Friday, 14 December 2012

Why we'll never grow to love currently fashionable painters as we learnt to love the Fauves

The Passers-by, Raul Dufy
The prevailing view of the modern art world is that , until the second half of the 20th century, the vast majority of critics and visitors to art galleries were blinkered philistines for not immediately grasping the merit of the latest art movement – the implication being that members of the modern art establishment would have “got” works by the Impressionists, the Fauves or Modernist painters the instant they clapped eyes on them.

Tosh, of course.

Picking Up Deadwood, Vlaminck
I was wandering around the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House recently admiring the various works of the Fauves and trying to imagine how I’d have reacted if I’d seen them when they were first exhibited (mostly in the second decade of the 20th Century). As a fairly typical middle-brow art-lover, I now find many paintings by the likes of Vlaminck, Derain, Matisse, Braque and Van Dongen delightful – back then I’d probably have been mystified, if not downright appalled: nearly everyone was, including the critics and the wider art establishment of that era.

Le Port de l'Estaque, Georges Braque
The very name “fauve” means wild beast in French, and was used to characterise the seemingly rule-less weirdness of the artists’ brushwork and their use of unnaturally vibrant colours. Their work – pretty much universally derided in its time – had to fight its way to critical acceptance. Partly, of course, that was a question of curators, gallery-owners, critics and gallery-visitors learning a new visual language. The fact that general acceptance took a long time was no doubt distressing for many of the artists – but it meant that, when the merit of their work was finally recognised, the public’s reaction was utterly sincere: they weren’t pretending to enjoy these works because they were scared of appearing fuddy-duddy – they genuinely grew to love them. The same, of course, is true of the public’s eventual enthusiasm for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. The reason Van Gogh died in obscurity is that nobody had a clue what the hell he was visually on about: now we do.

Le Jardinier, Maurice de Vlaminck
It’s all very different nowadays of course – when it comes to modern art, the views of the average gallery-visitor count for nothing, and the occasional refusenik critic is dismissed as an eccentric reactionary to be dismissed with contempt or torn to pieces by the art establishment’s attack dogs. So terrified are these wretches – the heads of publicly-funded galleries, the critics who write for the posh papers, and everyone making a profit out of tasteless, billionaire “collectors” who wouldn’t know a decent painting if it committed an act of gross indecency on them – that they make instant “judgments” about artists which are the equivalent of a bet at roulette when you control the wheel. Once anointed by some art-world BSD, there’s no need for the chosen artist to improve, or grow, or mature – they just need to provide shocks and outrages at regular intervals and they’re made for life.
The Violincellist, Kees van Dongen

As a consequence, I predict that we bourgeois art-lovers will never grow to appreciate the work of – say – Tracy Emin or Gilbert & George or Damian Hirst, in the way that many  have grown to appreciate artists of earlier generations, such as David Hockney, Bridget Riley and Lucian Freud. With the former, there’s no visual language to understand, there’s no educational process to be undergone, and increasing familiarity will merely turn mystification into contempt.

Back to the Courtauld Gallery – if you haven’t been for a while, I can’t recommend a return visit highly enough. Even the floor-vents are works of art:


  1. Like all your pieces on art and music, this is excellent. I'd always regarded conceptual art as being a sort of self-serving conspiracy between the artists, gallery owners and critics to keep prices high, galleries full and controversy stoked. What I had never observed until you pointed it out was that this is a comparatively new trend.

    You are right. The 1906 Paris exhibition of these magnificent works by Matisse, Vlaminck et al was derided by the critics. The name comes from the quote 'comme Donatello chez les fauves", which was a critic's reaction when he spotted a piece of Renaissance sculpture in the middle of the beastly exhibition.

    There are some critics who have nailed the conceptualist con but those of us who regard it as such are certainly out of tune with the prevailing orthodoxy, or Serotocracy if we're looking for a name for it.

    1. "Serotocracy" - what an excellent name for the smug, self-regarding, publicly-funded liberal art elite who decide what we're allowed to like!

      I wonder when exactly it was that the arts establishment lost confidence in its own judgment - which I think is what our current frenzied neophilia stems from?

  2. If, on the other hand, you want an alternative view, then Jonathan Jones in the Guardian on the subject of Rachel Whiteread, Britain's greatest living artist according to him, should suit very well. If you miss it on their website, I am sure you'll catch it later in Pseud's Corner.

    1. I couldn't wait for it to appear in Pseud's Corner, so I read Jones's article - here is my favourite section:

      "Ghost is a cast of an entire room in an old-fashioned, perhaps Victorian, house. It is the solid trace of all the air that a room once contained. Empty space has become solid. Because it is solid, it is closed. Nothing can get in or out. On this side of the white surfaces of the massive block, engraved with negative images of fireplace, door, window and light switch, we wonder at the dark invisible silence within. Vanished lives, lost voices, forgotten loves are trapped in that fossilised room like prehistoric creatures in limestone."

  3. Courbet and astonishingly even Caravaggio were scoffed at by the critics of their day for many reasons chiefly because of a perceived lack of refinement-using peasants as models,warts and all,and a new visual realism.
    If I was a visitor to one of their opening exhibitions,I have to be honest with myself,and say that I would probably have agreed with the critics such is the power of peer-pressure.
    The above artists and many others were generally true unto themselves.

    1. When it comes to buying books, I like to find approving reviews on the cover - but the approbation of art critics for modern works of art is usually a real turn-off: I suppose that's because I'm sceptical of the motives behind their enthusiasm.

      I'm pretty sure I'd have been appalled by Caravaggio back then - and, to be honest, I find some of his paintings featuring pudgy half-dressed working-class teenage boys hard to take to this day, no matter how brilliant his technique.

    2. I tend to agree with you-that and the insolent stare of Caravaggio's Bacchus makes the teenagers all too real.Redemption for me comes in the glorious still-life in the foreground and repeated in Supper At Emmaus.
      I very much doubt if centuries from now people will be discussing the art of Damian Hirst.