FASHION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT
BLIMEY! From Bohemia to Britpop: The London Art World from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst by Matthew Collings, published by 21 at pounds 19.95
Sunday 18 May 1997
Matthew Collings's narrative is as haphazard as a diary, relaxed, even ramshackle, often informative, often inaccurate, often skippable, often hilarious. It is tempting to quote from his better anecdotes, but the intervening passages of criticism are equally funny while being exceedingly serious. This is about two legendary painters of big naked women, beginning with Lucian Freud:
"He paints as if Cezanne had never existed, let alone Marcel Duchamp. But his paintings are quite intense.
"Or are they? I don't even know for sure. He's one of those mythic artists where the myth is so strong it's hard to tell what's going on. Like the only survivor of abstract expressionism, Willem de Kooning. Except de Kooning is obviously quite good, because of all the painterly energy of his Women series of the Fifties, when he was a kind of abstract expressionist sex fiend, and the way those women have blue heads and yellow bodies. And the way in the Sixties he just went very loopy and drunk and on tranquillisers, and the colour was all high and wild and feminine, and the figures became outrageously cartoony and lazy and just slid down the canvas as if he didn't care what you thought, and was painting for Rubens not for you.
"Lucian Freud ... is boring as far as colour is concerned, he just does brown. But he goes on stalking the model and painting it like a surgeon and dissecting it and really looking, and all the other mythic things he's supposed to do in his studio. So you have to hand it to him in the end. He really is a star ...
"And now he does those very crusty brown paintings of figure groups of single figures or heads, with dramatic croppings, so at least he paints as if Degas existed. And the scenes are all made up of thick crusty paint but are very realistic at the same time. So to some extent the naked bodies seem to come together in the eye as bodies from a distance. And then partly break up into crusts close to. But the main aspect of the paintings is the realistic bleak stark nakedness of the figures and the invitation to stare, which is creepy and disturbing ..."
One of Collings's great strengths is his insistence that in art things are not either/or but both/and. He is constantly aware that something can be basically flawed, can be pretentious, even a bit phoney, but can still have artistic power. Another of his strengths is his total fearlessness about giving offence: he writes as if he doesn't give a damn whether he ever finds another day's work in the art world. But he still knows how to make it clear in his throwaway fashion that stars are stars.
His "biggest stars" among the Brits of the period are Francis Bacon, Gilbert and George, and Damien Hirst. However:
"Francis Bacon, although always a top star, stopped being a really fantastically good artist after a few years. Damien Hirst doesn't really do anything all that good any more in art, unless he's quickly done something while this book is at the printers
"Of them all only Gilbert and George stayed true to their made up selves ... Ever since they started, people would ask if they really were like the way they behaved publicly. Their funny, stiff, uptight manner and stiff suits. Didn't they drop the act in private, or when they were among friends? But they never do drop the act, although that doesn't mean it isn't an act, and they really are sincere artists, although it's hard to know why that's good. I mean they really are good but it's hard to explain how being sincere and totally made up at the same time can work, and why that should result in excellence."
This sort of readiness to admit that he is often mystified about why he is moved is another of Collings's strengths. Actually his own offhand, self-conscious style, with its perverse syntax, is itself rather mystifying as to the interaction between sincerity and putting on an act.
One of the young T S Eliot's crucial essays was about "Tradition and the Individual Talent". Collings's topic within his field is Fashion and the Individual Talent. He has a very sharp sense of how fashion in art operates, of how it operates both always and nowadays, in this particular time and place, and of how it corrupts talent.
"And, weirdly, there is a strong streak of retro bohemianism running through the Britpop style. It is at its strongest, that is, hard- est to tell where irony ends and full-on sincerism begins, in the Damien Hirst mythology, which is designed very much along Francis Bacon lines.
"In this mythology Francis Bacon is considered the greatest artist. And the great corny subjects of existentialist beatniks are considered genuinely worth mentioning. But in reality, as opposed to the myth, there is a strong sense about Damien Hirst's shock works, of him testing the big existentialist contents to see if they could be art - just as in his coloured spot paintings there is a sense of him testing spots to see if they could be painting - rather than actually expressing them. Seeing if life and death and sex and violence and alienation could work as art.
"But perhaps that's always the way content makes its return in modern art. Perhaps it was the same for Picasso and Derain in the return to order period in the 1920s.
"And perhaps it was the same for Francis Bacon himself. A lot of Bacon is obviously short cuts to a received idea of deep content. But maybe he actually did hit some veins of the deep stuff, just by short-cutting across or around cubism, or whatever other art baggage was holding back his bohemian painter colleagues of the time."
The deeply serious message that sparks off the fireworks is that art plays the game of fame at its peril. Collings cites a reviewer's defence of Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. This writer's line had been that these artists surely had something important to say about how we live and die.
"Do they really have something important to say about those things? They both keep the issues rolling as art issues, which is an achievement. But we can't tell yet how important are the things that they seem to be saying. A cast is just a cast, is another thing they might be saying. A butterfly is just a butterfly. A cow a cow. A house a house.
"This is art that comes from a particular climate, with a particular build-up of attitudes and ideas behind it, and although poetry and metaphor play their part, and other high minded things, you can't just remove facetiousness and irony and emptiness from the equation when it suits you. When you're feeling a bit solemn. That's the tragedy of now."
In its laconic way this has the moral weight of great criticism.
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