Gardens – A Personal Passion

By Michael Turner – garden and art historian, formerly the Senior Curator of the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney.

I grew up in England surrounded by beautiful gardens and landscapes. Memories of the smell of honeysuckle on a warm summer’s morning wafting in through the kitchen window of my grand-parents 16th century farmhouse in the Lake District still moves me viscerally, as does the smell of mown hay in the Top Field, the views across to the high fells from the top of a newly made hay-stack, the feel of early morning dew on the grass between my toes, the heady smell of roses, stocks and wall flowers, and the fascinating round, paper-like seed heads of honesty. My father wrote on garden design for Country Life and my mother created a classic Arts & Crafts ‘roomed’ garden full of roses and herbaceous plants at our family home in Cheshire. And all the time, as if by osmosis, I was soaking it up. In my 20s, I created my own first garden, experimenting wildly with height, scent, colour and weird plantings; the Japanese Nettle Garden in a shaded corner is still spoken of in the family with bemused shakes of the head!

For many years, as a historian, classicist and archaeologist, I was the senior curator of a museum of antiquities, the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney, home to the largest collection of Greek, Egyptian and Roman remains in the Southern hemisphere. I was especially interested in sculpture and architecture, which in turn led me to a fascination with the works of Vitruvius and Pliny and the latter’s description of his gardens in the hills of Tuscany. And so, following an inspirational visit to the 18th century Arcadian landscape at Stourhead in the late 90s, my passion for garden history was born. At first this passion was for the great 18th century gardens of England: Blenheim, Stourhead, Rousham, Castle Howard, Stowe and Chatsworth for example, where Classicism, sculpture, art and architecture walked hand in hand with planting and design, and then slowly it encompassed the whole range of modern garden history from its beginnings in the Italian Renaissance through to the present day.

The Formal Gardens of Blenheim Palace; and the grounds of Rousham
Stourhead in Wiltshire features one of the world’s finest landscape gardens
Stowe, a Capability Brown designed landscape garden in Buckingham; and Castle Howard, near York, one of Britain’s finest stately homes
The 105-acre Chatsworth Garden

On retirement from the Nicholson in 2016 we moved back to England, and now at the foot of the glorious Sussex Downs, I once again have a new garden. I also live in an area where there are more great gardens to visit than anywhere else in England; within an hour I can be at Great Dixter, Sissinghurst, Hever Castle, Nymans, Gravetye Manor, Standen, Charleston Farmhouse or Glyndebourne.

Great Dixter was the family home of gardener and gardening writer Christopher Lloyd; and the romantic double-moated 13th century Hever Castle
Nymans, an intimate garden set around a romantic house and ruins near Haywards Heath in West Sussex

Wakehurst Place, the arboretum and seedbank for Kew Gardens is in my village. I now lecture on garden history in London, am writing a book, Greek in the Garden, and both create and lead tours for Academy Travel in England, Scotland and Italy.

Wakehurst Place, a house and botanic gardens in West Sussex

Gardens are extraordinary. Not least because they’re such a passionately subjective experience, both in their design and in their enjoyment, engaging all the senses. There is no right or wrong way to either create them or to enjoy them. They exist as palimpsests, garden on garden; by their very nature, this year’s garden will be different to next year’s. Trees mature and cast shade altering the dynamic of a garden. An 18th century Capability Brown landscape has grown and died and grown again, its plantings dispersed or changed. Generational change and fashion have had their say. New plants are being discovered and hybridised all the time; my heart fills with joy when I walk through Wakehurst Place and see the stands of Monkey Puzzle trees (araucaria araucana) planted together with their closest relative, now maturing Wollemi Pines (wollemia nobilis).

Many older gardens now exist as ‘museums’, where the purpose is to stay true to the design and purpose of their creator: Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst, Christopher Lloyd at Dixter, Henry ‘The Magnificent’ Hoare at Stourhead for example, or my personal favourite, William Robinson at Gravetye Manor.* Others, especially the horticultural ones such as the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Rosemoor, are continuously experimental in their use of plants and design, while new gardens are a reflection of the personalities of their creators; the marvellously eccentric Sir Roy Strong at The Laskett or the fiercely determined Duchess of Northumberland at Alnwick and Keith Wiley at Wildside.

The Laskett, the largest private formal garden laid out in England since 1945
The Queen Mother’s Rose Garden in Summer at RHS Garden Rosemoor

Nature, as Goethe wrote, is a cruel mistress catching you up in her arms and whirling you round in her seasonal dance – the Dance to the Music of Time, the great cycle of death and rebirth. As I write this the music of her spring dance, the pipes and drums, is getting louder by the day as Adonis and Persephone return from the Underworld with their gift of new life. The countryside is a sea of white and lime green from the blackthorn blossom and the new leaves of the first native tree, the hawthorn; the hedgerows are tinged with the pink of the first wildflower, the cuckoo flower; while in gardens it’s almost tulip time. It’s a heady palette, with the promise of so much more to come.

The quintessential English country house – Gravetye Manor

* Gravetye Manor in Sussex is now a very exclusive hotel and Michelin starred restaurant. Should you be wanting to spoil yourself for a few days either before or after a tour, I can think of no finer place to do it

The Isles of Scilly: of helicopters, gardens and shipwrecks

Michael Turner – garden historian & ADFAS Travel tour leader

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Isles of Scilly, early one misty, summer’s morning more years ago than I care to remember – from a helicopter. On what promised to be a glorious day we took off from Penzance for the 15-minute flight. As we rose into the air, the castle on the summit of St Michael’s Mount appeared as if floating in the mist, and then, in a matter of moments, the shadowy but distinctive shape of Land’s End was slipping by as we headed out into the vast emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean. All too soon, specks of green land edged by empty beaches appeared on the horizon out of the mist. We could have been flying into the Caribbean. Within minutes we were over St Mary’s – high enough to be above the birds but low enough to see calves ambling around with their mothers in the fields below.

The rugged coastline of Land’s End in Cornwall, the most westerly point of England on the Penwith peninsula

Out to sea, 45 kilometres off the rugged coast of Land’s End lies a group of some 150 low-lying, mysteriously beautiful islands and outcrops of rock. According to legend, the islands became separated from the Cornish mainland in the days of King Arthur, some 1,500 years ago, when the lost kingdom of Lyonesse, home to the hero Tristan, of Tristan and Isolde fame, sank beneath the sea. Truth to tell, we must go back 10,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age when the islands were part of the Cornish mainland. As the ice caps melted and sea levels rose, one large island was formed. In the Bronze Age, some 3,000 years ago, this island became heavily settled, so much so that today there are more archaeological remains per square kilometre than anywhere else in the British Isles. It is most likely that the Cassiterides, or Tin Isands, mentioned by the 1st century AD Greek geographer Strabo, refer to this one island. It was the last land-fall before Greek and Phoenician traders reached the tin-rich lands of Cornwall (tin was a vital ingredient in the manufacture of bronze). As recently as 450-500 AD, as the sea levels continued to rise, this one large island became many small ones, the largest of which, St Mary’s is just 6.5 square kilometres.

St Mary’s Harbour at dawn, Isles of Scilly

Today, only five of the islands are inhabited; St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, St Agnes and Bryher, with a total population of just over 2,000. Above all else, the islanders, or Scillonians, pride themselves on their quality of life: simpler, kinder and more peaceful. In 1975, the islands were designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which has led to an unprecedented level of conservation and lack of development.

The five inhabited islands of Scilly

Due to the prevailing Gulf Stream of the Atlantic Ocean, the climate of the islands is mild compared to mainland England. Indeed, although lying on the same latitude as Winnipeg in Canada, snow or frosts are very rare. This climate means that the main agricultural produce is cut-flowers, especially daffodils, which it can get to the markets earlier than suppliers on the mainland. Although mild, the weather can be tempestuous with the ever-present threat of wild Atlantic gales. This is reflected in the landscape. At the sheltered southern end of Tresco, for example, lie the extraordinary and lush Abbey Gardens while the exposed north end is a moonscape of blasted rock and heather.

A field of yellow flowers on the Scilly Isles

More than 85% of the islands’ income is generated from tourism. Sea and air connections are therefore vital. Ferries, however, stop running over the winter months, between November and March, and the small planes that land at the tiny airfield on St Mary’s are prey to the weather. Six years ago, after nearly 50 years of continuous flights, the more robust, but sadly out-dated helicopter service stopped. With great relief all round, a more reliable service will be restored in 2019 and once again all year-round access to the Isles will be all but guaranteed.

The approximately 100,000 a year visitors to the island come for its simple pleasures: the scenery and unspoilt beauty, the beaches, the peace and tranquillity, nature and the wildlife. The most popular activity is simply walking. Each year, October sees an influx of twitchers. Twitchers? Birdwatchers or birders. The islands are one of the most important stopping off points in Europe for migratory birds. With its shallow waters, golden sands and climate more akin to the Mediterranean, it’s an extraordinary place to be when birds are on the move. In 2017, over 100 different species were identified including such fabled and colourful avians as the Dusky Thrush, Pallid Swift, Red-flanked Bluetail, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Britain’s second only sighting of a Pale-legged Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Cromwell Castle Tresco and Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Tresco Abbey Gardens

The islands are also home to the world famous Tresco Abbey Gardens, a highlight of my upcoming Gardens of Cornwall and Devon tour next June (click here for more details). In 1838, the 30 year old social reformer and philanthropist Augustus Smith acquired the leasehold of the Isles of Scilly from the Duchy of Cornwall, styling himself Lord Proprietor of Scilly. His descendants hold the leasehold and title to the present day. Moving to the Isles, Smith built himself a house on Tresco in the grounds of a ruined Benedictine Abbey. The Abbey was founded in 1114 on the site of an earlier monastic settlement founded in 946 AD. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, the abbey fell into ruin. It was these ruins that appealed to Smith as the site for his new house as he looked to incorporate them into his intended gardens. This was very much in the fashion of the time, Romantic and Picturesque. First, though, he had to build walls and plant windbreaks against the Atlantic gales that swept the islands.

The exuberant Tresco Abbey Gardens

Today its 17 acres are listed Grade I in the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. The garden incorporates Smith’s original walled enclosure, terraces and two great cross-walks with dramatic views. Many of the plants are large and exuberant. The statuesque and graceful echium pininana are described by one visitor as ‘growing like weeds’. Another describes it all as: ‘Kew with the roof off’. It is often said of the islands that ‘spring comes early, autumn stays late, and winter hardly exists’. Certainly, at the time of the winter solstice, in late December, over 300 plants are still in flower.

A map of the Abbey Garden

This mild maritime climate and the prevalent free-draining granitic soil ensure that the mixture of plants and trees that flourishes here is like no other, with tender plants from countries such as Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Mexico. The result is a unique collection of plants in an idyllic setting which includes modern sculpture, classical features and a beautiful ruined archway from the original monastery, as if straight out of the work-book of those contemporary geniuses of Classical garden ‘ruins’, Julian and Isabel Bannerman (whose house, Trematon Castle near Plymouth, we’ll also be visiting on the tour). Indeed, the title of their new book could well describe Tresco Abbey Gardens – ‘A Landscape of Dreams’.

Tresco Abbey Garden Archway


Situated in the approaches to the English Channel, at the crossroads of sea-routes linking Scotland, Ireland, England, France and Spain, the islands have been a source of many shipwrecks; one of which has fascinated me personally for years. It involves one of the great romantic, tragic figures of the late 18th century, Sir William Hamilton. Best known as ‘The Volcano Lover’ of Susan Sontag’s eponymous 1992 book, Hamilton was the British ambassador in Naples from 1764 to 1798, where he was ideally placed, both as a social magnet for the Grand Tourists of the day, and to indulge his three great passions: volcanoes – Vesuvius was very active; Classical antiquities – Pompeii was ‘rediscovered’ the year he arrived; and his very much younger second wife, the magnificent Emma. In 1798, Hamilton and Emma fled Naples in the face of Napoleon’s advancing army – together with Emma’s lover, the naval hero Horatio Nelson. As this scandalous ménage à trois left to return overland to England, Hamilton packed up his collection of precious antiquities, his pension fund, and put them on two ships bound for England, HMS Colossus and HMS Serapis. On the night of 10th December 1798, the Colossus, while sheltering off St Mary’s, sank in a great storm that hit the Scilly Isles. Hamilton was devastated. Several months later, now back in London, Hamilton despondently opened the 16 remaining cases that had arrived safely on the Serapis. On the 12th March he wrote to Nelson: ‘It is quite beyond all expectations! Fortunately, the worst cases were taken on board the Colossus by mistake, when I thought the eight best cases were gone!’. In 1974, the wreck was rediscovered, as were Hamilton’s now very damaged antiquities. Over the next 25 years these were all meticulously restored by colleagues at the British Museum, and so proved a valuable source for my own research as a Classical archaeologist.

Exhibition review: Masters of modern art from the Hermitage AGNSW

With the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new exhibition Masters of modern art from the Hermitage now open to the public, Dr Michael Adcock takes us through the magnificent selection of works that has been drawn from the unparalleled collections of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg…


The present exhibition of sixty-five masterpieces of modern art from the Hermitage offers a fresh and visually exhilarating perspective into the development of modernism in Europe. This is due to the fact that the original Russian collectors, such as Sergei Schchukin and Ivan Morozov, not only bought works of the first water, but did so with an insight and daring that exceeded those of even the most sophisticated collectors in France. They bought for themselves – and ultimately for Russia – the crème de la crème of European modernism, which we can now enjoy in the welcoming surrounds of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The first room opens with a glorious blaze of Impressionist works. Claude Monet’s The Poppy Field (1890-1891) provides an opportunity to view one of an interesting group of vistas of oat fields and poppy fields around Giverny. Typically, Monet sought out motifs to which he could get access quickly and easily: the fields shown here were in the valley near the town of Les Essarts, close to his house at Giverny. Historian Paul Hayes Tucker points out that Monet’s timetable would have been, realistically, dictated by the rhythms of the natural world and the cycles of agricultural production: the beautiful fields of hay, oats and poppies around Giverny would have been in their paintable prime from July onwards, but he would have had to wait until late August or early September of 1890 to paint grainstacks, because this was the time recommended by agricultural manuals to harvest the crop and to build stacks.[1]

Monet’s The Poppy Field (1890-1891)

Claude Monet in foggy, hivernal London

The second Monet canvas, Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Fog (1903) is later in date, and belongs to a truly massive campaign of painting carried out in London at the turn of the 20th century. Art historian Grace Seiberling reminds us that Monet’s solid financial position was instrumental in making this vast series possible. By now, late in his life, he had the means to work on a large series of paintings over a number of years, without feeling any pressure to immediately recoup his expenditure by selling them. By the 1890s, he was an established artist, his paintings were selling for good prices, and he could be assured that, even if he produced numerous works, they would sell when exhibited commercially. Apart from the massive investment in paint and canvas, and the repeated trips between Paris and London, he could afford prolonged stays at the stylish new Savoy Hotel, recently opened in 1889.[2] Apart from its opulence, the hotel’s publicity brochures touted its sweeping views of the foggy Thames, and it is quite possible that it was this that first attracted Monet’s attention. He soon discovered that the open balconies on the façade of the hotel offered excellent vantage points from which to paint.

Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Fog (1903)

Seen in photographic art book reproduction, this painting might give the impression of a gloomy, foggy scene; seen in the flesh, however, the painting is actually quite luminous, with a break in the fog in the upper left allowing a glimpse of sunlight. The palette has a delicate nacreous quality: like a mother-of-pearl shell, it has soft and quite lyrical tones of light pink, light mauve and light blues, unobtrusively warmed by warmer touches of brown. Monet’s notation of light is so nuanced that the light reflected on the surface of the river – and seen through each of the four arches – diminishes progressively in intensity from left to right, congruous with illumination from the upper left.

Camille Pissarro and the flickering life of the boulevard

During the early months of 1897, Camille Pissarro suffered a visual affliction that would, paradoxically, fundamentally change the course of his artistic development. He suffered a continuing eye infection, which forced him to abandon his beloved rural scenes for urban ones, and to work indoors more. Undeterred, he took an upstairs room at the Grand Hotel of Russia in Paris, at the corner of the Avenue de l’Opéra and the Place du Palais Royal, which provided a breathtaking view down onto the Boulevard Montmartre. Unexpectedly, Pissarro – the lover of quiet villages and hamlets – rather warmed to these new streets, sensing their modernity, their bustle and movement, and the special light in these new urban spaces. He wrote to his artist son Lucien that he found great beauty in the Boulevards: “It is very beautiful to paint! It is not very aesthetic, but I am delighted to be able to paint these Parisian streets that people have come to call ugly, but which are so silvery, so luminous and so vital. This is completely modern!”[3] Of the thirteen views of the boulevard he executed over eight weeks, two in a pair seem to have been of particular finish and importance. One of them may be well known to us: this is the Boulevard Montmartre, morning, cloudy weather in the National Gallery of Victoria. But its pendant, the Hermitage’s Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon Sun has not to my knowledge been shown in Australia before, and so this is an incomparable opportunity to view the ‘lost cousin’. As in all these boulevard scenes, Pissarro’s notation of human figures is astoundingly deft. We must bear in mind that Pissarro had become used to representing human figures on a modest scale in the middle distance, such as a village path or field, and on a large scale, as monumental studies of single figures, but he has now learned how to reduce representation of them to telegrammatic dabs of paint, which nonetheless evoke hints of movement, posture and even costume.

Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon Sun (1897)

The ‘Post-Impressionists’

The term ‘post-impressionist’ has, lamentably, become an art history book commonplace, but some of our most eminent scholars – such as Dr. Gerard Vaughan – have questioned its adequacy. While all art terms are problematic, this one is particularly flabby, since it only designates a group of artists who allegedly came ‘after’ the Impressionists. Even this pseudo-chronology is not quite correct anyway. The term also flounders adequately to encapsulate the towering genius and sheer technical skill of the likes of Gauguin, Cézanne and the incomparable van Gogh. Perhaps this art historical term is well overdue for retirement. We need our art historians to frame a more useful designation for these artists, one that would recognize one important aspect of their work; needless to say, a term like ‘pre-modernists’ simply would not come anywhere near an accurate nomenclature. But each of these artists was given a retrospective exhibition – Cézanne in 1907, van Gogh several times, including 1905 – and some, like Gauguin, sold paintings to younger colleagues such as Matisse, and all had a profound impact on the emerging new generation of young modernists. Both Gauguin and van Gogh, for example, were a direct and powerful influence upon the development of the strong colours of the Fauve painters around André Dérain. This is clearly shown in this exhibition in Henri Matisse’s The Luxembourg Gardens (c. 1901), where the young Matisse has tried his hand at deploying Gauguin’s lyrical colours to transform the tame public gardens in Paris into a lush, Tahiti-like paradise. So much has been written – appropriately – about the impact of the discovery of ‘primitive’ (tribal) art upon the early modernists that it is easy to forget that another galvanizing discovery occurred in these seminal retrospective exhibitions.

Matisse’s The Luxembourg Gardens (c. 1901)

Paul Cézanne, the master of Aix

Cézanne is represented by an assured still life, Fruit, which belongs to a coherent cluster of some sixteen still life paintings done by Cézanne in the years 1879-1880. These represent a quite new stage in his development in this genre. A previous set of still-life paintings, done around 1877, had been rather more literal, in so far as they set the component objects in the context of more visible pieces of furniture, such as kitchen dressers and tables; at this early stage, they still looked like items in an actual room.  In the present, slightly later set, by contrast, Cézanne has reduced the contextual setting, and created a simple horizontal plane – admittedly still identifiable as a wooden plane, probably a chest – against a vertical background plane, which in most cases appears to be a wall with floral wallpaper. This constitutes a definitive step in the progression beyond a naturalistic still life, such as the Dutch masters might have painted, to the Cézannian still life, which is a geometric construct of forms, with a hidden logic comparable to that of pieces on a chessboard.

Detail of Cézanne’s Fruit (1879-80)

This version is unusual and striking primarily because of the relative darkness of the background, and its contrast with the well-illuminated napkin, bowl, fruit and bread roll. These objects seem to glow against the brown of the wood, which is a dark tone, and the blue-grey of the wallpaper, which is now much deeper than in other works. On the left, two further items – a glass carafe and a metal pitcher – are very dark, and sink into the sombre surroundings. In this arrangement, the napkin has been carefully crumpled and bunched to provide the powerful three-dimensional form similar to that of a mountain range in a landscape painting, with emphatic folds giving contrasting areas of fabric in light and fabric in shadow. Both the napkin and the bowl beside it are in cool tones of light blue and these, like the dark glass of the carafe, powerfully accentuate the warm, resonant colour – oranges, yellows, reds – of the six fruits and the bread roll. Here, the paint is thick and luscious, and the tones warm and glowing. What we cannot see is the small coins that Cézanne would have used to tilt each fruit into exactly the position he required. They are not arranged in any obvious or contrived traditional manner, such as a pyramid, and yet they are disposed across the canvas with great deliberation and with an harmonious sequencing of their own. Only one of these forms rises above the ‘horizon’ of this tabletop landscape provided by the back edge of the chest. The ceramic bowl at the far right is not truncated by the frame – as Cézanne so often did in other works – but it is arbitrarily placed impossibly far back: its base seems to be resting on the very edge of the chest, which is impossible because of its proximity to the wall.

Cézanne’s cool landscapes on the Marne River

This exhibition holds another visual delight for us. Cézanne’s group of Marne paintings of c.1888-1890 is perhaps less well known to visitors than the monumental Mont Sainte-Victoire set, but they are breathtakingly assured in their execution and most beautiful in their aspect when viewed. Gallery goers in Australia were delighted – and incredulous – when the Art Gallery of New South Wales itself purchased one of the acknowledged masterpieces of this series, Banks of the Marne (1888) at a cost of $16.2 million. Now, for the first time, Sydney’s stunning masterpiece can be viewed on a wall beside the Hermitage’s masterpiece, The Banks of the River Marne (1888).

The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Banks of the Marne (1888) by Cézanne
The Hermitage’s The Banks of the River Marne (1888) by Cézanne

To situate this group in the development of the artist’s career, Cézanne had ‘disappeared’ from Paris and spent an extended period isolated in Provence from 1882 to 1888. From 1888 onwards, however, he began to explore the possibilities of the Paris region, all the while assiduously avoiding the Paris art world itself. He particularly favoured the valley of the River Marne near the Maisons-Alfort and Créteil, as well as Marlotte and Fontainebleau. Gilles Chazal, the curator of the 2011-2012 exhibition Cézanne et Paris (2011, Musée du Luxembourg) proposed that there was a very good reason for his preference: the gentle landscapes of the Ile-de-France, close to Paris, provided Cézanne with quieter, more intimate terrain, a gentler light, more secluded riverbanks and more restrained colours than he could find in the lambent landscapes of Provence: “In Paris, his palette settled into calm blues and greens while in Provence he worked on a symphony of golden colours around Mont Sainte-Victoire.”[4]

Henri Matisse and the landscape of contentment

We might best approach two remarkable early works by Matisse by situating them within the rapid development of his art that led up to their creation. Between 1908 and 1910, Matisse had been experimenting energetically in the genres of the portrait, the still life and the domestic interior, but his most dramatic advances were to be made in the subject of figures in a landscape; in this latter field, his progress was much facilitated by most lucrative commissions from the eminent Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin, a wealthy merchant in the cloth trade.

We can thus better understand the works before us by placing them in the context of a dramatic process of simplifying both figures and landscape, ultimately leading to the primal painting achieved by 1908. We may also usefully calibrate our visual impressions against Matisse’s own textual explanation of what he was trying to achieve here. It was at this very moment, when his experimental preoccupation with figures in a landscape was at its height, that he wrote his first and most important theoretical statement about his art, his Notes of a Painter (1908). In this work, he makes it clear that his depiction of figures in a landscape was not done to compose a ‘scene’, so much as to convey an overall emotion. He wrote:

“What I pursue above all is expression […] I do not think that it can be conveyed by passions fleeting across a face, or even by violent movements. It is to be found in my entire painting: the area occupied by figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, all these play their part. The art of composition consists in being able to arrange the different elements that the painter has at his disposal to express feelings in a decorative manner. In a picture, every section must be visible and play its own role, whether this is a principal or a secondary one. Everything that has no function in a painting is therefore detrimental to it. A work of art entails a harmony of the whole; any superfluous detail would thus take the place of an essential detail in the mind of the spectator.”[5]

This very much confirms the analysis of the eminent art historian Alfred Barr, who argues that Matisse’s compositions at this stage are not simply landscapes in a traditional sense, nor are they figural studies properly speaking – the minimalism is just too extreme for them to be either – but an essay in a more primal form of painting, in which lines, rhythms and compositions convey an essential feeling at a subliminal level.

Matisse is represented in the present exhibition by three major paintings from this period, Woman on a Terrace (1906), The Game of Bowls (Paris, autumn-winter 1908) and Nymph and Satyr.

Matisse’s The Game of Bowls (1908)

In The Game of Bowls three figures are so posed as to create a graceful arc suggestive of harmony and contentment. The figures are posed against three very flat strips of undifferentiated colour: a large band of light green suggestive of grass, a thin band of light blue suggestive perhaps of the sea, and a third narrow band of a darker blue, possibly intended to represent the sky. The figures are outlined in a thick line of a reddish tone, which resonates by complementary contrast against the dominant tone of green. The same powerful tonal contrast is, of course, achieved by the quite substantial area of red on the garment of the figure at left, one of the only figures in this sequence of painting to be clothed. Once again, Matisse likes to provide a point of concentration to the dominant colour of light green by the use of touches of a more intense emerald green, in this case associated with three bowling balls.

Matisse’s Nymph and Satyr (1908)

The mood is less arcadian in Nymph and Satyr. Matisse’s choice of subject is every bit as provocative as that of Manet at the time of Luncheon on the Grass, for he too has chosen a motif which had for centuries been solidly fixed in the language of western European iconography, and he has boldly divested it of its complex traditional literary and pictorial associations. Arcadia has disappeared, mythology no longer casts a discreet cocoon around the satyr and the faun, reverie and sentiment and nostalgia are all banished. Indeed, nothing but the title remains to tell us that this actually is a satyr and a faun. A potentially comfortable mythological scene, with its discreet sensuality and oblique sexuality, has been transformed into an erotic, slightly menacing, and even predatory scene. It is significant that this work’s first title was Satyr in Pursuit of a Bacchante, a description probably dropped because it does not accord with the fact that the female figure appears to be asleep and is not moving. The number of figures has been reduced to two, and Matisse again uses the harmony created by the inter-relationship of two arched figures, but now made more threatening by the approach of the intent male figure with large grasping hands outstretched, in contrast to the more gracile and passive body of the female figure. The paw-like hands of the male were in fact re-worked to make them the compositional centre of the painting.

A personal favourite: Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Orphism

One of the most exciting – even exhilarating – pieces of modern art in the exhibition is Sonia Delaunay-Terk’s and Blaise Cendrars’ La Prose du Trans-sibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of little Jehanne of France) of 1913.[6] More than any other work, this piece illustrates a crucial aspect of modernism, namely, that modernist literature and modernist art not only grew in parallel, but were in fact symbiotic, each enriching the other. It is no accident, for example, that the poet Guillaume Apollinaire was an influential art critic, and the theorist and advocate of Cubism. If you read one of his poems, such as his wonderful Zone (available in English), you will quickly perceive that his vision of a suburban street is as fragmented and as multi-facetted as any Cubist painting.

Dr Michael Adcock next to the collaborative work La prose du Transsiberien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913). The detail of the last section features the Eiffel Tower

The artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk was at this time associated with these contemporary avant-garde poets: Guillaume Apollinaire himself had lived with Sonia and her husband Robert for some time in 1912, in hiding because he had been accused of being involved in the theft of the Mona Lisa. Even more important was her meeting with Blaise Cendrars, which resulted in one of the most revolutionary examples of an artist-illustrated book.[7] One copy of this work is cyclically on display at the National Gallery of Canberra, and another was on display in Sonia Delaunay (Paris, 2015); this is, however, the first time the Hermitage’s version has been seen here.

By its very date, this work was a prompt and immediate response to Cendrars’ poem, which was published in 1912, and treated by Delaunay within the year. While Delaunay had already defined her theory of ‘simultaneity’, the very idea of a two-metre long fold-out poem would have appealed to her as an alternative to the more finite medium of the canvas, and might also have appealed to her command of decorative patterns over linear lengths of fabric. (As Sonia and Robert both developed the movement that would become known as Orphism, they were so poor that they sometimes had to use tablecloths and bed sheets instead of expensive canvas, to the considerable depletion of the household economy…). We may also speculate that, for the artist, the linearity was enhanced by speed and fragmentation: the poem is like a series of momentary glimpses of fragments of reality through the window of a speeding train. This said, it did not inspire her to merely explode forms into fragments, as the Cubists might, but to go further and to merely allude to them by fluid, curving sweeps of colour. The line of this (probably) fictive train journey is notionally from Moscow to Paris, passing through a Russia convulsed with the crisis of the Revolution of 1905, which is why the only two figurative elements – the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Ferris Wheel – are located at the bottom of the script. As with Apollinaire, Cendars’ poetry is a delight to read, a riotous headlong avalanche of shards and fragments of images in words:

“And yet, and yet,
I was as sad as a child
The rhythms of the train
The “railway marrow” of American psychiatrists
The noise of the doors the voices the axles screeching on the frozen rails
The golden railing of my future
My browning the piano and the cursing of the card players in the next-door compartment
The splendid presence of Jeanne
The man in the blue glasses who nervously paced the hallway and who would look at me as he passed by
Rustling of women
And whistling of steam
And the eternal sound of wheels whirling in madness in the furrows of the sky
The windows frosted over
No nature!
And behind, the Siberian plains the low sky and the great shadows of the Taciturn Ones rising and falling.”[8]

It is to be noted that Delaunay’s ‘parallel’ text is not in fact strictly parallel, but actually exceeds its allocated space and spills over to lyrically fill spaces between Cendrars’ stanzas. She has chosen to use both watercolour and gouache to achieve subtle variations on texture, enhanced by a lyrical, high-keyed palette including light blues, greens, vermillion, yellow and purple. She does not rely on her more typical optical disks so much as upon curved semi-circular forms, with a few triangular forms added.


The exhibition contains many more masterpieces, but I would like to leave our readers some joyful discoveries and encounters to make for themselves. Some might well relish the opportunity to see a superb clutch of works by Wassily Kandinsky, and to trace his progression from figurative art to the lyrical abstraction for which he is famous. We might recall that he was converted by the strangest accident in art history: upon leaving a room, he glanced back and saw a figurative painting propped up, upside down, on a chair. Because the subject made no sense, the arrangement of shapes and colours suddenly struck him as having a logic in itself, independent of what the painting notionally represented. In a flash, he perceived his theory of abstraction. Then there is the even greater enigma of the Kasimir Malevich and his black painting to ponder …



The Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition is open from October 13, 2018, to March 3, 2019, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Single tickets are at a cost of $28 adult, $24 concession and $20 member. More details on the exhibition are available at

I spent two days in the exhibition from opening time to close of day, and noted that at all times the exhibition space coped well with the volume of people who attended. At no time, on these occasions, did I feel jostled, nor did I struggle to see the works. (One might reasonably expect, however, to see larger crowds during holidays and also during the closing weeks of the exhibition). There are comfortable seats in some rooms, providing respite and rest, as well as contemplation. It is also worth noting that the Art Gallery of New South Wales possesses excellent light-weight folding stools, which it will willingly lend upon request. For those who find long visits challenging, or even who just want to sit and ponder, these are a godsend. I noticed that many people appeared to be unaware that these seats were available, since they stopped to ask me how and where I obtained it. A simple request to the attendants at the entry to the exhibition will suffice.


  • SEBASTIAN SMEE, The Art of Rivalry: Matisse/Picasso, Manet/Degas, Bacon/Freud, De Kooning/Pollock. (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016).
    Smee’s study is not a survey of modern art, but an examination of how some modern artists become locked into a dual dynamic of rivalry and emulation, which actually drives and informs their artistic development. To see an example of this, just have a look at the Picasso’s Nude in a Rocking chair, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where Picasso tries to out-Matisse Matisse!


  • Documentary: Paris: The Luminous Years, Madman films, Special Broadcasting Corporation 2011, two episodes, 106 minutes total.
  • Director Pery Miller Adato has done a superb job in evoking “the storm of modernism which swept through Paris between 1905 and 1930”. This is an intelligent and engaging overview of the early modernist movement.
  • Documentary: The Impressionists, ABC DVD Entertain Me 2014, two episodes, 106 minutes total.


[1] Paul Hayes Tucker, Monet in the 1890s. The Series Paintings (New Haven and London, in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 75.

[2] Exhibition catalogue, Monet in London (Atlanta, USA: High Museum of Art, 1988), p. 19.

[3] Christoph Becker, Camille Pissarro, (n.p.. Hatje Cantz, n.d.), p. 127.

[4] Reference:

[5] Cited in: Jean Guichard-Meili, Matisse, pp. 60-61. For the whole text of this crucial document, see Jack D. Flam, Matisse on Art, pp. 32-40.

[6] Exhibition catalogue: A Century of Artist’s Books (New York: Museum of Modern Art, October 23, 1994–January 24, 1995).

[7] Exhibition catalogue: Sonia Delaunay. Les couleurs de l’abstraction. (Paris: Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, 17 October 2014 to 22 February 2015). Exhibition catalogue: Anne Montfort and Cécile Godefroy (eds.), Sonia Delaunay, (London: Tate Modern, 2015).


Havana’s factory of cool – The Cuban Art Factory

ADFAS Travel tour leader Stephen Wilkinson visits an art gallery with a difference…

The taxi trundles down a potholed street in a dimly lit industrial area of the Havana suburb of Vedado. In the distance, a factory chimney looms into view, illuminated by an electric blue search light. We can make out the letters F.A.C. painted vertically down its side. “That’s it,” I say excitedly, “That’s the Fabrica de Arte Cubano.” The Cuban Art Factory – Havana’s factory of cool.

It’s 8pm on a Saturday night and I join a queue of hundreds of smartly-dressed young Cubans, all eagerly awaiting entry into an old peanut factory that has become the most exciting nocturnal happening in Cuba’s vibrant capital. For this is no ordinary nightclub, nor is it merely an art gallery – it’s both and a great deal more.

The Fabrica de Arte Cubano is the kind of place that can only really happen in Cuba. Sure, there are other ‘repurposing’ projects elsewhere, and this ‘art factory’ is actually inspired by some of the loft and warehouse developments of New York’s SoHo district or the Docklands area of East London. But what makes this place different is its ambitious scope, accessible pricing, social purpose and community base.

It is a hybrid project that defies categorisation; part business, part community project, part art gallery, part nightclub, part theatre and part cinema. This project is the sum of all these parts and much else besides.

Unlike a normal art gallery, the CAF only opens to the public at night – from 8.30pm to 3.30am. It has two bars, serving Cuban cocktails, and a program of events that are there to surprise and delight as well as inform and educate.

For a door charge of US$2, the visitor gains entry to a labyrinth of artistic creation. You literally walk through a procession of rooms in which all the creative art forms are represented: fashion design, architecture, classical music, painting, sculpture, photography, dance, classical music and modern music, such as hip hop and garage house, are all available in this remodelled old factory.

The building is therefore a magical maze in which the visitor moves from one space to another in a surreal journey through Cuba’s vibrant contemporary creative scene. As one Trip Advisor reviewer put it: “This must be the hippest place I have ever been.”

The brainchild of Cuban hip hop star X Alfonso (pronounced EKIS Alfonso), the Cuban Art Factory has been going now for two years and has defied its critics by not only surviving but prospering, through its own keen marketing savvy and adherence to a number of basic principles that reflect Cuba’s unique approach to business.

After making a lot of money on the Hip Hop circuit, Alfonso wanted to put something back into his community and approached the Ministry of Culture with his idea of using an old factory, to create a new ‘industry’ that uses one of the things that Cuba produces best: human capital in the form of great artists. It is neither a private business nor a state-run facility but classified as a “community project,” allowing him and his group to occupy a government-owned property but operate it with a relatively broad degree of independence.

So the Cuban Art Factory was born. Using his own money and by pooling the resources of the artists that form the project board, the building has been gradually developed through the reinvestment of the profits into the renovation and adaptation of the space for bigger and more ambitious uses.

As the resident architect Ernesto Jimenéz told me, the idea is to make available the latest art to the widest community possible. Although the entry fee is expensive for the poorest Cubans, it is manageable for many and the Fabrica is overwhelmed with people wishing to enter when it opens its doors. “Our only problem is the fact that we can only have 600 people in here at a time for safety reasons,” he says.” There is always a queue of people still waiting to get in when the doors close at 3.30am!”

I am intrigued to know how the place operates. Is it a business or is it a community project? “It is both and neither at the same time,” says Ernesto. “It is a collective of artists and we meet on a democratic basis and make decisions together. We share in the profits and pay a contribution in commission if we sell a piece of art, for example. It works. So far we have not shared any profits because we have put everything back into renovating the building.”

There is a lot to do. I can see that the roof needs repair and there is still electricity cabling to tidy up. “It is a work in progress but look we have been so successful that we have already exceeded our capacity.” Ernesto points to a number of shipping containers stacked in the yard. “Look, we had to bring in these containers to provide offices since we have used the whole area of the factory as show spaces.”

And it is quite a show. The program changes every three months. After a three month ‘season’, the factory closes for a month while the exhibits are changed and a new series of events are arranged, and then it reopens for another three-months.

Part of its appeal is its iconoclasm. The freedom that the project has to display works of art or allow space for outspoken works of theatre that are, shall we say, transgressive of the island’s socialist othodoxy, has raised eyebrows among Cuba’s more conservative elite. But what is poison to some is meat for others, especially Havana’s aspiring new wealthy avante garde, who flock to the often bitingly satirical exhibitions.

It’s a fine balancing act and one that reflects a changing Cuba.

“We have been both criticised as appearing too much like a capitalistic enterprise and celebrated as an example of what is now possible in today’s Cuba, “ says Ernesto. “Some say Ekis is a government stooge and that we are providing some kind of glitzy showcase for the regime, while others see him as a dangerous element, who provides a space for subversion. The truth is that we are neither of those things!”

On my visit, I was struck by the contradiction. Both views are possible and that is because the place is impressive. The art is astonishing, the ambience electrifying and the experience most unusual.

Of course I was not the only foreigner soaking up the chic ambience. Inevitably, I met a number of Americans enjoying the relaxation of the travel restrictions ushered in by President Obama. I asked one of them what they thought. Stan, a New York lawyer was incredulous: “This place is sooooo cool! I mean where else can you get a contemporary art show, a ballet performance, a photo exhibition and a hip hop disco for two bucks? How do they do it?”

It’s the sort of question that is often heard in Cuba, about a lot of things. They do things differently here, that’s for sure. At CAF even the way you pay is different. Instead of buying drinks at the bar, everyone gets a card, which is stamped for each drink or snack purchased. When you leave you, hand your card over at the exit, your stamps are tallied up and you pay your tab at the door. However, if you lose your card, there’s a US$30 fine.

On a visit to Havana, it’s a must for any itinerary. They even have a state of the art website that you cannot miss –

Fabrica de Arte is located on the corner of 11th and 26th streets in Vedado, near the Puente de Hierro – Iron Bridge. Admission is US$2 night-club open from 8.30pm to 3.30am every night.

Dr Stephen Wilkinson is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Buckingham. Stephen first visited Cuba in 1986 and has been travelling to and writing about the island ever since. Now the Chairman of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba, based in the UK, Stephen has a PhD on the subject of Cuban literature. He has written numerous articles on diverse questions such as the history of European and US – Cuba relations, Cuban attitudes and policy towards homosexuals, Cuban art and the nature of the Cuban state. Stephen’s book, ‘Detective Fiction in Cuban Society and Culture’, was published in 2006 by Peter Lang.

Find out more about Stephen’s upcoming Cuba: land & sea tour here.