Dick French: On The Town – May 2017

Mr Wu was on the wireless last night. A very long programme on the World Service, but still I learned very little about him. He speaks as one heavily sedated. Talk about insclutable. He dwells in a large bunker under Berlin with 6,000 three-legged stools and some lifejackets. There was no mention of the poison beans, maybe he’s sold them all. The trailer described him as “one of the world’s most powerful artists”. It is puzzling how an aesthetic black hole can achieve such eminence. His career is enough to make even the most sceptical of us start subscribing to conspiracy theories. He’s one of these artistic accumulators who head things up. There’s a lot of them about. One thinks of MacFisheries, the bloke at the RA who makes animals out of coathangers and map pins. I suppose you could call it a modular approach which prevents you from making a mess… Now what can I heap up next?

In the 19th century it took a long time for the French to latch on to the importance of Baudelaire. The Parnassian ideal was ascendant and accordingly it was possible to compose what was considered the highest poetry about almost nothing. Plus ça change.

Art establishments have a primordial and instinctive terror of change. When Baudelaire wrote about “une oasis d’horreur dans un desert d’ennui” he could have been describing Mr Wu and the Art World.

To the National Gallery for the exhibition of Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo. Sebastiano was from Cesenatico, most famous nowadays for being the birthplace and training ground of ‘Il Pirata’, Marco Pantani, still adored by the tifosi even though almost his entire career was fuelled by coke and EPO. Contrast this with Lance Armstrong who is considered a disgrace.

An impressive show, although two of the most interesting pieces are already in the National Gallery. One of them, The Raising of Lazarus, is among the earliest purchases of the NG. Something I’d never noticed in this painting is that a group of women close to the raising itself are holding their noses. This I learned from the wall chart, but closer inspection shows this to be untrue. They are raising their veils across the lower parts of their faces to avoid contagion. The plague, both bubonic and pneumonic, had been raging on and off for many years when this painting was being worked on and such a gesture was commonplace. Besides, after three days underground Lazarus must have been a tad smelly.

Sebastiano composes on the diagonal and the triangle. A striking example of his triangular approach is The Judgment of Solomon. The darkening of the central figure’s head is extremely dramatic but this could be due to deterioration. In some of his paintings he lets the sfumato disintegrate the forms rather in the manner of Beccafumi. The black starts to creep in, especially in a painting of the Virgin and Child in which the infant resembles Charlie Drake. The Virgin’s head is also unsatisfactory – too much face.

In The Visitation the foetal St John the Baptist is said to be leaping for joy in his mother’s womb during her encounter with the Virgin Mary. A difficult subject to depict. One can almost hear Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling drawling “Well I think the word difficult is awfully well chosen”.

There are some wonderful drawings and letters in this show. Michelangelo often worked on both sides of the paper which was expensive in those days. I think he was probably a bit of a skinflint. It’s interesting that Michelangelo drew mostly with the hand when nowadays we are encouraged to draw mostly with the arm.

Many of these paintings have dramatic bits of landscape in the background in the red-tinged sky. I couldn’t take to The Lamentation. I think it’s the expression on the Virgin’s face. Those upturned eyes and the horizontal body seem insufficiently scourged with its immaculate underpants. Still I suppose this is no place for realism.

“People don’t buy pictures because they admire them, they buy them because others covet them.” Advice given to Constable, but I can’t remember by whom. An Andy Warhol painting of Chairman Mao has just sold in Hong Kong for $1l million. How long can this crap persist? Warhol was once described as “an ambulant black hole”. And now we’ve got another one in Mr Wu.

To the Mall to see the painter/stainers exhibition. At the opening I met no less than the Chief Stain himself. He seemed a nice chap. Sporting his enormous bling on a chain round his neck he looked a bit like a sommelier. For once the 1st prize was worth looking at. A large, elaborate, patched-together drawing by Chris Green. Bernadette Tinko showed a small picture of a filthy brown sink, which I rather liked, while opposite Alex Rooney showed a similarly sized clean white sink. I wonder if they know each other. Cherry Pickles shows another rear view mirror piece, A487, and Peter Archer’s Cliff Edge is sensitive.

The Scrapyard Queen shows another of her car wrecks; as always very well done but I’m always hoping she’ll ring a few changes – naked men draped over the bonnet sipping from golden cans perhaps. But I don’t think she takes me seriously.

My friend The Sage writes from his grotto in the Yorkshire Dales sending me a copy of the Royal Academy Spring Magazine. I can’t imagine how he gets hold of such things. (Age Concern apparently.) He’s very cross about this woman who’s been appointed Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy. She’s called Cathie Pilkington and makes the most atrocious plaster dolls which are supposed to be based on the Little Dancer by Degas. As always in this kind of work the exegesis is of more importance than the thing you have to look at. And there can be few things more unpleasant than what she makes. That such an incompetent can be put in charge of students astonishes me. But it shouldn’t really. After all they have Huge Mary in charge of painting. The Sage described them as “sugar sculptures for cake decorations”. She also intends to “dress, drape, protect or obscure with soft coverings” the RA’s collection of historic casts. She means to display her dolls in a way that will make them seem “tiny but vibrant” against lush velvet curtains. Does that mean she’s going to paint them black?

To the John Soanes, always one of my favourite places. Unfortunately it was infested by a load of plaster body castings by Marc Quinn. “The museum is an unfinished total artwork. We’re continuing the process.” Oh yeah?

Even though these things are body casts he’s managed to get them out of proportion. The separate upper and lower parts don’t fit together properly. Someone should grab him by the beard (I imagine he’s got one) and point out shoulder to nipple, nipple to navel, naval to the foothills of the fanny – same distance. Variations do occur of course but with the rather perfect specimen he has grabbed from behind this rule would hold. If her bum was a drug it would be Class A. Her tits too, petite.

“I think that great art is time travel. Emotional time travel.” What on earth can he mean by this? “Quinn’s works invite us to reflect on the nature and meaning of time”. I should be used to such gnomic utterances by now but I can still be surprised and puzzled.

And here’s my version of the grab from behind…

Dick French
The Jackdaw May/Jun 2017