Matisse in Focus and The Imagined Museum are two seemingly very separate exhibitions connected by Tate Liverpool’s winter programming theme of ‘Works to Know by Heart’.
Greta Bratescu’s ‘Game Of Forms’ (2015) greets the visitor on entering Tate Liverpool’s ground floor Wolfson Gallery. This composition in vinyl on the existing glass threshold, a remnant of the previous exhibition in the space, looms overhead. The work serves as a contemporary anchor to Matisse In Focus, a small display which lacks the ‘focus’ deserved of a great artist within a large institution.
Matisse’s famed cut-outs are represented by ‘The Snail (L’escargot)’ (1953), one of the largest and most popular of that revolutionary body of work. Perhaps owing to its size, ‘The Snail’ is given space and respect by its smaller coinhabitants of the space.
Despite dominating the space, ‘The Snail’ is not the most interesting piece on display. Four bronze figurative reliefs, four female backs, ‘Backs I -IV’ (1909-30) are a rare inclusion. They document Matisse’s dissent into abstraction, from curvaceous to blocky; feminine to masculine. Interestingly these forms, by all accounts, lived in Matisse’s studio until his passing in 1954 and were cast in bronze posthumously (1955-56). It is fair to say that the backs, being bronze, have something projected onto them, possibly a twisted notion of value or worth, that their plaster predecessors did not, and therefore lack in elements of purity and reality.
Moving on from Matisse, The Imagined Museum: works from the Centre Pompidou, Tate, and MMK collections occupies Tate Liverpool’s fourth floor gallery. Citing ‘Fahrenheit 451’, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel as an inspiration for this exhibition, overlays a degree of fear: What if by 2052 there was no longer a way to see art in the flesh? What if we only had memories and digital representations?
The exhibition shows us works which we may wish to remember, whilst also offering us playful nods to the notion of memory, documentation and the destruction of what we love. Many we know well already, such as Andy Warhol’s ‘Brillo Soap Pads Box’ (1964), ingrained on our brains as an indelible image. Other works, like Dan Graham’s ‘Present Continuous Past’ (1974), appear to allude to our infatuation with recording our daily lives through ‘selfies’ and other instant, gratuitous self loving/loathing imaging.
It is a worryingly topical idea. With many culturally important buildings and artefacts, such as the ‘Arch of Triumph’ in the Syrian city of Palmyra, being destroyed by bombings in the Middle East, perhaps this exhibition is preparing us for an actual future where war and destruction overcomes creation.
The idea that our most revered artworks would live on only within our memories as a ‘living museum’ is interesting. There are, however, several questions which this raises. What happens to artworks which have only ever existed as thoughts, ideas or memories? Is their status heightened in this dystopian future or completely removed?
Curiously, Matisse’s ‘The Snail’, we are told, is being displayed for the “the first and only time in Tate Liverpool’s history”. This choice of wording seems to suggest that the work is never to be seen again at this location. In saying this it seems the curators are applying some pressure on the viewer to remember this work, presumably intentionally linking to The Imagined Museum. Many emerging contemporary artists, though, seem to be remembering for us, not too dissimilarly to ‘Game of Forms’. Perhaps what is most important is that artists continue to be inspired by the past, in order to create for the future. Rather than remembering famous artworks, should we not reinterpret them and encourage a continuous growth in creative output?
James Harper is an artist, curator and writer based in Liverpool.
Works To Know By Heart: Matisse In Focus on display until 14/02/16
The Imagined Museum on display until 02/05/16