The Human Factor v Matisse by Richard Warburton

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Henri Matisse, Icarus 1946, Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Droits réservés © Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013

The Southbank Centre is currently hosting the emetic Festival of Love under whose banner falls a twenty five year retrospective, The Human Factor. On a hot and sunny morning I squirmed out of the grasp of the flower power aesthetic and entered the concrete box of brutalism that is The Hayward Gallery. The artists on show range from Koons to Wallinger and, while the subject is the human body, the themes are more death and alienation than love and peace.

Creepy mannequins abound, some disfigured such as in Hirschhorn’s Four Women. Four fashion mannequins, whose varying state of disfigurement is juxtaposed by horrific pictures of mutilated dead bodies. Paul McCarthy’s That Girl feels more mischievous with its three very lifelike naked women, lying back with their legs apart. There is something of the naughty schoolboy about the mind behind this work and I was convinced that the intent was more to incite discomfort than admiration.

For more mischief, head for Maurizio Cattelan’s Him which has its own room. Inside you see a small boy, dressed in tweeds, kneeling, his back toward you. You feel faintly embarrassed as you approach, as if you are intruding on someone’s private moment of prayer. Then you discover the penitent boy is a shrunken Adolf Hitler and the joke is on you. Nevertheless, the piece ramps up the sense of the uncanny so that by the time I visited the roof to see Pierre Huyghye’s concrete, reclining nude with a massive buzzing beehive for a head, I was thoroughly inured to the surreal and the disjointed.

Shrugging off the Hayward’s cool cloak of air conditioning I refuelled at Gabriel’s Wharf and headed west to Matisse at the Tate Modern. I must take my hat off here and salute this successful attempt to recreate the atmosphere of Heathrow’s Terminal 2. Mobile phones blare along with toddlers and babies in prams. Harassed parents demand their offspring appreciate Matisse’s nuanced scissor-work, while staff dart about, admonishing tourists for using the flash on their cameras. You might imagine that a former power station would boast a robust cooling mechanism, but sadly you can almost feel the master’s glue beginning to soften and unpeel in this suffocating environment.

The brilliance of the cut-outs on display have been highlighted elsewhere but I would like to risk reiterating the beauty of the four Blue Nudes and the sheer scale of some of the pieces. So often seen in reproduction, The Snail was, to my surprise, a nine foot monster of a mollusc.

Perhaps art critics should join the rest of the great unwashed and experience a blockbuster art show on a sultry Monday afternoon. I am blessed with enough height to peer over the most craning of necks, however it would be interesting to read a report cobbled together amongst nudging rucksacks and jabbing pushchairs.

Festival of Love, Southbank Centre, 28 June 2014 – 31 August 2014

Matisse, Tate Modern, 17 April 2014- 7 September 2014