Dick French: On The Town – July 2016

Who now remembers the fashion for wearing your trousers backwards? It was all the rage in Camden Town about ten years ago. They had to be the very baggy “gangsta” variety. You rarely see it nowadays. So fashion changes… except in the Art World, which has been stagnant for fifty years.

I’m looking forward to seeing the new film about Florence Foster Jenkins. It occurs to me that you could make a similar film about Tracey Emin, although there are some who claim to detect real merit in her produce. To paraphrase Boswell: “To think we are the dupes of a common strumpet.”

To Davies Street to see the exhibition of large drawings by Jenny Saville. The man on the door wouldn’t let me in because the artist was being interviewed for the telly. “Come back in half an hour,” he said.

It was pissing down and although I had an umbrella I was moistening sideways. I was tempted to give up and take the bus to Bradley’s when I noticed a pub at the top of the street. It’s to be avoided – £6.50 for a pint of nothing special.

The Gagosian is completely glass-fronted and you can see most things from the street except smaller pictures in a rear gallery and an inner sanctum where the posh totty file their nails. I asked for a price list. “Which particular one are you interested in, Sir?” “I don’t want to buy one. I’m just curious.” “Oh, we can’t possibly divulge that kind of information to the general public.” I bet they can’t.

Saville can certainly draw. There are some beautifully rendered hands, but she still hasn’t learned to “kill her babies”, as they say in scriptwriting. So what you get is a palimpsest, a collection of “good bits”. Or is she just trying to make them look more “artistic”, as I feel she was doing years ago by embellishing her nudes with diagrams.

Muse on a Stool I liked. A single image, great knees … but generally there was too much fudging and smudging. I wonder if she ever saw the drawings of the Carracci brothers which were on show at the National Gallery in ’96, The Loves of the Gods. Large scale drawings are rare. In the old days they were pricked through and blown with charcoal in preparation for the finished work, and then perhaps discarded. The Carracci drawings were beautifully restored and are far superior to the finished frescoes in the Farnese Gallery in Rome. This is often the case, as Delacroix was always pointing out.

Nowadays the ability to draw is often referred to as ‘mere facility’. It’s good to see that Savile’s pushed on without abandoning her natural talent. I admire her work while at the same time feeling a bit sorry for her. It must be dreadful to be within the clutches of the Trump of the art world. I’d hate to be making money for that bastard, but then I’m so noble and we artists live for beauty alone, as Edward Burra so memorably said.

Looking for an opportunity to vent my spleen I decided to have a look at the Koons exhibition at that cunning little peasant’s place. On the way I popped into the Salisbury and met Mrs Cravat and her daughter who reminded me that there was a one-day show of Bacon’s paintings on Lexington Street. A no-brainer, so we trolled up to Soho via the French. What a curious show it was. Scrappy things from the early ’50s to the ’80s. Beautifully framed, as always. The most unusual piece was an army of stick men marching under the supervision of a giant polar bear or shaggy dog. Mrs C’s daughter thought it looked like a giant tooth and called it a ‘molar bear’.

There were some nicely observed cornadas, or matador’s wounds, which usually occur in the groin or upper thigh, giving Bacon an opportunity for some soft focus pricks. He’s good at them. As always with late Bacon the canvases were unsuitably large for the motif.

I’m still an admirer but I wish he’d packed it in around the late ’60s. I suppose it’s difficult when people are chucking money at you. My favourite Bacon has always been what is called The Guggenheim Triptych of 1962. I’ll never forget the last time I saw it reproduced in a Sunday Times colour supplement. I’d never seen or felt anything like it and I can still look at it with complete fascination.

In the later works he doesn’t seem to have a clue. There’s even a sense of desperation … all that silly letraset, the arrows and the habitual spunk shot to finish off. And what about the cricket pads?

The most important thing about Bacon was that he occasionally produced work of enormous interest over a period of four decades. Most artists manage about ten years and then go into full production. A young chap in Bradley’s recently asked me if I was retired. I explained to him that I was an artist and artists never retire, they just get worse and worse without noticing.

These ‘Pop Up’ shows are becoming all the rage. I recently took part in one on Old Queen Street (!). It was well presented in a large office block. Invitation only or £25 at the door. There were lots of exotic cocktails and the food was excellent ‘for them as likes eating’. It was only on for one night and nobody sold anything. Caspar Hornack, one of the organisers, paid me an enormous compliment.

“Dick”, he asked, “did you ever go to art school?” So it was worth it.

From Haydon’s Diaries: “Sir Joshua used to say that there was nothing more injurious than the pursuit of health. What are the consequences of following books on health? You find you have been doing wrong all your life. You must break up the habits of fifty years and live the remaining twenty in vain longings, which must not be gratified according to your new system, and in all probability you die at the end of ten because you have been undoing all that brought you to fifty.”

Haydon was always campaigning for state assistance for art. If only he’d known where it would lead. Be careful what you wish for. Like Bacon, Haydon was a sporadically brilliant artist, suffering bouts of crippling insanity made worse by being out of his time. “The nipple should always be a little above the centre. In Rubens and common nature it is below, which gives a flabby, infirm look.” How true that is, how very true.

A walk through Hyde Park. I was on my way to the Serpentine to see paintings by Alex Katz, who is highly regarded in America for some reason. I’ve only ever seen one in the life, at the NPG. It was of that fashion woman with a helmet on. Dreadful. It was a Monday and the gallery was closed so I walked along the lake. I remembered the Rolling Stones concert in 1969, and I thought of Pete Brown and his Battered Ornaments, possibly the worst band I’ve ever heard. At college we often used to take the afternoon off and go boating. I always think the best work is done in the mornings.

There’s a swimming area on the Serpentine cordoned off by a floating barrier. I was once rowing down with an old friend when a girl ducked under the barrier and swam up to our boat. She was wearing a yellow bikini. After chatting for a while as she clung on to the side, she hauled herself out of the water and into the boat. Her top came down, as I’m sure she knew it would – it was 1969. She told us about her life as the ‘kept woman’ of what she called a ‘sugar daddy’. At night she worked as a bunny girl in the Playboy Club. We pulled into the bank under a weeping willow. It’s not easy in a rowing boat. Is this beginning to sound like Tape’s Last Krapp?

It seems I’ve been thwarted twice to see two of the most “banal, trite and meretricious” artists of all time. I got that expression from a Temperance Seven programme around 1962. It comes in handy from time to time. I was just reading that “Whispering” Pete McDowell had died. He was their vocalist and always sang through a megaphone.

It’s an expression that could usefully apply to this year’s RA Summer Exhibition. Out of 1,240 exhibits I liked two of them, a beautiful small Bernard Dunstan and a curious metal rocket called Woodburner by Guy Allott. Andrew McIntosh’s caravan was all right and Anthony Eyton was well worth looking at. There were two execrable prints by Biffa Bacon’s mother at £1,100 each, in editions of 100. What can you do with a deluded creature like that? The purpose of a drawing is to define form and suggest space, both of which are extremely difficult. Her drawings do neither of these things.

And I think that Anselm Kiefer is rather a pompous little man. Trademark stuff, although I liked his rusty submarines last year.

Few voices are raised at the parlous state of the art world. I can’t understand it. As Philip Larkin wrote: “Why aren’t they screaming?”

Dick French

The Jackdaw Jul/Aug 2016