the fine Furtherfield, they approach the work with a too-broad brushstroke. It feels as though Bodman has decided that digital is still about the technology, as if that were the only way into the work. But maybe he knows his audience? Promise them a retro-glimpse of some computers from your youth, then hit them with the contemporary stuff. Did you know that a Fairlight was resonsible for the music to your favourite 80s show, Miami Vice? And technology is still being used to make the latest, also soon to be irrelevant tunes by Oh, and the film Gravity uses some cool technology. But, and also, you too can make art now! We can all be artists with just some software and some coding. The history of technology is the history of the democraticisation of artistic expression, assuming you can still get yourself a gig in one of the big galleries, of course. How do you do that? (See also: discussions of Marina Abramovic).

Assemblance by Umbrellium
Assemblance by Umbrellium (runs from 3 Jul-14 Sep 2014)

Remember when your Mum used to tell you that you look with your eyes, not your hands? That’s the difference between old media and new media art. At Digital Revolutions, people literally interact with the works (the ones that are set up for interaction, that is). With Matisse, you interact with your eyes, not your hands! If you want to really get something out of both exhibitions, you need to think about the context of the work. Matisse, despite being nearly seventy years ago, makes sense to us as an artist, because we know that art is shapes and nice colours and if we still aren’t sure, then it’s in the Tate Modern, so it must be important and mean something. Digital art reflects the contemporary, but sometimes I think we’re too deep in the middle of it, to really understand what it’s telling us about the now. Still, if it’s at the Barbican, then it must be important?

Matisse and digital artists have some things in common. When you look at the organic shapes of his cut-outs, what appears, from a distance, to be smooth curved lines, reveal themselves to be lots of short, straight lines. Matisse, like many artists, was fighting against the available technology to bring out what he had in his mind’s eye. The science of his time (or at least, the science available to him) limited and guided his work. Digital artists suffer the same restraints. Current computing power, displays and all those other too familiar problems we face, put restraints on the work. The pixellated landscape of Lara Croft’s early incarnations. The straight lines of Matisse. No matter what decade an artist works in, they’re up against it. The only thing to do is give it up and reach for the drink.

At the BFI, the cocktails are working their magic. I’m ready to hit the Tate Modern in the only way anyone should go to a gallery: half drunk. I notice there’s more than one couple making out in the cocktail lounge. What films are they showing that make people leave the cinema and get down to business right there and then? It’s all just so bloody modern, isn’t it?

Digital Revolutions is on at the Barbican from 3 Jul-14 Sep 2014 [Book tickets]

Matisse is on at Tate Modern from 17 April – 7 September 2014 (last week!) [Book tickets]

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