Start Display: Room One

Henri Matisse, ‘The Snail’ 1953
Henri Matisse
The Snail 1953
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2021

Display: Start Gallery
Henri Matisse The Snail, 1953

John Hegley, poet: Henri Matisse, The Snail (L’Escargot). This collage of Matisse’s in these gouache coloured pieces of paper I read he turned to when he was too sick to hold a mark-making stick, pointing out their putting in position from his bed. Sharing the work with Isabella, my daughter, she hasn’t sent he gallery label. She is able to see a wagging tail and a barking head, instead of the snail that I know it to be. Looking more intently, I do see a dog as well, but I just can’t get it out of its shell. A thing that I’ve thought about this is that I see the Snail, Isabella saw the dog, and we both make those creatures out of the same bits; so Isabella’s dog is with the pink head on the left and its back is the green-y bit in the middle, and the legs underneath and the orange bit, which is the head of the snail, is the tail. But what I thought was, yeah, well what about all these other bits? So they kind of get lost a little bit and they become almost identity-less. And I’m looking at it now and trying to not see either a dog or a snail, and it’s quite hard. And it made me think about the power of pre-conception, or pre-knowledge, to our perception, and it’s quite an important thing in how we view the world really. One thing that’s been indicated to me is on the lilac bit of the snail there’s a little snail at the top, and I see that now and it’s quite remarkable. And I mean it is…it’s like a little snail bobbing about on the ocean. Can that be mere chance? I mean it’s not got any antenna bits, but the story I hear about how particular Matisse was about these pieces of paper, and how they had to pencil the outline of where they were to be glued before they were sent away, makes me think that Henri knew about this little bit of shell-age at the top of the collage.

In the Studio: Studio Practice

Edgar Degas, ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ 1880–1, cast c.1922
Edgar Degas
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen 1880–1, cast c.1922

Display: In the Studio
Room: Studio Practice
Edward Degas Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1880–1, cast c.1922

Alice Proctor, art historian: The original Little Dancer was made of wax. Degas made a nude sculpture of this 14-year-old girl and then clothed her, gave her a real hair wig and presented her on a plinth in a glass cabinet. The sculpture was only cast in bronze after his death by his decedents so; this is now one of several Little Dancers around the world. The costume that she’s wearing varies a little depending on the cast but in this one; she has a real fabric tutu. She is a 14 year old girl and she occupies this very precarious position, she is on the cusp of puberty and there are nude studies of the sculpture where you can see that her body is still the body of a child but she is at the ballet school, she is learning how to perform and so much of her is given over to the public that watch her dance. She occupies this very precarious and vulnerable position where her intimacy and her private world are constantly on display. We don’t know anything about Degas’s relationship with the girl that actually modelled for this. She was a Belgian teenager called Marie van Goethem and it was very common for girls in the ballet school at this time to find extra employment as sex workers so, it's possible that that happened to Marie as well. We just don’t know. What we do have though is this incredibly tender fragile portrait of a 14-year-old girl. She is a spectacle and we don’t know what her agency is in that.

Errollyn Wallen, composer: When I look at this, I think I’ve got a photo somewhere of me aged 12 or 13, I look a little bit like that. It's a very particular look, that young dancer look. This is an example of a work that is in precisely the right form, you know she is a dancer because of the line and the shape; it's a dancer’s attitude. The legs, the turn out from the hips of the legs and at the same time the gamine look in the head upturn. So much of a dancer’s life is spent, moments of waiting, you are waiting in the wings, there are moments when you are not needed so you sit and watch someone else, so you’re often waiting so, Degas has managed to capture a beautiful private moment but so aptly, it's a work that keeps giving you new things. What is she thinking? Does she want to be a dancer? Is she scared of her ballet teacher? Almost heartbreaking in its beauty to me.

In The Studio: Atul Dodiya

Piet Mondrian, ‘Composition B (No.II) with Red’ 1935
Piet Mondrian
Composition B (No.II) with Red 1935

Display: In the Studio
Room: Atul Dodiya
Piet Mondrian Composition B (No.II) with Red 1935

Annette King, paintings conservator: It’s a very perfect looking small painting and you might think it’s all symmetry. But actually, if you look very closely, you’ll notice that the vertical lines and the horizontal lines are not at equal distances. Every rectangle on this painting is slightly different dimensions; and once you see that, you sort of start looking a little bit more closely at the arrangement. It’s pure white with black lines crossing the space, and with one red square at the top. But you’ll notice underneath the red square there’s a slightly inverted vertical line that almost makes it look as though the red square might topple out of the painting at any moment. And this is all part of Mondrian’s plan, in fact, because he shunned nature. He wanted to paint a purely spiritual work which combined opposites like the universal/ the personal, male/ female – all the things that are conflicting in nature, he wanted to put them into a painting in a way that created an equilibrium. So the lines represent the opposites in nature, but he brings them into a sort of equilibrium that’s not entirely static, so there is some sort of movement within the painting, even though it looks completely still and square. But he hoped that by painting in this pure, abstract way it would inspire architects and then in turn urban planners. And the legacy of course of Mondrian is huge. Lots of abstract artists in the twentieth century followed his example and strove for abstraction in the way that he had done.

Errollyn Wallen, Composer: When I look at a work like this, I look at it and then I hear it in music. One of my early works is a work called Mondrian, and, that is a work that has quite a lot of jazz influences. It’s for an ensemble. It was very much inspired by the works of Mondrian, a painter who I’ve really loved instinctively. There’s always something very vital about his works, to me. But trying to put ourselves back into 1935 and thinking about the…just how shocking it would have been really to have something absolutely distilled and refined, so we have these lines, these various proportions, and then just black, white and then this one block of red. To me, the reality of the paint is what gives it this profound human-ness.

In the Studio: International Surrealism

Wifredo Lam, ‘Ibaye’ 1950
Wifredo Lam
Ibaye 1950
© Tate

Display: In the Studio
Room: International Surrealism
Wilfredo Lam Ibaye 1950

Michael Wellen, curator: It’s an unusual portrait: a portrait of who it’s hard to tell. It’s a kind of mysterious figure, some kind of spirit or possibly a witch. The title means witch in the Ewe language. There are a couple of things that really attract me to this work. One has to do with the artist’s use of line. It’s almost like a graffiti artist in the ability to quickly and efficiently convey a motion and personality through a scratchy or sharp line, and I think that’s evident in various parts of this painting, whether it’s the little floral details on possibly the shoulder of this figure, or on the face of this white, sort of infant-like creature in the centre of the work. Even though it’s a still painting there’s a sense that the figure that we’re looking at is moving or warping before our eyes. The head might be sinking down. What might be a veil may become an arm, or a wing might be spreading open. And we can’t necessarily tell if it’s a good witch or a bad witch. All we know is that there’s a dignity to the posture of this unusual creature. In Cuba he was fascinated with the tropical-ness of that place, and struggling with it. I think it was an identity that was always laid on top of him and so to confront it head on, by including references to different afro-Cuban rituals and Afro-Cuban symbols was a political choice to connect with his heritage and also rethink it in a new way.

In the Studio: International Surrealism

Salvador Dalí, ‘Autumnal Cannibalism’ 1936
Salvador Dalí
Autumnal Cannibalism 1936
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2021

Display: In the Studio
Room: International Surrealism
Salvador Dalí Autumnal Cannibalism 1936

Annette King, paintings conservator: This painting is meant to be disturbing and it's a terrible situation in Spain at the time. Just after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It's called Autumnal Cannibalism because if you look very closely at the central figures, they seem to be consuming one another. If you look to the left there’s a sort of like a white breast or flesh which is oozing out of the figure into a bowl being squeezed by a hand that is coming round the back of her and then the right hand figures hand is holding a spoon which is literally scooping into the flesh. If you look very closely, the thing I find most disturbing really, is the gash in the face of the left hand figure and there are ants, sort of moving in, it's like a cut and the ants are coming in to eat the flesh. Look really closely at those ants, they are amazing. The black ants themselves are very black and shiny and they have a little white dot on them which makes the light beam off them but they have shadows and the shadows are actually slightly browner and fuzzier and if you can see that, there is such detail. He has painted everything in such detail and he does this by using pure oil paint initially, he puts darker paint colours underneath and then he builds up the highlights so the lighter colours are on top and he blends them all very seamlessly one into another and then he uses resinous paint on top, which makes it quite glossy and then he even paints over the resin as well. So, it's got a transparency and a depth to it that looks almost realistic. In the sky this rather threatening cloud which could be almost a sort of morphis person, it looks as though it's rushing towards the table to consume them as well. I find it fascinating that he’s used all our senses in this painting. The sense of smell because you sort of feel you can smell the meat and the fruit and slightly decay, sense of touch with that doughy flesh being so malleable. The sight because the light is very harsh and it glints off the knife and creates very deep shadows.

In the Studio: The Disappearing Figure

Germaine Richier, ‘Chessboard, Large Version (Original Painted Plaster)’ 1959
Germaine Richier
Chessboard, Large Version (Original Painted Plaster) 1959
© The estate of Germaine Richier

Display: In the Studio
Room: The Disappearing Figure
Germaine Richier Chessboard, Large Version (Original Painted Plaster) 1959

John Hegley, Poet: These chess pieces have personality. These chess pieces have individuality. Out of water corals, inviting the fishes of our curiosity, these chess pieces are a little family, not to little actually. Life sees Miro-esque, all dressed up and ready for a ceremony, body paint, face paint. These chess pieces are one… So this is…when I say one, I mean… I’m looking at them now, and one of them I see as – I’ve given them little names – Ear Dot Prong Stool. Second one: Giraffe Waffle; three: Cow, four: Wishbone Fishbone Backbone Divider, five: Long Arm Tum Hole. The challenge is, go and find out which is which. You can write them down and see which one is which. I was going to just do four and then say, when you find out one that isn’t named, give it your own name. These pieces are joyous, a really lovely thing to come across in a gallery. I mean the exercise of just looking at a thing deeply is…it’s a rewarding exercise, looking and looking, and seeking and looking.

In the Studio: The Disappearing Figure

Ibrahim El-Salahi, ‘Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I’ 1961–5
Ibrahim El-Salahi
Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I 1961–5
© Ibrahim Salahi

Display: In the Studio
Room: The Disappearing Figure
Ibrahim El-Salahi Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I 1961–5

Annette King, paintings conservator: Ibrahim El-Salahi is Sudanese and he started this painting with a friend when he was teaching at the Art College in Khartoum, an enormous studio so they bought a fabric, a local cloth called dammur which is woven in Sudan and it's what people, as he described it, made their clothes from, so it's a sort of cotton linen but quite flexible. So, they laid it on the studio floor, they put a ground of chalk and rabbit skin glue and a little bit of oil all over the cloth, and then they hung it directly on the wall and divided it up between them to paint. They soon realised that actually their styles are so different that they would have to divide it again so they took the scissors and they cut it into three pieces and the friend got the right hand piece and he took the central piece and began to work on it on his own. This was all started in 1961 and then he won a UNESCO scholarship to go to America so, he rolled it up and took it with him to America and then in 1964 he started working on it again and, of course, the enamel paint on the soft fabric had all cracked so he started scraping it off again but he really loved the wrinkling and the cracking of the paint and so he would rub colour or white into the broken enamel paint so it got stuck in the grooves. So, when we are looking at this painting we are looking at abstract figures, which have a very African feel, there is also the influence of Arabic calligraphy, if you look down to the lower left quarter there are some symbols that could be calligraphy. But, what he is really trying to evoke is the sound of childhood dreams so, he’s playing with the visual to try and create sound in your mind. So, while you are looking at this painting think about that, think about what his dreams of childhood might have sounded like.

Ibrahim El-Salahi, artist: The colour which I work for some years, burnt sienna, ochre, yellow ochres, white and blacks – it’s the colour of the earth in the Sudan, which I cared a great deal about. The idea of organic growth of a picture. In the Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams number 1 it was one piece. To tell you the truth, when I’m working I am not at all aware of what it's going to look like. I work I feel that as if I am possessed by some other power within me which is producing that work and that’s why all I can recognise is the nucleus. In the nucleus, yes, I can see that this a germ of an idea. How it's going to grow into a larger size, I have no idea whatsoever, I just keep working and by keeping working, the work develops by itself and shows me things, possibly in my sub conscience mind, that I am not at all aware of what it's all about.

In the Studio: Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, ‘Red on Maroon’ 1959
Mark Rothko
Red on Maroon 1959
© Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 2021

Display: In the Studio
Room: Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko Seagram Murals 1958–9

Rachel Barker, paintings conservator: The Seagram Murals were originally conceived to be hung in the Four Seasons Restaurant of the Seagram Building in New York. The architect, Philip Johnson, had commissioned Rothko in the mid-nineteen fifties to create a series of murals which would adorn the restaurant walls. Originally, the restaurant was to be used only by the staff, and the workers in the Seagram Building, but quickly, the ideas for the restaurant changed and the Seagram organisation decided the Four Seasons Restaurant would become an extremely exclusive restaurant in New York. Rothko was invited, halfway the commission, to come and eat and to sense the environment of the Four Seasons Restaurant and he was absolutely horrified. He felt it was a completely inappropriate environment in which to hang his murals. He was incredibly egalitarian. He was quite left wing. He felt that this was way too exclusive a project for him to be involved with, so he withdrew. Now the paintings are to be seen as an ensemble. There is a unique communication between each one of them that is almost audible. My own personal reading of these images is that they are made at a moment of deep contemplation by Mark Rothko. In the mid to late fifties he was having numerous crises in his personal life, in his health. There’s a real sense that they’re incomplete, that they’re not quite resolved. We get a real sense of the struggle that many artists have trying to create a very particular type of surface.

Tracy Chevalier, author: When I visit Tate Modern I almost always make a kind of pilgrimage to the Rothko room. There’s something about looking at a Rothko. I know that some people have said it’s a spiritual experience. It’s not that for me. What I feel when I sit and look at a Rothko is that there is a space created between me and the painting; maybe because it’s not a painting of a thing, of a person or a landscape. It’s about colour and tone and feeling, and me. And I sit and it creates like a three-dimensional space around us, so that I am in like a little tiny art gallery of me and a painting together. So for me, it’s always a delight to come to Tate Modern to see the Seagram Murals because I think the best art reflects your own mood back at you, and so I can be angry and the paintings look angry. I can be sad and the paintings look sad. I can be ecstatic and the paintings reflect that back at me.

Artists and Society: View from Sao Paulo

Dame Barbara Hepworth, ‘Oval Sculpture (No. 2)’ 1943, cast 1958
Dame Barbara Hepworth
Oval Sculpture (No. 2) 1943, cast 1958
© Bowness

Display: Artists and Society
Room: View from Sao Paulo
Barbara Hepworth Oval Sculpture (No. 2) 1943, cast 1958

Gates Sofer, sculpture conservator: I think with a lot of Barbara Hepworth’s organic forms, a lot of it is just relaxing of the eyes. To me, it just relaxes my eyes and it kind of gives me something to float around, almost as if you’re in water and your eyes just roll around it and follow the shape. And it brings a serenity. Her daughter was ill at some point, and she felt kind of helpless because she couldn’t do anything to ease her pain, and so she felt the only thing she could do was to carve her something beautiful to look at, and this is a product of that. I love the form of it, the shape of it. It’s so fluid and compact, and intricate, all at the same time. And when she chose this, to cast in bronze, she sent for a master plaster mould-maker, and he came down to see the work, and was horrified to see how complex it was. For casting, to make a mould around this, they ended up making a 40 piece mould in order to be able to cast the shape. That’s why he’s a master plaster mould-maker, I suppose, because of the four pierced holes and the undercuts and the through and through bits.

Barbara Hepworth, artist: Everything I make is to touch, and people usually do, which pleases me. And it’s very important to a sculptor not just to go sort of plonk, up and look, because it changes all the time. It’s lovely to pick up a stone and it’s lovely to live with a sculpture because it changes in every possible light, all through the day, the moonlight, artificial light – any light. It’s always changing.

Artists and Society: Civil War

Malangatana Ngwenya, ‘Untitled’ 1967
Malangatana Ngwenya
Untitled 1967
© reserved

Display: Artists and Society
Room: Civil War
Malangatana Ngwenya Untitled 1967

Zoe Whitely, curator: This painting for me is really all about the feeling of being trapped, this kind of horror and anguish. But one interesting fact is that his surname, Nwengya, actually means crocodile. And one of the things that recurs in his paintings – as you can certainly see here – are these gnashing, fang-like teeth. And really, the thematic here is all about what war does to us as people, debasing us and turning us, as human beings, into animals. So you’ll see that some of the figures, like these orange ones, might have horns or they might have tails, even though their faces otherwise look pretty humanoid. And then right underneath that central yellow figure you’ll notice that this smaller red figure could be a child – they seem to mirror one another – but it’s very difficult to tell from the placement of this leg whether this figure is trying to protect this other figure, in vain, or is kind of crushing the figure with his thigh. So these bloodthirsty figures really make it a challenge to figure out what’s going on. Who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator? This is really a testament to the times that Malangatana was living through, both through the civil war in his country, and also what it meant to live as an artist in a country that for so much of his youth was segregated. So the white Portuguese community would have had very different privileges to black artists like himself despite having been born and raised there.

Artists and Society: Citizens

Display: Artists and Society
Room: Citizens
Theaster Gates Civil Tapestry 4 2011

Zoe Whitely, curator: This is actually one of the largest works that Theaster Gates has made using decommissioned fire hoses. He personally sourced them in his home town of Chicago. So, while the stripes of these stitched together hoses run vertically I think they also very much evoke a sense of the horizontal stripes in the stars and stripes of the American flag. Symbolically they are very important items particularly in the history of the United States and very weighty items as well. As, Theaster says in his own words, ‘for days firehoses and cannons were used to intimidate America’s wrongly served’, and when he was speaking about this one of the key reference points is a gathering that took place on May 2nd in 1963 and a seventh grader, named Gwendoline Sanders, so that’s the equivalent to a year 8 student, to just put it into context for UK listeners, how young this person was; she led her fellow classmates and hundreds of school children throughout the city of Birmingham, Alabama, the youngest of them wouldn’t have been more than six years old, in a walk out to protest the shameful inequality in their level of education in their segregated schools. The authorities arrested children that had gathered, they resorted to the vicious use of police dogs, against the children as well as high-pressure water hoses and the televised footage of the children’s crusade was really one of the turning points in the Civil Rights movement.

Lubaina Himid, artist: It's a work that has very, very little colour in it but beautiful, beautiful shades of grey and cream and one or two, three stripes of maroon. But, it's kind of one of those works you could admire it if you wanted to for its beautiful colour, you could admire it for when you are next to it, the weight of the fabric of it, because it's made up of strips of fireman’s hose or, you could admire it for what it makes you feel. And, what happens to me when I understand the work, that it refers to the firehose, the water from the fire hose is sprayed on protesters in Birmingham in Alabama and I was 12 and when I heard this on the news I thought that it was in Birmingham in England, because I didn’t know there was a Birmingham in America and the moment is a kind of moment of terror for me. I wonder whether that’s a, kind of, beginning of my thinking about global solidarity between black people really. But, what I really would love to be able to do is touch it. I would just like to run my hand up and down it to feel the, kind of, weight of it rather than see the weight of it.