Matisse and Malevich at the Tate Modern

Over the last week I’ve been to see a couple of really interesting and enjoyable exhibitions at the Tate Modern: the art of Kazimir Malevich and Henri Matisse’s “Cut Outs”.

Malevich is a 20th century Russian artist, although he was born in Kiev, to Polish parents.  His art changed over time as radically as Picasso’s. In the first fifteen years of the century, his art mirrored many of the trends in the west dating back to the mid-19th century. Impressionism, Cubism, the idealisation of the peasant. The art was vivid, intriguing.

Self-Portrait_(1908_or_1910-1911)

Self portrait

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Woman on a tram

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Peasant woman

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Woodcutter

Then he decided to create his own movement: Suprematism. It reflected what was going on in an increasingly revolutionary Russia, I guess. His big statement was a black square. Art “beyond reason”.

Malevich.black-square

Er, Black Square

Well yes. From this point I find his art interesting but not exciting or pleasing. He went back to more representative art in his later life. And that was good too. I’m always interested in the thinking behind the art-not-art. And often amused. But my instinct with Malevich, in his Suprematist period was, pull the other one, mate. This disqualifies me as an art critic, I know!

Everyone likes Matisse, don’t they? Beautiful colours, Mediterranean scenes, fresh, airy, look great on the wall of your living room. Nothing wrong with any of that. Art is allowed to look good.

The Cut Outs represent Matisse’s later work, in the 1940s and 50s, when his illnesses rendered him pretty immobile. So he began to cut out paper shapes, painted in vivid colours, and assembled them – or had them assembled by his assistants. The shapes were shifted around until his vision was fulfilled.

There’s something quite child-like about this. Who hasn’t, if they have children, painted bits of paper and made weird pictures with them? It is raw creativity, that takes no expertise, no prior experience. And it is such fun!

Yes, Matisse was more sophisticated than this, and grew increasingly sophisticated over the years of the Cut Outs. His work was described as a fusion of painting and sculpture.  But the pleasure in the paintings is primal and child-like. I loved the colours, the shapes. I wasn’t theorising, like I had to with Malevich. It was just pure pleasure. I liked the way he got involved with churches, and his “Blue Nudes” period, and the fact that he made a design for some limited edition carpets, negotiated a commission with some rich Americans. This is exactly what the Renaissance painters, Rubens and so many others did. Arts has always had patrons, who sometimes just want something nice, or big, for their wall!

Here are a few samples from the Matisse Cut Out canon.

Henri Matisse - The Fall of Icarus, 1943

The fall of Icarus

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One of the Blue Nudes

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Two Masks – I imagined it was a man crying

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The Mermaid and the Parakeet – spot them!

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The Snail – think about it!

The Matisse exhibition ends on 7 September, so get in there if you haven’t seen it! Malevich runs until 26 October.

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Sportsthoughts (118) – The return of 3-5-2

The England team

England 1990. Photo David Cannon/Allsport, from Google Images

I apologise in advance if my statto tendencies have got the better of me in this blog! But I love the analysis of tactics and structures – and then the fact that the players can blow it all apart with a moment of genius, or an horrendous error…

A strange thing is happening in the Premier League. More teams are playing with a 3-5-2 formation. Man Utd, Hull, QPR, with others dabbling. Essentially that means three central defenders, three midfielders and two wing backs and two forwards. A few sides tried it from time to time last season, including Liverpool. But there is more this season, possibly encouraged by its successful use in the World Cup, by Holland, but mainly the Latin American teams: Mexico and Costa Rica, for example. Juventus have been using it in Serie A too, winning the Scudetto three times in a row.

What’s behind this trend? It’s very retro. It’s in tune with what’s happening culturally – fashion, music. Still quite eighties-influenced, moving into the nineties. It could be that players who played in the formation in the nineties are now reaching the higher echelons of coaching and management? But it’s also a response to previous tactical developments. Football is always changing. When one style becomes supreme, people work out ways of countering it. Look at the experience of Barcelona. The ultimate football team, playing a 4-3-3, with intense pressing in midfield and a high back line. No-one who could really be called a centre forward, just three highly mobile attackers, with Messi as the “false nine”. But the top teams started to work them out, sat deeper on the whole, surrendered possession and waited to pounce, attacking the vulnerable central defence. And the Barca team grew older, maybe not quite as mobile, or hungry. Their style could only work with the most intense and disciplined of approaches. So maybe it wasn’t built to last.

The main counter to the Barca style, and the one most favoured in the Premier League last season, and at the World Cup, was the 4-2-3-1. Designed for defensive solidity, with two midfielders protecting the back four. Allows the full backs to get upfield. But also needs the midfield three to act very much as auxiliary attackers, given that there is only one real forward. The best teams play it very well: Man City in England, Germany in the World Cup. But lower down, it can become over-defensive and the central striker can become isolated. Negative sides, sides just looking to survive, often turn it – and 4-3-3 – into a 4-5-1, a packed midfield clogging up the central areas of the pitch. One striker trying to hold the ball up, hoping someone in midfield might make it up in support. A reliance on set pieces to score. Sadly, this describes the West Ham of last season very well (but possibly not this one – there is hope).

So 3-5-2, apart from being a fad, and inspired by the World Cup, is a response to the 4-2-3-1. First, if you are only marking one striker, why do you need four defenders? Second, it allows the return of two strikers, one target man with the other playing off him – the classic No10. I like this. It gives two attacking players a chance to establish a really effective partnership, gives a team a better focal point and relies less on players arriving from midfield for goals. It means talented strikers don’t get shunted out into wide positions. It means the return of the “man in the hole”.

The midfield remains well-stocked, with three central players. Width is provided by the wing backs: overlapping full backs really, but with more licence to roam.

So, 3-5-2 is essentially an attacking response to defensive formations. So far, so good. There must be flaws though; otherwise everyone would be playing it. And yes there are. The good thing about football is that 11 players aren’t enough to cover all the requirements. Something must be sacrificed. Under 3-5-2 it is defensive cover out wide. In theory that cover should be provided by one of the centre backs, depending on where the threat is coming from. But it doesn’t always happen – centre backs are always wary of deserting the central positions and getting isolated. So the counter to a 3-5-2 is to put balls in behind the wing backs, or get your own wide men to attack that space. It was this defensive flaw that led to its abandonment in England after its use in the late eighties and early nineties. Its most famous use in England was by the national team in the 1990 World Cup after an awful start in the first group game, against Ireland – possibly the worst game of international football I have ever seen. It is said that the players insisted on the switch to manager Bobby Robson. In fact it was more a 5-3-2, with the full backs still cautious about advancing. But it tightened up the defence and midfield, and while it wasn’t used rigidly in every game, it gave England a solidity and freedom which allowed them to progress to the semi-final, where, of course, they lost to Germany on penalties.

The 3-5-2 system is essentially Latin American. Argentina used it in the 1986 World Cup, releasing Diego Maradona, and winning the tournament with a pretty average team (apart from Maradona!).

West Germany and Italy played a variant of it in the seventies and eighties, a 5-3-2, which had a sweeper, or libero, playing behind a four man defence, and having licence to roam forward. The great Franz Beckenbauer is perhaps the finest example. This never really caught on in England – it was far too sophisticated. And Steve McClaren’s disastrous adoption of it in 2007, in the last Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia, looked to have killed it off forever. We have carried on with our essential 4-4-2 until quite recently, when the influx of foreign players and, especially, managers, has led to much greater variety.

I still quite like a 4-4-2, played intelligently, so your two wide midfielders don’t leave the two central midfielders vulnerable to being overrun by more numerous opponents.This has often been the problem for the England team. But it doesn’t have to be. The wide midfielders can tuck in, letting the full backs get forward. One midfielder can drop back, to provide defensive cover. In fact you can end up with a 4-1-3-2, which I reckon is the best system of all. The risk with 4-1-3-2 is a loss of width, unless the full backs get forward. And if they do, you are practically playing a 3-5-2!

All this shows is that none of these formations are really all that different. The virtue of 4-4-2 is its simplicity as a starting point. You can improvise from there. Improvise? It seems that some managers give such detailed instructions these days that players feel afraid to improvise. But the best ones still do: that’s how you win matches at the very top. And, as matches progress, players tire, and the best of systems can start to fall apart. That’s when simplicity becomes really important. And it’s why some English teams, notably Man Utd in this early part of the season, under Louis van Gaal, are struggling to adapt to 3-5-2. They’ll probably be OK when all their best defenders are fit and available, but right now it looks like the three centre backs don’t know who’s supposed to be doing what, and they have two wingers trying to be wing backs – not very well.

That’s the problem with sudden changes: players sometimes can’t adapt. You would think that they could, given that they are all highly talented at the top. But remember they have always got an opposition trying to outdo them. If you have too much to think about you make more mistakes, they get exploited and trust and confidence evaporates.

So will many teams adapt 3-5-2 as their default mode? I doubt it. It takes a degree of sophistication which isn’t inherent in English football (even when foreigners play it) and is inherently risky, if those wide areas get too exposed. It takes very good wing backs to make it work well. Super-fit and equally good in attack and defence. That’s quite a lot to ask.

But then, what do I know? Even Big Sam might have West Ham playing before we know it!

By the way, there is a very fine book on the history of football tactics, called “Inverting The Pyramid”, by British football writer, Jonathan Wilson. The title is relevant to the 3-5-2/5-3-2 debate. From the mid 1880s to 1925 apparently, most teams played with 2 defenders (full backs), three in midfield (half backs) and five forwards. Now that would be good to see! A pyramid on its point. In that 1986 World Cup, Argentina had reversed the formation. The pyramid had been inverted.

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Have You Heard? – (53) “Dear River” by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo

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If you read this blog, you’ll know how much I like Emily Barker’s music. On my holiday on the Costa Brava, Spain, over the last couple of weeks, I made some good progress on my book on music. It included writing about three of my favourite artists over the past couple of years: Emily, The Staves and Lindi Ortega. As I always do, I listened again to the albums I was writing about. Emily and group released “Dear River” in 2013. I liked it, of course. It seemed a bit rockier than earlier albums and that worked well, including on the live stage. I liked “Letters” and “Ghost Narrative” best.

On holiday I really gave it a better listen than ever. Even had a good look at the lyrics. And what a wonderful story it revealed. It’s an album about place, about roots and being away from home. Having more than one home and loving both. And about the ambiguity of the feeling about your roots, when others – the native people of Australia in Emily’s case – have suffered as others dug their roots deep into the soil. There’s a metaphor about water, rivers, nature, that runs through the album, with a nostalgia for the Blackwood river back in her homeland of Western Australia. But there is also reflection on the turmoil of Europe in the second world war – Emily has Dutch ancestry.

The more I listened, the more profound I found the album. It is one to listen to the whole way through, which we rarely do these days, when you can just pick out favourite tracks early on, and neglect the rest. It was one of the previously neglected tracks that hit home for me on holiday.  “In The Winter I Returned”. A truly beautiful song, unassuming, but about how Emily feels as she returns to Australia, when her main home is now England. I was making salads for a barbecue when, one evening, the song came on. It sent a shiver down my spine. That love of place – more than one place – and a kind of sadness about separation, wherever you happen to be at the time, felt so real.

All the choices I have made lead me to this place…

This video of “In The Winter I Returned” is one of a series on the whole album, where you can read the lyrics as the song progresses. Produced by Emily, to make her music as accessible as possible. A great thing to do. I hope you enjoy – and go on to listen to some of the other tracks.

 

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Sportsthoughts (117) – “The Wasteland”, West Ham style

So West Ham’s season has started in the expected grumpy mood. 1-0 home defeat to Tottenham, after playing against 10 men for much of the game. Big Sam lamented the missed chances, but having invested a lot of money in three new strikers he started with none of them. It doesn’t feel good. Reminds me of the last time we went down. Always unlucky, you know.

That was in 2011. As we went down in May that year, a few of my friends resorted to poetical form to commemorate the moment. Not quite sure why, but it was amusing. I responded by taking the only poem I really know well, T.S.Eliot’s “The Wasteland” – I studied it at A Level – and turning it into a lament for West Ham’s plight.

You may notice that my biggest fear was that we’d respond to relegation by appointing…. Big Sam.

As we did. He’s done a job for us, but we will never be happy while he is in charge, I fear.

Anyway, if you know T.S.Eliot’s masterpiece and know what was happening at West Ham I hope you will enjoy the spoof. If you don’t I hope you might see what I was getting at and enjoy the wordplay.  Which was just a bit of fun really, as I travelled down on the train to Cardiff, to watch Harlequins play Stade Francais in the final of the 2011 Amlin Cup – rugby’s equivalent of football’s Europa League. Quins won 19-18. Some compensation for the Irons’ decline.

So here is the the alternative, claret and very blue “Wasteland”…

April is the cruellest month,
Breeding losers from the dead land,
Four defeats from four,
Three scored, 12 against.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Gloom with the occasional win,
Feeding life with Demba Ba and Hitzlsperger.
May surprised us, coming over Upton Park first with hope then despair and resignation.
We stopped in the Queen’s
And drank lager and talked for an hour.
Er ist der Bomber, wir resten auf.
When we were children,
Watching Trev and Devo,
My cousin, he took me into the North Bank hardcore,
And I was frightened. He said,
Marie, hold on tight when Cottee scores. And down we went.
In the North Bank, there you felt free to abuse Tottenham or the Mancs.
I read most of the night and we will go south in August.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches will grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Scotty Parker, we cannot say, or guess if you will stay, for You know only
A heap of broken defenders, when the ball descends,
And Robert Green gives no shelter, Carlton Cole no relief…

I will show you fear in a handful of Hammers…
We gave you millions first a year ago;
You bought Barrera and Reid and Piquionne,
We called you the lugubrious loser,
Your eyes dead, your shirts black.
I could not speak as we lost to Wolves, West Brom, Blackpool.
You could not speak, you were neither living nor dead, and you knew
Nothing.
Looking into the heart of defeat, merely silence…

Unreal City,
Under the brown smog of a winter’s day
The crowd flowed down Green Sreet, so many,
I had not thought hope had deceived so many.
Chants, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man crammed his burger down his throat,
Flowing up to the Boleyn Ground.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: Paolo!
You who were with Harry when we were good,
Those UEFA coaching badges,
Have you got them yet?
Oh keep Big Sam far hence, that’s enemy to football,
Or with his tactics he’ll turn us into Blackburn, or Stoke.
You! Slaven! – mon sembable – mon frere!…

What is that sound high in the air?
Murmur of managerial lamentation,
Who are those hacking hordes swarming over endless plains:
Millwall, Coventry, Brighton, Forest.
What is the League over the mountains,
Cracks of shins, and burst lungs in the violent air,
The fleeing Hammers
Parker, Upson, Green
Keane, Cole, Ba, Obinna
Der Bomber
Unreal.

I sat upon the sofa
Watching Sky Sports Super Sunday, with relegation behind me.
Will Karen Brady set my team in order?
West Ham United is falling down falling down falling down…
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
O’Neill O’Neill O’Neill

We wanted Martin O’Neill then. Maybe we could have him now…

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Sportsthoughts (116) – Premier League predictions!

So, little more than a month since we were watching Germany dismantle Brazil in one of the most astonishing games in World Cup history, the Premier League is back. Time to forget about England’s mediocrity, the collapse of Spain, the vivacity of Colombia, the awesome power and skill of the Germans, and to focus once again on the helter skelter world of the self-styled greatest league in the world.

And you know, I just can’t wait!

So, fantasy team selected, brief burst of optimism about West Ham quickly doused by Andy Carroll’s latest injury, fingers-crossed for the Bees in the Championship, here are my predictions.

Winners – Chelsea. Assuming Diego Costa continues to score goals like he did in Spain (though not yet for Spain) and with the infusion of elegance in midfield from Cesc Fabregas, Chelsea look very strong. Matic looked a powerful force in defensive midfield in the second half of last season and there have been defensive reinforcements, including the return of Thibaud Courtois in goal, to give Petr Cech some serious competition. It will hurt to see Cesc in Chelsea blue, but by all accounts Arsenal had first refusal and didn’t want him.

2nd – Arsenal. OK, I admit to a bit of wishful thinking here, and we’ll have to wait and see what happens to the defence in the first away match to a top team, after last season’s meltdowns. But the acquisition of Alexis Sanchez should add pace and incision up front – and Theo will back soon. Debuchy is a good replacement for Sagna and Calum Chambers is clearly viewed as having serious potential. Given that they have sold Vermaelen to Barca, I would like to see Arsene get the chequebook out for a top quality centre back. Use the German connection to get Hummels? Anyway I expect Ramsey to continue scoring goals from midfield, Ozil to show more in his second season and Wilshere to show that he can be England’s best midfielder. Yes, yes, yes. Hey, maybe they’ll actually win the thing!

3rd – Manchester City. Now, it’s risky to go against City for another title. A strong squad has been strengthened: Mangala in defence, Fernando in midfield. But, having won the League last year, will their focus be on the Champions League? Will Aguero be back to his best, or will he continue to get those niggling injuries? Will Fernandinho recover from the shell shock of that 7-1 defeat to Germany, in which he played a notorious part? Will Yaya feel the love? If the answer to all these questions is yes then they will probably win it again. But, right now, I have my doubts.

4th – Liverpool. The big question is obviously how Liverpool will be affected by the loss of Suarez. Brendan Rodgers seems to have bought well – Southampton fans must be cursing him – and Coutinho might really star now. But I think Sturridge has a bit to prove after a poor World Cup. Same could said about Henderson and Gerrard. Liverpool were genuinely exciting last season and caught the other big sides off guard, to come second. Will be harder for them this season and they have Champions League too.

So that means no top four place for Man Utd. A lot of commentators are assuming that the sheer presence of van Gaal will revitalise them. They may well be right. But the summer purchases haven’t been spectacular and they look quite weak at the back. (So why have I got De Gea in my fantasy team?). Will van Persie stay fit? Will Rooney stay happy? Too many question marks still. But of course you cannot rule out a return to the top for a side used to being there and they did have an impressive pre-season in the US. And there are a couple of weeks of transfer window left.

As for my own team, West Ham, I’m reasonably optimistic. Don’t expect anything spectacular. Some interesting summer purchases: Kouyate from Anderlecht in midfield, Cresswell and Jekinson (loan) Zarate, Valencia (who scored for Ecuador in the World Cup), and now Sakho, all up front. Will they make up for the loss of Andy Carroll to injury once again. Will Big Sam deliver the attacking football the board – and the fans – want? Will Diego Poyet (Gus’s son) be given a chance to restore the concept of playmaker to West Ham’s football? It all feels a bit tetchy at the moment, and if we start badly – first game home to Spurs – the Sam Out calls will resume. That could be damaging for a side that could easily lose confidence with so many new players and others, like Nolan, Downing and Carlton Cole, who are quickly slated by the fans.

Oh well, give us another win against Tottenham and we’ll be talking about Europe.

I’m going to sit on the fence and say 13th – about the same, then, as last year. But hopefully with a bit more style.

Relegation: Burnley, West Brom, Palace. With jury out on Leicester and QPR.

Surprise success of season? Well last year I thought about Southampton (8th) but tipped Norwich. Relegated! So the curse this year falls on Stoke, who Mark Hughes might just be turning into a good footballing side. The purchase of ex Barca starlet, Bojan Krkic, might be a flop, but equally could be inspired. So, I say top eight for the Potters!

PS. Written on plane home from Spain and on M1 back to London. Didn’t alter my Man Utd verdict when I heard they were losing at home to Swansea, but 2-1 defeat seems to bear out the doubts. As we always say at this stage though, only one game…

PPS. We lost at home to Spurs in second minute of added on time! Stoke lost at home to Villa. First game, first game…

 

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Holiday listening

Off on hols tomorrow. Excuse to download some albums I hadn’t got around to listening to. Plus a few Latitude follow ups.

All gotta be good!

There’s a folky/ Americana theme to most of the albums I downloaded tonight. Some left over from 2013, some new.

Added just now:

John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts

Kurt Vile – Walkin’ On A Pretty Daze

Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

The Rails – Fair Warning

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

The albums I downloaded after Latitude were predominantly electronic, with the exception of Mighty Oaks, who are Americana personified.

Latitude follow-ups:

Mighty Oaks – Brother (EP)

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever

The Acid – Liminal

Nils Frahm – Spaces

Julia Holter – Loud City Songs

Everything on this list is seriously worth listening to. I’ll be enjoying them on the Costa Brava in Spain. And no doubt I’ll still be listening to a lot of War On Drugs, Parquet Courts, Half Moon Run and The National too.

You should try them too!

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lovelondonscenes – 64

Ealing Jazz festival, this afternoon.

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It’s been going for years, one of many in Walpole Park over the summer. I have great memories of family outings with friends, basking in the sun, catching a bit of music, enjoying a beer, the girls shopping for bracelets, the boys eager for a game of football and a burger.  This year the weather has treated it kindly, after a few damp ones.

There are two music tents. The main stage, in the picture above, tends to feature big band jazz, the favoured sound the be bop of the fifties and sixties, with maybe a tinge of Latin thrown in. Traditional stuff.  The second stage is more adventurous and intimate. We saw a really good band there today, called the John Crawford quintet. Latin Jazz is the easy summary, but within that there was a real variety of sounds and styles, drawing on the heritage of South America and Southern Europe. The guitarist, Guille Hill was superb. He is from Uruguay. John Crawford is the pianist and song arranger. I’ll be looking out for future gigs.

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