The Weasel: A hip trip to Van Dyck's dark side

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The Independent Culture
Earlier this week, I was privileged to observe an encounter between artistic polar extremes. It took place at the press launch of the Royal Academy's sublime exhibition of works by Anthony Van Dyck. Jane Martineau, the lively curator of the show, was imparting a host of fascinating info on the great 17th century portraitist to a group of around 50 hacks and other interested parties. She noted his extraordinary gift for painting children: "Van Dyck was rather short himself. He was one of few artists who never looked down on children."

Leaving aside the Biblical and mythological stuff, I can remember few exhibitions I enjoyed more. Far from merely painting "geezers on horses", as an Oxford-educated crony of mine maintains, Van Dyck produced incomparably vivacious portraits of a whole galere of well-heeled subjects: starchy Dutch merchants; billowy grand ladies; dewlapped lawyers; sloe-eyed beauties; Machiavellian wheeler-dealers; sheep-faced dandies and careworn officers of state. It is probable, however, that the artist's most celebrated client, the proud, inadequate Charles I, would be more than piqued at being described as anyone's subject.

Van Dyck was particularly adept at painting twosomes. According to the current issue of RA, the Royal Academy magazine: "His double portraits are his most distinctive work in England." Since the exhibition includes three joint portraits of brothers, it was interesting to note the appearance of Britain's best-known artistic siblings at the launch. The ultra-hip artistic duo Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose life-size sculptures of bizarrely mutated pre-pubescent girls shocked some sensitive souls at the Academy's Sensation show a few years ago, were being shown round by Norman Rosenthal, the RA's famously vocal Exhibitions Secretary. It was hard to ignore their presence since Mr Rosenthal did not make the slightest attempt to lower his voice during Ms Martineau's disquisition.

Intrigued by the insights that the great aesthete would bestow on these enfants terribles, I decided to tag along on his alternative tour. When the trio reached the room devoted to Van Dyck's sombre portraits of Genovese dignities, one of the towering Chapmans opined that they were "a bit dark". "There were done in Genoa," elucidated the bustling Mr Rosenthal. "Ever been to Genoa? It's a dark, gloomy city."

It wasn't exactly an in-depth exploration of Van Dyck. The trio zipped through all 100 works in under 10 minutes. However, one masterpiece that attracted the brothers' attention was The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1635). Jake or, possibly, Dinos, expressed the view that the Saviour's luxuriant moustache made him look a bit like Stalin. "Jesus, Stalin, it's all the same, isn't it?" mused their host. Leaving this apercu hanging in the air, the party moved into the final glorious room covering the artist's stint as painter to the Court of Charles I. Throwing an arm in the direction of Van Dyck's late allegory Rachel de Ruvigny, Countess of Southampton, as Fortune (1640), the Exhibitions Secretary offered further profound enlightenment for his proteges: "It came all the way from Australia." And with that, the three disappeared into the bowels of the Academy.

I returned to the press party. In the final room, Jane Martineau drew attention to Van Dyck's glowing rendition of the "glamorous, rather vapid Stuart brothers". She also pointed out that The Lamentation over the Dead Christ was "an intensely moving depiction". Oddly, she failed to point out any resemblance to Stalin.

It was no hardship to attend another preview of the fabulous Van Dycks on the following day with Mrs W, who, in her grand way, is a "Friend" of the RA at pounds 40 per annum. Surprisingly, the painting which drew most attention from the art-lovers was not the famous triple portrait of Charles I, but a full-length study of Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby (1635), loaned by the Hermitage in St Petersberg.

"What's a slug doing on his face?" inquired one Friend. "Ten to one, it's a leech," ventured another. Here, the Weasel Elucidation Service can help. According to Jane Martineau, the black mark was pitch used to cauterise a battle wound suffered by the Duke four decades earlier. "Once on, it was there for life." A alternative to tattoos for today's fashion victims?

As vexations go, it doesn't compare with crop-haired youths driving round with their in-car entertainment at full blast, the inane yatter of mobile phone monologues or the teeth-jarring whine of pizza-delivery mopeds, but up there among the thousand and one irritations of modern life is the increasing tendency of barpersons not to give you a glass when you order a bottle of beer. This is what happens. They put the opened bottle in front of you. You stare at it. They stare at you. Just as you're about to remark on the absence of any receptacle, they bark: "You wanna glarse?" The look in their eyes is readily deciphered: fussy old fart who is making washing up for us.

I've grown hardened to the experience. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise when I was refused a glass at the press launch of Guinness Draught in bottles. "You drink it straight from the bottle," insisted a PR called Nicola Gordon. "You can pour it into a glass - but that defeats the whole object." An unwilling poseur, the Weasel was obliged to suck his stout from the neck of the bottle. Not bad at all. But how the dickens can it be called "draught".

"You get exactly the same taste experience as you would from a pint," smoothly retorted Ms Gordon. "Draught Guinness in a bottle is very much consumer-driven. It's what they want and we've given it to them. A lot of customers don't want to wait the 19.5 seconds it takes to pour a Guinness. In leading edge bars, more people drink from the bottle. Now they can dance with their Guinness. Everything stems from a widget which creates the trademark white head." The only drawback is that it is impossible to see the distinctive foam since it is hidden in a "distinctively curvaceous" black and white bottle.

Bob Purdham, R&D Manager at Guinness's London brewery, produced one of the plastic widgets - a two-inch finned rocket which "fires" a 70:30 mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide when the bottle is opened. "The initial head is produced by the widget firing," he said. "Then the head is refreshed by the widget moving through the beer."

And, er, how much did this gizmo cost to develop? "Conceptually, we started looking at this 10 years ago, when we introduced Draught Guinness in cans," the professorial Mr Purdham stroked his chin. "Including technical innovation and marketing, I'd say around pounds 10m." Wow. Ten million smackers so kids in clubs can guzzle from the neck. No wonder it costs pounds 2.20 for a 330cl bottle. Would it be possible to appreciate the subtleties of Draught Guinness in a dark, noisy nightclub? "I've never been in a dark noisy nightclub," replied Mr P.

"Guinness is a global leader in widgets," chipped in John Replogle, a dynamic young American with the daunting job title of Field Force Manager. "The breakthrough with the bottle widget is the secondary surge which results in a continuously refreshed head." (Just as well that the Weasel column does not deal in double-entendres.) But, I repeated, can you appreciate this elixir while listening to speed garage in some murky niterie? "We've tested it in a sterile environment and we've tested it in clubs," replied Mr Replogle. "They get it. They get it pretty quickly. For the most part, the consumer does care. But by the third bottle, they don't give a rat's arse if it's got a widget or not."

God knows, I try to be strong. But, weak vessel that I am, how can I resist the glossy food magazines that lie in the magazine rack like tempting sirens? Sooner or later, I crack. Well, it won't do any harm to give one a quick flip through, will it? That's it, of course. I'm hooked. It's not so much the sumptuous illustrations of Waitrose Food Illustrated or even the confessional articles ("I've always been a bit of a fudge addict").

It's the punning headlines that plunge me into a paroxysm of guilty pleasure. After a nibble on "Vietnamese wok ethic", I gorge on "Leaven can wait" (sourdough bread) and "Munster munch" (pumpernickel) before achieving gustatory climax with "Ceps appeal" (mushrooms on toast). Days of remorse follow, but then I find myself casually flicking through Sainsbury's The Magazine. Just one sip of "Riesling to the challenge" and I'm madly guzzling "The white stuff" (flour) and "There's muffin better" (chocolate polenta cakes) before moving on to a final blow-out with "One-night strands" (spaghetti alle vongole).

OK, I'll spill the beans. Years ago, during my editorial days, I was a purveyor of such cholesterol-laden puns. I'm not proud of it, but, yeah, I was the guy behind "Iced gems" (frozen gateaux), "Fantastic lactic" (cheese) and, most shaming of all, "Back to your roots" (carrot soup). But I realised I was out of my league when I had to pen a headline for a feature on summer pudding. "King Crimson" was my best shot. Tackling the same topic, a rival rag came up with "Reds under the bread". I knew I was beat.

Now I'm just a pun junkie. I'd give them up tomorrow but for the cold turkey.

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