Taste: `Hello!' and the art of optimism

An exhibition of `Hello!' covers heralds the beginning of a new art movement. By David Lister

Just as last year's Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon's slow- motion video installations illuminated the inner psychological turmoils of urban life, so a new exhibition opening on Monday will illuminate the external synthesis between art, fashion and the media that define fin- de-siecle culture.

The exhibition of 52 covers of Hello! magazine runs for the whole of February in the Gallery Bar at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London's Park Lane. If this is an exhibition that will move to the Tate when the Turner Prize shortlist is announced in the autumn, then we might be witnessing the start of a new cultural movement - "the art of optimism", a celebration of aristocracy and arrivistes in pastel shades that will make Damien Hirst's explorations of death and preservation look passe.

In the words of the show's curator, Caroline Parr, "the covers are glamorously colourful. It's a chronicle of our times; we go from weddings to divorces and deaths. Yes, the covers are paparazzi photographs, but this is serious paparazzi. There are people having fun, and there are people in pain. That is an art form."

To those who are not students of the new wave in British art, Ms Parr's words might appear to be a series of non sequiturs. But contemporary art historians would not see them as such. The Hello! exhibition is, on one level, a bunch of magazine covers in clip-on frames; on a deeper level, however, it is one expressionist canvas where love and life find no easy linear route.

Simon Tait, author of Palaces of Discovery, a guide to the treasures in Britain's museums, sees the exhibition as being part of a grand tradition. "Britain's museum and gallery history is full of adventure and dottiness," he says, "though to make an exhibition of personalities mostly famous for making exhibitions of themselves seems a generous interpretation of the word populism."

To find brightness in gloom is a tradition that stretches from classical painting to the Pop art of the Sixties. But the covers of Hello! perform this function with a panache that cocks a snook at art critics clinging to a narrow belief that art must mirror social realism.

Two months after Robert Maxwell's death by drowning, his widow, Betty, shows Hello! around their lavish French villa. While the rest of the world gossips about how estranged the Prince and Princess of Wales look on their visit to Korea, Hello!'s coverline proclaims that they are carrying out their duties with dignity. But it is the shock juxtapositions and the ensuing element of surprise that give these canvases their real value. Underneath the confident white on red "Hello!" with its signature exclamation mark, reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein's American Pop, is Fergie in a green gown, revealing an expanse of thigh. "The Duchess of York Poses as a Model" reads the coverline, but with the subtle omission of the expected exclamation mark.

Most notable is the ecleticism of subject matter that the canvases can conjure up. All branches of the Royal Family adorn the covers along with the nearly Royals such as Koo Stark. No great surprise there. But what is being celebrated on the cover beneath Fergie? None other than the marriage of racing commentator Derek Thompson and his personal assistant.

The world of horses, like the world of art, can unite royalty, the landed gentry and even the chap who does the verbals on Channel 4 on a Saturday afternoon in one glorious postmodern collage.

`Hello! Covers Exhibition' runs to the end of February in the Gallery Bar, Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane, London W1 (0171-499 6363)

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