ART / Flirting with hippie chic: Francesco Clemente and Anish Kapoor, big in the West, look to the East for inspiration. Andrew Graham-Dixon detects other influences at work

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
COUNTLESS mediocre 19th-century academic painters cashed in on the vogue for exotic subjects, travelling to far-off places and painting almost pornographic pictures with titles like In the Harem, cloyingly sentimental pictures with titles like The Dusky Bride, busily scenic pictures with titles like Market Scene, Cairo. They understood the market value of exoticism, the saleability of a touch of Eastern promise. These days, of course, no one takes that kind of thing seriously. It has been seen through, thoroughly decoded and deconstructed: colonialist, imperialist, politically incorrect in just about every way, and aesthetically dull with it. We're not going to fall for anything like that again. But hang on a minute. Maybe we have.

Francesco Clemente is an Italian-born artist who lives in New York. He is one of the world's most prolific and highly regarded painters. His pictures cost an awful lot of money, and just about every museum of contemporary art in Europe and America owns an obligatory example or two. Clemente is a Success. But he may, one day, be remembered as little more than a late 20th-century equivalent to all those fifth-rate 19th-century painters of harems and dusky brides and market scenes in Cairo. Clemente's pictures represent orientalism updated, orientalism adapted to modern tastes - but old-fashioned orientalism none the less, with all its opportunism, its patronising attitudes and sentimentality and borrowed exoticism disguised, but still intact. Clemente paints would-be mystical figurative pictures on sheets of beautiful handwoven Indian paper which are (in the artist's own somewhat approximate words) 'as wide as the open arms of a South Indian boy'. The examples currently on display at Anthony D'Offay Gallery suggest that Clemente's chief sources of inspiration are most likely to have been the psychedelic album covers, posters and books of the 1960s and 1970s, along with the sorts of logo you encounter on health food packets. He paints a pair of figures suspended in mid-air to form an acrobatic wheel, a human yin-yang diagram. He paints an eyeball, its orb containing a pair of figures coiled, again, in yin-yang formation. He paints vast faces with suns and moons and clouds decorating their foreheads. His imagery is way out, but dated. His handling of paint is pedestrian, production-line. But despite all that, he is taken very seriously by a lot of people, and the main reason seems to be that he is said to have been Inspired by India.

There is no catalogue to the show at D'Offay, but some sense of the large edifice of adulatory myth that has been constructed on the shallow foundations of Clemente's art may be had by consulting the book that accompanied his most recent large retrospective, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a couple of years ago. Here the fact that Clemente pays bi-yearly visits to India (to 'the slums of Madras', to be precise: it is apparently important to Clemente that his India should be seen to be the India of the poor) is accorded tremendous significance.

You learn, for example, that 'the cultural multiformity of India led Clemente to accept fragmentation and stylistic diversity in art, in contradistinction to the prevailing cultural hegemony of the West. By abandoning the traditional hierarchical ordering of experience, Clemente was seeking a more open form that was able to accommodate the influx of new factors brought to the fore in India: eros, the psychic imagination, the mutability of meaning and the discontinuity of experience'. And that 'for Clemente, India came to serve as a much-needed clearing, both physical and psychic, as well as a travelling back through time to an Ur culture, where the gods of Hinduism echo the cthonic origins of Greek culture'.

The trouble is that the most genuinely Indian element in Clemente's art (its only really authentically Indian element) is the expensive paper it is painted on. Clemente is a minor fantasist, a late late Surrealist crossed with a hippie graphic designer, who has cunningly given his art the frisson of alienness by spreading the idea that it 'engages' with the profound mysteries of another culture. But Clemente is a skimmer. He borrows willy-nilly (especially willy) from the iconography of Hindu temple statuary, he borrows from Mughal art and Rajput miniatures in an attempt to graft some kind of cultural respectability on to his occasionally charming but lightweight pictures. The borrowed forms that fill Clemente's art are like souvenirs, collected primarily for their appeal. His mysticism is the mysticism of the tourist.

A short distance across London, at the Lisson Gallery, the work and the name might be different, but it is an oddly similar story. Anish Kapoor, whose new show opened there last week, is one of the world's most prolific and highly regarded artists. His sculptures cost an awful lot of money. He is a Success. And he is said to have been Inspired by India.

Kapoor recently told an interviewer that he had turned his back on the Western modern art tradition because 'I found all that was relatively meaningless to me. If I was going to do anything as an artist, I had to unravel my own past, my sense of the world. And that meant rediscovering for myself what it really meant to be Indian.' Kapoor differs from Clemente in that he was actually born in India, and spent most of the first 20 years of his life there. But whether his art is really as authentically Eastern (and as anti-Western) as he seems to be claiming remains open to debate.

The fact is that Kapoor's art could easily be said to pay homage to a peculiarly Western cultural idea of the East: a vague notion of India as a culture of mysticism, of transcendentalism, of spiritual integrity and enigma. And his sculptures themselves complicate his own rhetoric of going back to roots, rediscovering origins, since they are so easily located within a tradition of would-be transcendentalist Western modern art. His glowing empty spaces, carved out of stone powdered with saturated red or blue pigment, recollect the painted voids of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, the fields of colour of Yves Klein and the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana. Kapoor's grand theme is the Void, but to claim - rather suddenly - that it is an Eastern Void rather than a Western Void seems somewhat unconvincing (and beside the point). The question is whether it is an eloquent void. The main objection to Kapoor's work has to rest on its repetition of its own devices: the increasing stylishness and slickness of the sculpture, its constant restaging of what have come to look like rather empty theatrical effects. The hollowed-out block of stone with pigment interior, the pigmented gash or hole in the wall, the pigmented hemisphere: to look into Kapoor's voids can be giddying, but are his sculptures really conduits to a higher form of being, portals to the unknown, or just aggrandised gimmicks? His titles have become increasingly portentous, often the sign of an artist trying rather too hard to be taken seriously: In the Presence of Form, Portrait of Light Picture of Space, Eyes Turned Inwards.

The rhetoric is profound but the effect superficial. The work itself suggests the same sort of casual mysticism that you find in the work of Clemente: the mysticism of the hippie in the tie-dye T-shirt bumming around India for a few months and, like, man, really tuning into the place.

Francesco Clemente, Anthony D'Offay, 9 & 23 Dering St, London W1 to 30 Apr.

See opposite for Kapoor details.

(Photographs omitted)