'This is a revolt against Saatchism': Depechism is an art movement on a mission

The movement is the brainchild of Private Eye's Barry Fantoni.
  • @iburrell

In an era of multitasking and incessant digital chatter, when no one seems to have a moment to pause for thought, Depechism appears like an art movement of its time.

The rules, laid down in a written ‘manifesto’, demand that the artist takes up a canvas and measures it. “The number of inches of the longest edge of the work is to be translated into minutes. This will be the time limit.”

As the name of the movement suggests, speed is of the essence to the Depechist. “The principle is haste. To finish a work as quickly as possible.”

But the artists who have embraced this new technique are not a group of angry young things in a hurry, furiously putting brush to paper while simultaneously engaging with a range of electronic devices. No. These are veterans of 60-plus, all trained in the traditional principles of drawing and with long careers in the studio behind them.

Depechism may sound a little slapdash. But to its early practitioners, it has been a source of emancipation, taking them back to their art-school days and providing an exhilarating alternative to the constraints of commercial illustration with its requirements for minute detail and accuracy.

There may be something else there, too. The older artist, keen to leave behind a body of work, finds the imposition of such an immediate deadline provides a boon to productivity when the clock of life is also ticking.

Depechism is designed to remove artistic blocks and to bring to drawing and painting the spontaneity that exists in other human pursuits. “[It] offers an art free of meaningless decoration or time to reflect,” states the manifesto. “It is the art of the instant. As is talking. Or playing an instrument. Or writing. Or eating. Or  making love. Or reading. Or running. Or laughing. Or dying.”

This is the vision of Barry Fantoni, pop artist, saxophonist, cartoonist and seminal figure at the satirical magazine Private Eye. Living in Calais, where he has just completed a second volume of the adventures of Harry Lipkin (an octogenarian private detective in Miami who keeps his teeth in a glass), Fantoni, aged 72, is not the retiring type.

Depechism encapsulates his restless work ethic. The introduction of a deadline to the act of drawing increases output. “You don’t have time to sit in the dark and think, you push it out and whatever comes out is what you put in. There isn’t any time to polish and burnish and be fancy with it,” he says.

His own colourful Depechist pieces draw heavily on his experiences at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in the mid-1950s,  before he went to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in central London and then became part of Britain’s Sixties Pop Art scene. He  produced cartoons for Private Eye for nearly 50 years, as well as the words for such characters as breathless royal observer, Sylvie Krin, and teenage poet, EJ Thribb.

He has accompanied his manifesto with a treatise, “Depechism and the Rebel”, which  includes the proviso that it is “To be declaimed standing in a bistro on a table”. Fantoni acknowledges the pretentiousness of the revolutionary message by name-checking Private Eye’s own mythical rabble-rouser as he reads from the statement. “This is Dave Spart speaking,” he says, launching into a tirade against the British art establishment of Charles Saatchi and the Tate’s Sir Nicholas Serota.

“Depechism is a radical art form. It is a revolt against the bourgeois art created by the media and powerful galleries. It is a revolt against Conceptualism and Installationalism,” he rails with typical iconoclasm, before turning on yet more ‘isms’.

“Depechism opposes Saatchism and  Serotaism, who it condemns as Art Nazis who f manipulate public taste for personal gain. The art they force on the public is like all state art. It is as empty as it is pompous. The unmade bed of Tracey Emin and the shark of Damien Hirst have no more merit than the drab works of the 19th-century French Salon or the decorated stadiums of Soviet Russia.”

This Spartist polemic has struck a chord,  albeit quite modest at this point. Fantoni has nine converts to a way of working which he believes has a greater level of honesty. The  Depechists, he notes, are all of a certain vintage and with a firm grounding in their craft. “These people have been drawing all their lives, it’s not like they worked in a bank and then decided to take up painting in their spare time and got good at it. All of them have said to me, we feel a terrific sense of liberation. You get that energy stored up and you attack the drawing and I think that’s what comes through in these pictures.”

The London artist Andrew Aarons, a  fellow student of Fantoni’s at Camberwell, has embraced the Depechist creed as an  antidote to his normal working life painting commissioned portraits, often of equestrian subjects. “I work accurately and meticulously and take a great deal of time over the [portraits] and they can take three or four months. Even then I’m sometimes not happy with them,” he says. “I will work on a portrait for five or six hours, then at the end of the day, when I’ve had enough, I take some paper, measure the size and use  the paint that’s already mixed on the palette to do a Depeche.”

Aarons, 73, says he has never felt the need to “fiddle with” a Depechist piece after the second hand of his watch – which he places alongside his palette as he works – has indicated that he must stop painting. “When a piece is meticulously painted you are showing off all your skills and people could look at some of the very fast pieces and say it’s just a blob or a mark, but I’m very happy with the Depechists that I have done.”

It’s a sign of the virgin territory of this style of painting that Aarons adds, “I don’t even know what one calls them in plural”. He’s also not sure how the works should be presented. “Do we make it look as if it has been hurriedly put into any old frame or do it nicely and then the frame would be more expensive than the work?”

James Hutcheson’s eight-minute Depechist works in ink have more of a Japanese quality to them. Subjects include a branch and a horse. “I got nine done in an afternoon,” he says. “Everything else is so market-led these days, this is like getting back to basics and a return to art school, using a pencil and water and ink. It’s very traditional in many ways.”

Unlike Aarons, Hutcheson, aged 61, is used to working at speed in his day job as a commercial illustrator, but he was interested in Fantoni’s manifesto stricture that artists must eschew a physical subject. “You are working from memory as opposed to actually looking at something. It’s the process as opposed to having a preconception of how the end result is going to be,” he says.

“There’s an experimental element because you are not quite sure what’s going to happen – because of the nature of water and how  things dry and the temperature of the room, all these imponderables.”

Hutcheson, who is based in Edinburgh and attended art college in Leeds, experienced a similar excitement of drawing against the clock as an artist attached to Time Team, the Channel 4 archaeology show. “They start digging and find something nobody has seen in 800 years – then you have to draw it to put it in its original context.”

Ruth Dupré is a multimedia artist who won the Bombay Sapphire prize for work involving glass and was awarded the RA Summer Exhibition sculpture prize in 2010. She heard about Depechism from the Bow-Wow Shop poetry website, run by the art critic Michael Glover. “The principles excited me as I see the restrictions and rules are liberating,” says Dupré, 58, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, who has been working to time limits of between six and eight minutes. “It seemed to be a brilliant satirical commentary upon various ideas readily associated with the art of our times – speed, spontaneity, and its brash throwaway quality,  exactly the kind of thing you would expect from one of the founders of  Private Eye. It was uproarious, fun, and a serious  challenge, all rolled into one.”

That Fantoni should have thought this idea up in France is appropriate, given that its inspiration is the Impressionist rebellion against conventional French landscape painting, and then the revolt of the Les Nabis (prophets)  artists against Impressionism itself.

After moving to Normandy, he met Anthony Matthews, a British cartoonist and illustrator who has become another Depechist. Earlier in his career, Matthews, aged 69, worked as a  “reportage artist”, doing drawings for the Daily Telegraph and the British Airways magazine Business Life. He visited oil fields to sketch helicopter pilots and riggers at work, and went to Berlin to draw war ruins and transvestite clubs.

Matthews, a graduate of Leicester College of Art, now enjoys doing six-minute pieces. He has produced Depechist drawings of “a very ordinary room” and a self-portrait on a bicycle at the Calais ferry port. “I’m interested in the idea of free association, something comes to your mind and you just put it down,” he says. “In psychotherapy, you free-associate what comes into your mind and don’t censor anything, it just all gurgles out. I’m interested in doing this with images, just scribbling and working quite fast.”

Fantoni also references psychoanalysis. “The majority of the images that have come up [in Depechism] are related to something which has been long held,” he says. “Freud was forever trying to find out what people were trying to hide about themselves. I think art is trying to find out what we are hiding about ourselves as well. The discovery of ourselves through art is the most significant thing it does.”