Tom Sutcliffe: Art with the Midas touch

The Week In Culture

Share
Related Topics

Did you know?" boasts ENO in a bulletin about Turandot, "English National Opera bought all the gold silk of its type available in the UK... for use on the set". It's a slightly odd Come Dancing approach to the marketing of an opera, but it isn't hard to see what they're trying to suggest. Rupert Goold's production is going to glitter, they're saying. No expense has been spared, and the storerooms of the realm ransacked for every last bolt.

I'm hopelessly susceptible to a bit of theatrical razzle-dazzle so I'm looking forward to the spectacle – which will mingle in my mind with a number of other gilded cultural events just recently. Last week there was Damien Hirst's gold-painted butterflies in Tate Modern's Pop Life exhibition (not to mention False Idol, a pickled calf with immaculately gilded toenails) and this week there was Richard Wright's wall-painting at Tate Britain – a great symmetrical swirl of gold leaf across one wall of the Turner Prize shortlist exhibition. And all of them, in their way, exploited the oddly ambiguous status that gold now has in high art.

The bling element is straightforward, I guess. Gold is expensive and opulent and has immaculate historical pedigree when it comes to desirability. It isn't just heavy because of its atomic weight but because it's freighted with close to 3,000 years of layered metaphor, densely compacted. And it shimmers not just because of its physical properties but because the light that comes off it is simultaneously attractive and repellent.

Gold is incorruptible but proverbially corrupting – a substance that, in Biblical terms, can both represent the highest good and the basest worldly folly. And not just in the Bible either. Hirst's painting The Kiss of Midas, part of the Pop Life exhibition, coats real butterflies in gold paint embedded with diamonds – a queasy work in which classical myth, Hollywood movies, art-world opportunism and cynical glitz all play a part.

There is a bit of art history in there too, though, because no artist can use gold paint – whether it's Hirst or Klimt or Warhol – without alluding to a tradition in which gilding is the finishing touch. Medieval art uses gold all the time, and does so in ways which are disturbing to a post-Renaissance view of how depiction works. Gold both is a pigment and isn't, occupying some part of the picture plane that has nothing to do with the human space it depicts. Gold is reserved for the numinous light of the sacred – and it has a status that sits somewhere between tribute (the most costly materials being reserved for the most elevated elements of the picture) and a trick of the light.

Gold doesn't represent a gleam of light – as a white highlight might on a painted dish. It simply gleams, as if a fragment of the thing itself has been stuck to the surface of the painting. And when gilding disappears from representational art, swept away by the zeals of the Renaissance and the Reformation, it leaves behind it a legacy of faint distrust.

Something of that glints off Richard Wright's Turner showpiece, gilded with a technique that would have been familiar to medieval artist but illuminating nothing but the blank wall of the gallery. Is it precious in the good sense, or merely precious as in empty ornamentalism? What's really rich about gold, these days, is that it could be either or both at the same time.

Cleanliness is next to...

I've been gripped this week by Peter Moffat's terrific series Criminal Justice , starring Maxine Peake (below), and intrigued to see that it further cements the popular association between minimalism and mental cruelty. Essentially, there are two routes that directors and writers follow when letting a domestic interior speak for a disturbed mind. Either they go with Stalker's Collage – in which a murky light reveals a Schwitters-like clutter of cuttings and notes and fetish objects – or they opt for Psycho Moderne, which gives bright light and glacially-pristine surfaces. Like the 1991 film Sleeping With the Enemy, in which Patrick Bergin terrorised Julia Roberts, Criminal Justice began in arctic perfection, kitchen surfaces clinically free of bric-a-brac. Such spaces almost come with an on-screen caption ("Too Good To Be True") and work, I guess, because they are actually a pretty effective projection of a disciplined (or over-disciplining) mind. As soon as you see a minimalist interior in a thriller you feel nervous, because you recognise that it makes an excellent blank canvas for the display of human error and the telltale stain. In Criminal Justice's first episode, a single drop of water on shower-glass provided one trigger in the action – not easily detectable if the whole thing had been covered with limescale. It's too effective a metaphor to overturn, but the vast majority of wife-beaters live in houses that don't advertise their pitiless nature quite so obligingly.

One of Germany's biggest-circulation women's magazines, Brigitte, has announced that it will henceforth use only "real women" in its pages, paying them the same rate as professional models. What exactly is a "real woman", after all? As the editor says, models are real women too, but their highly specialised reality is now to be spurned in favour of another kind... not ordinary, exactly, but women validated as authentic because they do something else than strut down catwalks. It will be very interesting, though, to see how real "real" turns out to be. There isn't, after all, a benchmark of reality that you can burrow down to, since the "real" women of 2009 looks completely different to the "real" woman of 1959, a difference that is partly created by shifting attitudes to body-shape and fashion, but also by all kinds of social change. And the women themselves may want to appear a bit less "real" in the pages of a mass-circulation magazine then they do when they're just back from a day in the office. The result will be that Brigitte will eventually construct a competing notion of "real" – socially preferable because it is a bit more generous in its admission criteria than high fashion magazines – but less artificial than the one it's replacing. And tall, skinny, girls with fine bone structure may feel that it's only fair they're represented too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Several police officers walk near downtown Ottawa  

Nigel Farage on the Ottawa shooting: It could just as easily happen on the streets of London

Nigel Farage
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?