Exhibition reviews: Modern Masters | RE: NEW

The Frugal Repast by Picasso. Picture: Contributed
The Frugal Repast by Picasso. Picture: Contributed
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Drawing on the V&A’s extensive archive, a new exhibition offers an insight into four of modern art’s most revered exponents

Modern Masters: Matisse, Picasso, Dali and Warhol

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The McManus Art Gallery, Dundee

There is a famous story about Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse meeting in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment in 1906. The two men, so different in temperament and lifestyle, had recognised in each other their only true rival. Each watched the other’s work like a hawk. Each tiny step by one prompted an attempted leap from his rival.

That night Matisse was clutching a small African sculpture in his hand, a portrait head, which he had bought from a Paris street stall. The stiff Matisse feigned diffidence. Picasso was blown away and left the gathering early. The rest is art history.

You can see a hint of this dynamic in Modern Masters: Matisse, Picasso, Dali and Warhol, a show from the collections of the V&A, now at Dundee’s McManus Art Gallery. Matisse’s Large Woodcut (1906) shows a naked woman, her boy oddly contorted, the lines of her profile odd and angular rather than fluid and sensuous. The background of dynamic lines has a rhythm of its own, which is nothing to do with naturalistic description. The woodblock itself is more than a means to an end; it is evidence of Matisse’s growing interest in African carving. Picasso probably saw the print in a show that year at the Paris gallery, Druet. Within months he had taken what he learned and taken it further.

The Matisse work is one of the most important prints of his early career. Not everything in Modern Masters is similarly important. But the exhibition draws on the V&A’s extensive archive to tell a concise history of modern art. We see Picasso from his most morose to his most exuberant. From the sombre and starving couple The Frugal Repast, (1904) to the rambunctious Minotaur, Drinkers and Women (1933) from the famous Vollard Suite.

With Salvador Dali’s printmaking it is his extraordinary draughtsmanship that astounds: a late illustration for Don Quixote shows the character’s body as a whirl of motion, as though composed entirely of spinning plates. Look closely and the ruff around his neck is composed of dozens of tiny soldiers, armed and marching.

Prints often provide a sense of kinship or context for artists. Dali and Don Quixote make sense in a period in which he was increasingly conservative in outlook and fervently Spanish in identity; a younger Dali had illustrated a less important but more challenging text, Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont. It was a 19th century text resurrected by the Surrealists for its hallucinatory violence, badness and blasphemy. In Dali’s illustrations two sinister faceless women wrestle to the death as around them the world melts and judders. A human face turns out to be crafted from bones, loose limbs and a plump olive on a stick.

Minor works by great artists can be frustrating viewing. Many prints simply make you yearn for a bit of paint or a small sculpture, something messy and untamed by frame and format. There is none of this feeling, however, when it comes to Andy Warhol, for whom print was the thing, even when it came to works that we think of as paintings.

Flatness, reproducibility, disposability and repetition: these were Warhol’s watchwords. But he used them paradoxically to create artworks that have turned out to be as emotionally three-dimensional and as lasting as any major monument.

In this exhibition there are three of his iconic Marilyns on show, side by side in different colour schemes. The actress’s face morphs, in art, as it was required to do on screen: ever changing, ever the same. Warhol used reportage and newspaper photographs as sources all the time. They still retain their immediacy half a century on. As people across the globe have just marked the 5Oth anniversary of The March on Washington, Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot (1964) is an apt reminder of the moments that led to the March. In the spring of 1963 Martin Luther King was one of many arrested in civil rights protests; Warhol’s image of a black man surrounded by police with batons and snarling dogs doesn’t feel like history, it feels like the snatched present.

Modern Masters is part of the ongoing and fruitful relationship between the McManus and the V&A at Dundee, the project which will bring a new art venue to the city. Locals must hope that the investment required will be repaid in a repeat of the success of Dundee Contemporary Arts, which has enlivened the city in countless ways.

One of these is the way that activity at DCA has provided a transfusion of new blood for the city’s permanent art collection. Just how can be seen in Re: new, a new display charting The McManus’s acquisitions in recent years, supported by its relationship with DCA amongst other galleries, as well as funding streams such as the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland and organisations such the Contemporary Art Society.

There are numerous works commissioned for DCA exhibitions such as Out (2000) Roderick Buchanan’s first-ever short film, which traces the path of a local inline skater powering through the brutalist architecture of the Bell Street car park.

Ruth Ewan’s Nae Sums (2011) is those very words carved out of recycled Dundee school desks, a reminder of the 1911 School Strike. Ewan is fond of evocative slogans, adopting and adapting them for her own purposes. A recent set of poster style prints, also on show, share the economy of political agitprop and the elegant ferocity of the concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay

While these works stand out for their connectedness to the city that houses them, others are just the kind of lovely things that good galleries should have. A suite of small photographic prints by Wolfgang Tillmans shows the lusciousness of the everyday: a row of plump tomatoes on an urban windowsill, the jewel like qualities of the fruit in some fresh homemade jam.

John Stezaker, a British artist of an older generation, is represented by two of his composite portraits made by combining publicity stills with holiday postcards. A Hollywood matinee idol has features made from the curve of a railway track. A starlet becomes a bird, through the addition of a rocky promontory in Capri.

These are the simplest of ruses but Stezaker is good – he really knows what he is doing. Dali would be proud. The story started by Modern Masters goes on and on.

Modern Masters until 17 November; Re: new until Spring 2014

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