Letizia Battaglia

The current exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is devoted to the work of the Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia. I’d seen a photograph of she’d taken of the dead bodies of a prostitute and two of her clients who had been murdered by the Mafia that had been featured in the Guardian a few months ago.

Palermo, 1982. Nerina worked as prostitute and was drug-dealing. She was killed by the mafia because she did not respect the rules © Letizia Battaglia

Palermo, 1982. Nerina worked as prostitute and was drug-dealing. She was killed by the mafia because she did not respect the rules © Letizia Battaglia

Gruesome, but moving, and a visual condemnation of the violence of the Mafia. And that statement sums up a lot of her work. She was a leftist photojournalist in Palermo and a lot of her photographs are about the Mafia and their violence.

Letizia was a journalist who took up photography in the early ’70s, when she realised that it was easier to place her articles in newspapers and magazines if these were accompanied by images. After working i Milan she returned to her native Palermo in Sicily working as Picture Editor for the left wing journal, L’Ora.

Many photographs feature dead bodies of people murdered by the Mafia

Palermo, 1988. Assassination with Palermo plate © Letizia Battaglia

Palermo, 1988. Assassination with Palermo plate © Letizia Battaglia

She also depicted a different type of victim of the violence, those who had to live with the aftermath and the consequences, such as in this photograph.

Palermo,1992. Rosaria Schifani, the widow of police agent Vito killed together with judge Giovanni Falcone, Francesca Morvillo and his colleagues Di Cillo and Antonio Montinaro © Letizia Battaglia

Palermo,1992. Rosaria Schifani, the widow of police agent Vito killed together with judge Giovanni Falcone, Francesca Morvillo and his colleagues Di Cillo and Antonio Montinaro © Letizia Battaglia

Her other main theme was the condition of the working class in Palermo with some moving and harrowing depictions of real poverty.

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Not a pleasant collection but very powerful and moving. She was a brave woman and talented photographer.

The exhibition – “Letizia Battaglia: Breaking the Code of Silence” is showing at the Open Eye Gallery on Mann Island, Liverpool until 4 May 2014

“Sculptural Forms” in Manchester

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One of the exhibitions currently showing at the Manchester City Art Gallery focuses on sculpture created during a the period from just before the First World War to the present day. Covering three rooms on the first floor of the modern extension, it features works from the Gallery’s own collection  together with others from the Whitworth Gallery, currently closed for refurbishment, and the Arts Council.

The exhibition

explores some of the imaginative ways in which the sculptural form has been re-invented from just before World War One to the present day. It does so by combining sculpture with two-dimensional works of art and designed objects to create some unexpected but visually stunning juxtapositions.

The first room – The Human Condition – concentrates on the human form. Some of the works on show are figurative, some abstract and some a bit of both.

This relief by Eric Gill is very typical of his work. A clear depiction of a human form, a religious subject, finely carved.

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The development of the abstract representation of the human figure can be seen in a piece by by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and early works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This ceramic head by Stephen Dixon (Liu Xiaobo 2012), created in honour of the Chinese human rights campaigner and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize

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and this crystal skull replete with flashing interior lights by Tony Oursler

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were both very popular, attracting a lot of attention from visitors.

As well as sculpture the exhibition includes some “two dimensional works” some inspired by sculpture, some ideas for sculpture and some by sculptors including Henry Moore.

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The second room – Abstraction – did what it said on the tin featuring abstract works by artists including Anthony Caro, Alison Wearing  and Barbara Hepworth – this is her Sphere with Inner Form (1963)

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I particularly liked a couple of aluminium reliefs

Relief (1965) by Jean Spencer, which could almost have been a fabricated industrial component

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and, especially, the sensuous, curved forms of Icarus (1967) by John Milne.

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I’m a sucker for simple abstract sculptures like this (Rotterdam Relief, 2005, by Toby Patterson) made from a transparent perspex panel and which uses light and shadows to great effect.

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The final section – Transformation – concentrated on works made from everyday objects. They included this abstract beast by Lyn Chadwick,

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and this work Ridged Vessel, (2014) by Claire Malet. which was commissioned by the Gallery.

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It’s not immediately obvious but this remarkable piece started out as a commercially produced olive oil tin.

She explains her method:

I collect used steel cans and scrap copper with which to work. Each vessel is worked entirely with hand tools. The interiors are gilded with genuine gold leaf and copper leaf, bringing a distinctive richness and volcanic appearance to my work. I take an experimental approach to working with metal, allowing the medium to suggest a direction and often pushing it to the limits of workability, accelerating decay. This has led me to discover techniques that produce qualities similar to those found in nature. Through this process I aim to transform a mundane man-made object into a form to be treasured. The result is a fusion of intentional form and the natural characteristics of the medium.

Lynn Chadwick at Abbot Hall and Blackwell

Last Saturday we headed up the M6 to visit the exhibition of works by Lynn Chadwick – Lynn Chadwick – Evolution of Sculpture – showing at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal with some additional larger works from later in his careers being displayed at Backwell, The Arts and Crafts House, a few miles away near Windermere. Despite setting out reasonably early, the Motorway was still quite busy being the Bank Holiday and slowed to a standstill a couple of times, but only for a minute or so and we arrived in Kendal mid morning.

We really enjoyed the exhibition. I’ve seen a few pieces by Lynn Chadwick in other galleries (including the Hepworth at Wakefield) but here we were able to see how his work developed via a large number of pieces covering most of his career.

There were some particularly appealing pieces. His work was on the margins of abstract and figurative, many of his sculptures being based on humans and animals. In the entrance hall there were three beautiful life size abstract figures – the three Electras – cast in bronze, most of the surface had a heavy patina except for a square on the front – the breasts and naval – which was highly polished. It was a part of the casting, not a separate piece welded on. It was just the finish that was different. They were a dramatic introduction to the exhibition.

© Lakeland Arts Trust

The Three Electras by Lynn Chadwick (Picture source Abbot Hall website)

The main part of the exhibition was on the first floor. There was a good selection of works with some very interesting pieces including a mobile (he started out making these) weird, fantastic beasts, abstract pieces, abstract humans (we particularly liked the Teddy Boy and Girl) and winged / cloaked figures. All very different from the more sinuous, sensuous, flowing sculptures produced by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth during the same period.

The art historian Herbert Read when discussing the strange beasts and other forms created by Chadwick Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage, who exhibited together at the 1952 Venice Biennale described their style as as the ‘geometry of fear’ 

‘These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance….Here are the images of flight, or ragged claws "scuttling across the floors of silent seas", of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear…. These British sculptors have given sculpture what it never had before our time – a linear, cursive quality.’ (source here)

There was also a video showing about the artist and his working methods. I found that interesting as he worked in a much different way to say Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. He started by building a skeleton from metal rods (armature) welding them together then filling in the gaps with Stolit, a mixture of plaster and iron filings  so his technique was constructive, building up from scratch rather than cutting away material which is what sculptors working in stone and wood do. And he didn’t particularly plan the works. He had a rough idea which developed as his work on a sculpture progressed. One of the talking heads in the video compared his method to drawing in 3D with the armatures, inserting them, trying different arrangements, cutting away pieces, as he worked. There were some drawings but they seem to have been done after the work was completed rather than as preparatory sketches. I found his way of working quite interesting as it was different from other sculptors.

At Blackwell there were a number of larger works that were displayed outdoors in the grounds of the house. They were from later in his career and, overall, I thought they were less interesting, and less typical of his signature style, than those on display at Abbot Hall. But it did give an insight into how his work developed.

My favourite was this piece of two women walking up and down stairs that was displayed outside the entrance to the house‘

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Women walking into the wind with their hair and clothing billowing behind them is a recurring theme in Chadwick’s work. This is a later example. The dress blowing behind makes the figure look like a strange cross between a human and a chicken.

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This work of seated male and female figures  (Sitting Couple) reminded me of Henry Moore’s “King and Queen”

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and they had a great view, especially on a nice sunny day

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Uwe Wittwer at Abbott Hall

During our trip to Kendal last Saturday we called into the Abbot Hall Gallery to take at look at the new exhibitions that have been installed since Christmas. The main exhibition on at the moment, “In the Middle Distance”  features works by a Swiss artist, Uwe Wittwer, who produces images that blur the boundary between figurative and abstract art. I’d had a brief "recce" on the web to check out his work and wasn’t expecting to like them too much,but I was very pleasantly surprised. Many of the works were either re-interpretations of paintings by Old Masters, such as Gainsborough and Constable, or computer manipulations of old photographs, he’d “found” on the Internet.

The first room was devoted to watercolours inspired by paintings by “Old Masters”. I particularly liked the "negative" of a Gainsborough portrait of a group of children. In the reinterpretation the children looked as if they were black, subverting the image of wealthy white children in the Georgian period.

Source: Flickr © All rights reserved by cuedit

He had also produced a reinterpretation of one of Abbot Hall’s prized possessions, the seventeenth-century triptych, The Great Picture, which shows Lady Anne Clifford at various stages in her life her parents and siblings, especially for the exhibition. It dominated the middle of the three galleries.

A number of computer manipulated photographs which were printed out with an inkjet printer were displayed in the third gallery. Again they were relatively large in scale. The exhibition booklet tells us about his methodology:

He hunts for suitable material in a state of reverie, browsing the Internet until the right image presents itself, some crucial element resonating and suggesting possibilities. The process is far from being purely mechanical, however, with each image being extensively manipulated and reworked by Wittwer, who has commented that his inkjets (each one unique) can take as
long as his watercolours or oils to produce.

He has created monochrome, blurred, ghostly images. I couldn’t help projecting my own interpretation of what they were. A large "negative" of children riding on a carousel came across as the horsemen of the apocalypse to me and another picture of a boat made me think of Charon, the boatman who ferried the dead over the Styx.

122008: "Boot" (Boat), 2008, Inkjet,180 x 150 cm

Uwe Wittwer Boat (2008) Inkjet on paper 180 x 150 cm
© The Artist

This picture included large dots, the edges spreading out like ink blots. They featured in a number of the works, both the photographic images and the watercolours, including his version of The Great Picture.

I particularly liked his picture “Three Sisters”, created using a photograph of three young women taken somewhere in Middle Europe (East Prussia?) in the late 1930’s, before the Second World War.

Three Sisters (2008) Source: Flickr © All rights reserved by cuedit

The booklet accompanying the exhibition compares the image to a faded family photograph, but to me they resembled ghosts; grey, half transparent figures against a darker, more substantial background. Their dark eyes peering out towards the viewer, almost seeming to look right through us.

I wasn’t so sure about Black Sun after Antonioni, also shown in the third gallery. It consisted of 78 framed watercolour ‘stills’ from the cult British film from the sixities, Blowup, that starred David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles.

Overall I thought it was an inspiring exhibition with some very interesting paintings and particularly atmospheric photographic based images.  It was well worth the visit and, for me, illustrated that art should, ideally, be experienced “live” rather than relying on looking at reproductions in books or images on the Internet.

Matisse Artist’s Books at the Walker Art Gallery

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I’ve been working in Liverpool all week and on Friday, as we finished early, I called into the Walker Art Gallery on route to Lime Street station.

They’re currently showing an exhibition of artist’s books by Matisse, and it closes at the end of April, so I popped in to take a look. As usual it was free entry.

The Art Books of Henri Matisse

Like many artists, Matisse worked in different media and would try his hand with various techniques. He created around a dozen  “livre d’artiste” (artist’s books) – illustrated books published as collectible, limited editions. One of the first example of an artist’s book is William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience which merges drawings with hand written text

Illustrations from four books created by Matisse are on show in the exhibition. They’re not displayed as complete books though, rather individual pages are mounted and framed and hung on the walls.

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Cover of Jazz (1947) showing Le clown source Wikipedia

Probably the most well known images are from Jazz, which was published in 1947. Matisse created the images using the paper cut-out technique that he developed in his later years. The publisher then reproduced them using the “pochoir” stencilling technique. The same gouache paints used by the artist were then applied through the stencil to produce the highly coloured prints.

Jazz contains some of Matisse’s most well known images, including Icare (Icarus), Le clown, Le Loup and  Le Lagon.

Icarus

Icare (Icarus) Source:http://www.metmuseum.org

Le Cirque (The circus) Source www.henri-matisse.net

Personally I preferred the simple, effective line drawings included in two of the earlier books Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé,  from 1932, and Pasiphae, Chant de Minos published in 1944.

Source www.henri-matisse.net

The drawings from Poésies, reproduced as etched prints, illustrate Mallarmé’s poem. They include portraits of Edgar Allen Poe and Mallarmé, and mythological images. In the book, Matisse attempted to balance the images and the text. Full-page illustrations were placed on the right hand page opposite the text, printed in 20-point Garamond italic typeface on the left hand pages.

, La chevelure [Tresses]

La chevelure [Tresses] Source:http://nga.gov.au

, Hérodiade

Hérodiade Source:http://nga.gov.au

, La coiffure d'Hérodiade [Hérodiade's hair]

La coiffure d’Hérodiade Source:http://nga.gov.au

I thought the portrait of Edgar Allen Poe, which accompanied the poem “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe.” was particularly effective. Matisse has used a few simple strokes yet has created an expressive image which captures the likeness of the American author and also seems to convey something of his character.

, Portrait E. Poe

Portrait E. Poe Source:http://nga.gov.au

The images in Pasiphae, Chant de Minos (1942), a retelling of the Greek legend of Pasiphaë and the Minoan bull, are linocuts and comprise simple white lines on an intense black background, which are characteristic of this printing technique.

Pages 26-27 di Pasiphae – Chant de Minos – Source www.henri-matisse.net

Images from the book can be viewed here.

The fourth book included in the exhibition was Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans which was published in 1950. In this case the images were printed by lithography, which means that they can incorporate several colours. However Matisse has only used a limited palette.

Source www.henri-matisse.net

This was my least favourite set of prints in the exhibition. The drawings mainly consisted of variants on the fleur de lis with a few sketches of people, which were much less powerful than those in Poésies and Pasiphae.  Images from the book can be viewed here.

J. D. Fergusson at the Hunterian

While we were in Glasgow last week we went to have a look at the exhibition Colour, Rhythm and Form: J. D. Fergusson and France showing at the Hunterian Art Gallery until 8 January 2012. It features a large number of paintings from the Fergusson Gallery in Perth together with works from the Hunterian’s own collection and three painting loaned by the Pompidou centre in Paris.

J. D. Fergusson, Self Portrait, 1907 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council

Fergusson (1874-1961) was one of the group of four Scottish artists collectively known as “the Scottish Colourists”, the others being Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931) and Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1883-1937).  They were all strongly influenced by French Avant-garde art from the early Twentieth Century, putting their own Scottish stamp on the styles. Fergusson, Peploe and Hunter exhibited together in Paris as Les Peintres de l’Écosse Moderne (Modern Scottish Painters) in 1924 and Les Peintres Ecossais (The Scottish Painters) in 1931.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, it focuses on Fergusson’s work but there are some examples of paintings by other Colourists. He lived in France between 1907 and 1914 and returned a number of times after the war.

I’d first come across his work in Manchester City Art Gallery who have one of his paintings in their collection.

J D Fergusson Le Quartier Paris 1906

As I noted in a previous post, I liked the simplicity of the composition and the style of painting – broad brush strokes and bright colours. This picture wasn’t included in the Hunterian exhibition, but there were plenty of other works to see that illustrated how Fergusson and the other “Colourists” were heavily influenced by the exciting developments in art taking place in Paris at the turn of the 20th Century. I’d recently seen the exhibition in Budapest of works by the “Hungarian Fauvists (A Nyolcak)” , another group of artists who were in Paris around the same time and were also heavily influenced by Cubist and Fauvist ideas, so it was particularly interesting to see how Fergusson’s work compared.

The works were displayed chronologically so it was easy to see how Fergusson’s style developed and changed over time as he absorbed influences from French artistic movements.

Early paintings show a strong influence by Whistler, a large collection of whose works are owned by the Hunterian (see here). They were very grey, dull and muddy, with little sign of the bright colours that were to typify his later works. His views and artistic approach changed when he became aware of Manet, Monet and the Impressionists during a number of visits to France, the first around 1897. He was later to explain

“Everyone in Scotland should refuse to have anything to do with black or dirty and dingy colours, and insist on clean colours in everything. I remember when I was young any colour was considered a sign of vulgarity. Greys and blacks were the only colours for people of taste and refinement. Good pictures had to be black, grey, brown or drab. Well! let’s forget it, and insist on things in Scotland being of colour that makes for and associates itself with light, hopefulness, health and happiness.”
– J. D. Fergusson, Modern Scottish Painting, William MacLellan, Glasgow 1943.

Having said that, a number of his later paintings show a Whistlerian influence, although with much brighter colours. For example, Le Manteau Chinois

Le Manteau Chinois 1909

Many of Fergusson’s paintings displayed in the exhibition are of women. The American artist Anne Estelle Rice, who he met in Paris, and his long term partner, who he met in France in 1913, the dancer Margaret Morris, both modelled for him and feature in many of his works. That’s Anne in the Chinese outfit above and in the next couple of pictures. Margaret features heavily in his work from 1913 onwards.

The painting from the Manchester City Art Gallery, which was painted in 1906, the year before he moved to France, shows a strong Impressionist influence. The earlier paintings from his time in Paris, such as Anne Estelle Rice in Paris, continue this trend.

J. D. Fergusson, Anne Estelle Rice in Paris, Closerie des Lilas, 1907 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council.

But he was soon trying out new styles as can be seen in Le Voile Persan , a very “flat” painting where the blocks of colour are outlined with heavy lines and less naturalistic colours are beginning to creep in. This was my favourite of all the pictures in the exhibition. It’s from the Hunterian Gallery’s own collection and I’d seen it during a previous visit in July. I was so taken with it I’d even bought a postcard!

J. D. Fergusson, Le Voile Persan, 1909 © The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery

The exhibition showed how Fergusson tried out different approaches, illustrated by three works painted during a stay in Royan in 1910, each of which is painted in a different style (one even looking as if it was painted by Van Gogh). A distinct Fauvist influence appears in his work at this time

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J. D. Fergusson, People and Sails at Royan, 1910

J. D. Fergusson, Les Eus, c 1910 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council

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J. D. Fergusson, At My Studio Window, 1910 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council

Fergusson was art editor of the Modernist magazine, Rhythm. The magazine title was suggested by Fergusson and the cover was based on one of the paintings from his Paris period,

Cover of Rhythm magazine (1911) by J D Fergusson

J. D. Fergusson, Rhythm, 1911

Another picture I liked was this portrait of Margaret Morris.

J. D. Fergusson Summer 1920

J. D. Fergusson, Christmas Time in the South of France, 1922 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council

One of his paintings, La Déssee de la Rivière was purchased by the French Government on the opening day of the 1931 exhibition held in Paris.  It’s now held by the Pompidou Centre who have lent it to the Hunterian, together with two other paintings,  La Forêt by Peploe and Lac Lomond by Hunter, which they purchased at the same time.

a painting of a reclining nude

J.D. Fergusson, La Déesse de la Rivière, c 1928 © Collection Centre Pompidou

There were a couple of sculptures displayed, including a cast of Estre, Hymn to the Sun – a bust of Margaret Morris. We’d seen another copy a little earlier in the day when we’d visited the Kelvingrove Museum, who have a small collection of works by the Colourists.

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J. D. Fergusson Estre, Hymn to the Sun c 1924

I thought that this was an excellent exhibition, providing a good opportunity to learn more about an important Scottish artist. Talking to one of the staff, attendance so far has been on the low side. She reckoned it was because Scots aren’t used to paying to see exhibitions (entry cost £5 each). I can understand that. Charging a fee inevitably restricts entry to the more affluent. However, the exhibition deserves to be a success. It’s on until 8 January and is definitely worth a visit by anyone interested in 20th Century British art.

This is not an exhibition – Magritte at the Tate Liverpool

We called in to the Tate Liverpool on Sunday, principally to pay a second visit to the Magritte exhibition that’s showing there until mid October. There’s a lot to see. The Tate have done a good job at pulling together a large number of his paintings, a significant proportion from private collections.

It was our second visit. We joined the Tate last year because we’ve found that the major exhibitions they organise need more than one visit to properly take in everything on display. There’s normally so many paintings that you become overwhelmed and it’s difficult to absorb everything you’re seeing.  This was certainly the case with the current exhibition. By taking out an individual membership with the “Liverpool extra card option” up to 4 people can visit all the exhibitions at the Albert Dock gallery without having to pay any extra. It allows us to revisit any exhibition we choose to, as many times as we want, meaning we can get a lot more out of them.

Like most of the exhibitions I’ve seen in recent years, the curators take a thematic rather than chronological approach to the works. I don’t think this always works. Sometimes an artist’s output is easier to understand when looked at chronologically. In this case I think the approach was successful, probably because Magritte developed his different themes over time, so there probably wouldn’t have been a great deal of difference if the pictures had been displayed chronologically.

Personally I’m not a great fan of Surrealist art.  The intention of Surrealist artists is to use “visual imagery from the subconscious mind to create art without the intention of logical comprehensibility”. I find it rather unsettling (which is actually what the artists are trying to achieve) and I can’t seem to engage with it.

I find Magritte more accessible than some other Surrealists, particularly Salvador Dali.  His paintings are less fantastic. Many of his subjects are more banal focusing on more everyday objects and situations rather than wandering into the wider realms of fantasy as Dali did. They feature pipes, bowler hats and apples rather than strange, unrealistic shapes and structures that appear in may of Dali’s works. But these ordinary objects are placed in unusual settings. In many ways it makes Magritte’s work more disconcerting.

To say the least, Magritte wasn’t a great draughtsman. Many of the earlier works are crude and not particularly well drawn. However I think his skills develop and his work improves over time.

Overall I wasn’t particularly keen on the works displayed in the first two rooms. I thought the paintings from his “Vache period” displayed in room 2 were awful. They may be of historical interest in terms of understanding his relationship with the French Surrealists, but they are not particularly good works of art. There were some smaller works I liked, some of which appeared to be collages. Unfortunately I didn’t note down their titles and haven’t been able to find them on the Tate website, although I think that one of them was called The Lost Jockey.

One of Magritte’s most famous works is “La trahison des images” – a picture of a pipe with the legend “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. The exhibition included a version of this work, but the legend was in English.

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I did like quite a few of the works displayed in room 5, particularly his cloud pictures and “The human condition” and some similar paintings.  It shows a canvas positioned in front of a window where the outside view appears on the canvas and overlaps the curtains as if they aren’t there. He uses a similar device, where the background is merged with the foreground, in a number of other works on display.

“The human condition” 1933

I’m not sure how the image in “the human condition” is meant to relate to the title of the picture. Perhaps it isn’t and is another Surrealist device providing a conflict between the words and the image to confuse the viewer.

I also liked a number of the works displayed in the last two rooms.  There were several versions of his series The Dominion of Light featuring a nigh time street scene under a bright blue afternoon sky. Another example of a disconcerting distortion of reality.

As with most exhibitions I’ve seen at the various Tate galleries, various contextual materials including photographs, home movies and examples of his commercial art were on display. I think these help the visitor to understand the artist and the environment which influenced his art and, to me, they were an important part of the exhibition which is meant to educate as well as “entertain”.

It was definitely worthwhile re-visiting the exhibition. I came away with a deeper understanding of Magritte’s work. However it was mainly an intellectual experience – very few of the works inspired me or engaged my emotions.