ARTYFACTS: January 2011

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

7 reasons why I won’t pay to see ‘The King’s Speech’

Jonathon Freedman wrote a stunning piece in the Guardian today about the true meaning of this hagiographic film. It’s an old tale, no doubt well told, beautifully filmed and well-acted. But so were Nazi films like Triumph of the Will. It’s not enough to have high production values; you must also have real values.

Myth of the commoner

In fact, the Australian did not live in a terraced house whose door opened straight out into dirt poor children playing in the street, in what looked like the East End. He actually lived in a 25 room mansion on Sydenham Hill with five bathrooms, five acres of garden, a tennis court and a cook! His offices were on Harley Street. The Lionel Logue character is a lie. In fact, they had to pull back from an even cruder depiction of the speech therapist as commoner, when his grandson pointed out that he was in fact, a rich man who moved in aristocratic circles. This is not dramatic licence as it destroys the very premise of the film, Royal and commoner all in this together (sound familiar). It is a scripted lie.

George VI was anti-Semitic

George V showed anti-Semitic tendencies, as his telegram in 1939 to Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax showed. He wanted the Jews, who were clamouring to escape, to stay in Germany and got Halifax to make these feelings clear to the Germans. Let’s be clear about this, many lives could have been saved if there had been a more receptive attitude to the plight of the Jews at this crucial time.

Brother was a Nazi

George VI was only King because his hapless brother had to abdicate. Edward VIII, his brother, and King in 1936, was clearly a Nazi sympathiser. He abdicated because of establishment views on marrying an outsider but remember that the first thing he did in 1937 was tour Nazi Germany, against the advice from the British Government. There he gave Nazi salutes and even during the war his houses in France were guarded by German troops. There is even evidence that he leaked war plans to the Germans.

Royal Family was for appeasement

The Royal family was for appeasement. In blood terms, and that’s all that Royalty is, they were as much German as British. Edward VIII had no problem in touring Germany because he had so many relatives there. Hitler famously claimed that, “If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us. As Ian Jack points out, the crowds that appear in the film didn’t appear at the gates of Buckingham Palace in 1939. People at that point were a bit sick of the wayward Nazi tendencies of the Royals.

Dianification of our culture

That old myth of the upper and lower classes having a lot in common. Why do ‘Royal’ films like these continue to get funding, to the detriment of emerging talent and films that should get made but don’t? Remember that every one of these Royal movies sucks funds away from other projects and pushes other movies out of the schedule. It’s the Dianification of our culture. They know their market, a fawning, older, middle-class audience that wants the certainty of old structures and hierarchies. It’s no accident that the film was released hard on the heels of the Royal Wedding announcement. We have, through the BBC and our film industry created the Royal propaganda genre. That’s where the Director Hooper cut his costume drama teeth.

Affected Colin Firth

Then there’s the sales potential of that most ‘Mills & Boon’ actor, Colin Firth, who even in real life (watch his Golden Globe speech) affects that brooding Heathcliff manner. He’s made a career out of making the miserable appear thoughtful. The man truly has hidden shallows, and don’t imagine for one minute that sultry silence means depth.

Honours not Oscars

Our film industry has its eyes not on film awards but honours. The hideous Julian Fellowes, swanning about in ermine, being put in the House of Lords, was perhaps the most disgusting image I’ve seen this year. The man who dishes up an endless loop of second-rate, country house, costume drama, finally gets his Lordship. Putnam went all gaga, and never did a damn thing after he was made a Lord. Dame Helen Mirren has morphed into some sort of Royal proxy, holding her head as if she were royalty itself. Helena Bonham Carter, will, of course, inherit her tiara. They know, Directors and actors alike, that a gong and garden party, will allow them to die happy, when in creative terms, it’s the kiss of death.

The King’s Speech will not triumph at the Oscars, as the American’s know that films should be in some sense relevant. The Social Network is a stunning commentary on our modern world, Inception a wildly imaginative piece about the mind. In the end the Americans know that we like nothing more than to chew on the sickly toffee of nostalgia. While they have an eye on the future we’re still looking backwards.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Bridget Riley: National Gallery - Painter who doesn't paint!

Thought I’d see the Bridget Riley fims first before her exhibition but was shocked to find that the paintings I was about to see in the gallery weren’t painted by her at all, but by some flunkies. Sure artists have always had studio assistants, but can you claim to be the painter if you haven’t painted a single stroke on a painting?

Riley works at the edge of perception, where perception starts to fail and make mistakes. Her paintings induce perceptual errors. That’s interesting and challenges any romantic view of art being ‘truth’. Unfortunately, this is an area in which science and philosophy excel, and art stumbles around thinking it’s relevant. The recent Horizon documentary produced more stunning examples than Riley of this perceptual edge. You can push abstraction to this level, but then it falls apart as the brain’s expectations take over. That’s Riley’s point I suppose, but there’s other ways to play the perceptual game.

To what extent this is art and not geometrical puzzles is an interesting question. I was left underwhelmed by this small collection as there’s no real aesthetic hit from the two wall paintings or the others. The circles cover a huge wall and the eye struggles to resolve the foreground and background planes, but this is a simple and old illusion. When painting is reduced to ‘painting’ alone, it’s a cold medium. Rileys are like cold salads, colourful but not really full meals. There’s a little room with two films by Riley, one on her own work, the other on colour in the history of art.

There was an interesting second film on the use of colour by Titian, Veronese, Rubens, El Greco and Poussin is excellent. I’ll never look at these artists again without being aware of the lines created by created lines of colour coding, especially in Poussin. Indeed, when we walked to the Wallace Collection later, the luminescent skin in the Rubens and famous Poussin were like different paintings, confirming the role of knowledge in the interrogation of painting. She was also perceptive on the limitations of these artists..

Monday, January 03, 2011

Early Vermeer (Edinburgh) - three is not an exhibition!

When does an exhibition cease to become an exhibition? When it has so few paintings that they fit into a small bathroom. The first problem here, is the paucity of works – only three. The second problem, is that even these three works are placed in too small a room, so that you’re bunched together trying to find a space to look and reflect. There’s another problem, in that it’s almost impossible to find, as the signage leads you on a labyrinthine journey round the galleries. I’m sure many people just give up. In any case, I came this far, so what of the three paintings?

The Procuress

Best of the tiny bunch with its clever focal point (the glint of the coin), reminiscent of the most wonderful point of focus in the history of art, the point at which the milk pours from the milkmaid’s jug. There’s also the yellow bodice and white blouse, an early hint at what was to become Vermeer’s hallmark palette. But it’s all a bit moralistic (the intention of course), with the hand on the breast, grinning older man, and greedy Madame. It’s all about the moral dangers of alcohol, public houses and brothels, and all a bit staged. No doubts about the authenticity of the painting as it appears in the background of his later paintings.

Diana and Her Nymphs

The composition is fine, with that sense of stillness that the later Vermeer mastered, perhaps because of his dependence on optical devices, but the broad brush strokes are too diffuse and the work lacks action and therefore impact. There’s some dispute about whether this is a Vermeer or not. For my money, it’s not. Compare it to the two other paintings in the room, and the difference is stark.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Sorry, but this is a work of such poor quality that it diminishes rather than enhances Vermeer’s reputation. The Christ figure is badly composed, with its narrow trunk, odd arms and big hands. It’s a hideously distorted figure. The colours are banal and the soft focus only makes the image muddy and indistinct.


All of this really does make you think that Vermeer could only really paint with the aid of optical devices (see Secret Knowledge by David Hockney). These paintings are larger than the later Vermeers as the optical devices he used could not project at such a size.These three were painted 1653-1656. The paintings after 1657 are so much smaller, more precise and of such a stunning compositional and atmospheric quality that they make these early works look amateurish. It’s al wonderfully revealed in Philip Stedman’s Vermeer’s Camera.

This could have been so much more, if the curator had contrasted these works with his later masterpieces or at least included is next picture with a lone woman in a room – a sort of transition into his later work. As it stands, it’s three immature and not very good paintings, masquerading as an exhibition.

The Rediscovery of Highland Art (Edinburgh) - sham of a show

‘The Rediscovery of Highland Art’ at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, is a sham as it shows there is nothing to ‘rediscover’. This is a ragbag of images that would be laughed out of any gallery outside of Scotland. There is no common artistic thread. Some of these artists lived in the Western Highlands, some didn’t live there but painted scenes of the highlands, others are simply not worthy of public exhibition. It’s a Highland toffee mess.

Imaginary movement

The show’s nadir is a card, clearly written by some sort of Gaelic activist, which patronises and expenses the stupidity of the theme at the same time. Three names are put forward as the vanguard of some imaginary movement: Keith Hendry of Barra, David Forrest of Islay and Donald Smith of Lewis. We are told they “MUST be given the attention they deserve”. Then, in a sentence that is actually quite funny, as it turns on itself and cuts its own throat, “Smith’s achievement has still not been fully assessed, although his work has become widely available on book covers”. Finally, a feeble instruction, without any evidence whatsoever, “A history of art must be restored to the Gaidhealtachd (no idea what this is) as a contemporary culture. These works area a symbol of the need to restore that history of art”. Oh yeah?

The truth of the matter is that Scotland came late to the visual arts, then hung around on the sidelines with a series of largely derivative efforts. Even its minor major schools, such as the Glasgow Boys and the Colourists, were in no way part of a Highland movement, although there’s a pretence that the Colourists were. The Glasgow boys were rich city boys who could afford lives of leisure and sojourns to France. They had no interest in the industrial Glasgow, preferring the rural scenes of a fast disappearing Scotland. They had technical talent but often lacked a true subject sensibility.

Art north of the Highland line is famously maudlin and reeks of romanticism. It was used to create an alternative reality of Highland heroes in their faux Highland dress, a world where stags and highland cattle had more status than the people who lived and worked there. There’s a good exhibition to be had here, by someone brave enough to show how art has been used to hide, rather than reveal the real Scotland. In any case, an artistic movement is not geographical, it’s about the artists and the aesthetic style they choose as their means of expression. In this ‘Highland Art’ there’s only geography, not unity of purpose, people or style.

Art has always been, to a degree, a politicised process, but this show is a thirsty man clutching at a mirage. It is blatantly nationalistic, a return to that romanticised, Ossian view of the Highlands as a God-made landscape. This is the worst of Scotland, not the best. As Scotland stumbles around for an identity, it could do better than dig up old clichés and hang up third rate daubs to force itself into believing that there’s some sort of unrecognised art movement here. It has a smell of desperation.

Scotland is a Calvinist culture and had to embrace Romanticism to tilt the see saw and lift its heavy self into lighter air. We move easily from sober judgement to dreamy drunken extremes and so in art we invent another Scotland that hides itself in the clouds.

Less than 1% of Scotland’s population speak Gaelic, yet 30% of BBC Scotland’s budget is spent on Gaelic programming (largely because four of the senior staff are Gaels). This is a linguistic dog’s tail wagging the cultural dog. Art, however, is different as it is a visual medium, disengaged from the language. The exhibition wants to look at art "with particular reference to the Gaelic language". Well, where's the language, other than on the labels? Only a tiny fraction of Scots can read Gaelic, most don't care, so this is a category mistake of gigantic proportions. This is a visual art exhibition, not a literary event. The obsession with Gaelic explanations and titles in the show is laughable, as many of the featured artists did and do not speak Gaelic, and some were not from the Western isles. As usual Scotland looks to the past not the future, and an imaginary past at that.

We have art and artists which we should exalt, but NOT at the expense of realism. The Glasgow Boys and Colourists were trained and talented, but even they failed (with a few notable exceptions) to show Scotland for what it was in their day. Our one internationally renowned artist Macintosh, was spurned by his nation and had to flee to France. At heart, Scotland is a Calvinist nation. We were possibly the most devoted iconoclasts in Europe, which prevented any real artistic flourish until the portraiture of the Enlightenment and a few groups and individuals who managed to escape their Calvinist clothing. Some of these are laughable, such as the Glasgow Boys attempt to make dull Scottish towns and landscapes look like Provence. We’ve never really had artists of real genius who could show us for what we are, the cultural soil is just too barren. Scotland is just not a visually sophisticated culture. You see this in our chocolate box approach to painting, the dull domestic architecture of our towns, the dourness, simplicity and even garishness of our shopfronts. That’s OK, we have other talents. The danger is in thinking we are good at everything, that most dangerous of Scottish traits.