The alleged triumph of painting

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The Independent Online

Charles Saatchi has brought us a new sensation. The godfather of modern British art has declared that formaldehyde sheep and unmade beds are passé. After years of neglect, "painting" is back in vogue. An exhibition called The Triumph of Painting, featuring the work of six artists, will open at Saatchi's County Hall Gallery tomorrow. Pieces by Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, works that defined a generation in British art, are being sold off or put into storage. The Medici of modern art has spoken - or so we are asked to believe.

Charles Saatchi has brought us a new sensation. The godfather of modern British art has declared that formaldehyde sheep and unmade beds are passé. After years of neglect, "painting" is back in vogue. An exhibition called The Triumph of Painting, featuring the work of six artists, will open at Saatchi's County Hall Gallery tomorrow. Pieces by Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, works that defined a generation in British art, are being sold off or put into storage. The Medici of modern art has spoken - or so we are asked to believe.

The truth is that painting never really lost any of its popularity, despite the ubiquity of sculpture and video installations in recent years. The enduring appeal of Lucian Freud, one of Britain's greatest living artists, is testament to that. So, too, is the popularity of the National Gallery's regular blockbuster exhibitions. Despite Mr Saatchi's formidable capacity to publicise his artists, we should be wary of accepting at face value the belief that this rather enigmatic figure somehow exerts control of the national taste in art.

But Mr Saatchi's influence should not be underestimated. As a result of his change of direction, British painters may find that dealers are more inclined to look favourably on their work in the wake of this new exhibition.

There are some in the art world who claim that Mr Saatchi is an entirely destructive force. They point to his tendency to collect an artist's work over many years and then sell it on, ruthlessly, in bulk and at inflated prices. This can have a damaging effect on an artist's career. Indeed, Mr Saatchi has been accused, more than once, of operating rather like one of Mr Hirst's famous sharks.

Yet to argue that Mr Saatchi has been a wholly malign influence on British art is unfair. He has bought and exhibited the work of British artists for more than 15 years, taking a keen interest in their development - and several are now figures of international importance. He deserves credit also for stimulating the public's interest in modern art and crafts, which has burgeoned since the early 1990s. That, in time, may well be recognised as the true "sensation" in the history of modern British art.

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