Dick French: On The Town – November 2017

It used to be said that a night out with John Bellany would take three years off your life. I’ll find out one day. We were both great friends of Cyril Reason, who was one of our tutors at the RCA, and although Cyril was less extreme than Bellany he was a thirsty man. I’ll never forget one night in The Yorker, a tall thin pub on Piccadilly (no longer there) around ’67 or ’68. Cyril improvised a game of ten-pin bowling in the upstairs bar. Bottles for skittles and heavy, round glass ashtrays rolled on edge. What fun we had before being turfed out. And talking of turf, Bellany and Cyril once wangled their way into the Royal Enclosure at Longchamps (they liked the gee-gees). They were happily guzzling away at the free champagne when they felt themselves hoisted into the air by heavies and dumped over the fence with the proles. Like many artists of the past century (Mondrian and Kandinsky for instance) Cyril had some interest in the occult and theosophy and although only fifteen years older than me he had actually met Madame Blavatsky.

There’s a show of John’s paintings at Fortnum and Mason’s, almost next door to where The Yorker used to be. His paintings are scattered around the store but there’s a helpful catalogue so you can locate them. They are mostly later paintings from the ’80s onwards, although there’s Scottish Fish Gutter and Lost Soul from around ’65. I don’t like the later stuff as much as his earlier work, some of which was extremely good. I first saw it up in the mural room at the RCA where he used to work. A lot of the other students didn’t know what to make of him as they were all being ‘Popsy’ and minimal. In contrast his work was darkly brooding and bloody, strong meat, if a little too Celtic and rootsy for me. There was another Scotsman working close to Bellany who did enormous paintings of women being raped and throttled in public lavatories. I wonder what came of him. Bellany’s later works became formulaic; too many maidens will almond eyes, pointy chins, and thin shoulderless bodies … although there is a good painting of a fishing boat in the shop window called Intrepid.

In the late ’60s if you were doing anything a bit out of the mainstream people would come up and say: “Hmm. Very interesting but of course completely invalid.” By ‘validity’ I think they meant conformity to the rules of art as laid down by Clement Greenberg in the ’40s and ’50s… “Integrity of the picture plane”, avoidance of depth or illusion, and regarding the painting as an object…

Talking of which I don’t suppose you can get more ‘valid’ than Jasper Johns who is having a big show across the road from Bellany at the RA. He is said to be “interrogating the relationship between language and art”. An artist who has made ingenious use of his inadequacies – he can’t draw and has no sense of colour – grey is the predominant shade in this exhibition. Not that they aren’t decorative and sometimes even elegant, in particular the ones with dangling strings, the ‘Catenary’ series. You can’t go wrong with a catenary.

He started off doing targets, moved on to flags, numbers, letters and bronze beer cans painted to look like the real thing. That last idea was taken up later by many other artists – didn’t someone recently do bronze bin bags? Then there were a few cast body parts followed by decades of cross-hatching. The pattern had all the qualities that interested him, namely “literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness and the possibility of complete lack of meaning”. Say no more.

In the ’70s he met Samuel Beckett and they were supposed to have collaborated on a manuscript called ‘Foirades’ or ‘Fizzles’. The etchings accompanying the text don’t seem to have much to do with it except that they were grey and that was Beckett’s favourite colour. ‘Foirade’ is French for a silent fart but you won’t learn that from the wall charts. Another thing you won’t learn there is that Beckett disliked Johns and so no further collaborations were planned. It’s unlikely that they were collaborations anyway as the etchings were much the same stuff Johns had been doing for years. ‘Foirades’ was on sale for $6,000 in 1976.

It’s astonishing to consider the intellectual vacuity of the New York art scene which persists to this day. At the White Cube gallery in Mason’s Yard you can see a show called ‘From the Vapour of Gasoline’ (one of Basquiat’s profundities). The show is supposed to “chronicle the dramatic ideological shift and deconstruct a national self-image opening up the space between the authorial narratives of the US and the darker histories they concealed”. Christopher Wool – he of the stencilled messages – features largely. His works are extremely expensive, but then the world is full of rich idiots seeking a safe place to stash their cash. I couldn’t bet on it being safe for much longer because ‘The king is in the altogether’ and Damien seems to have burst. But I’m not one to gloat.

At the National Gallery an excellent exhibition, ‘Reflections, Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites’, argues that as students Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais became fascinated by Van Eyck’s painting of the Arnolfini wedding which hung in the west wing of the National Gallery. In those days the RA schools were in the east wing. It’s a convincing argument that this led to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who were fed up with the influence of Reynolds and the brown academic tradition of the time. They wanted brilliant colour and a more meticulous approach, Reynolds being characterised by his nickname “Sir Sloshua”. They started to paint on white grounds for sharpness and zing.

They were also fascinated by the convex mirror on the wall behind the Arnolfinis and many of them made use of the same device in their own work. It seems likely that Velasquez was aware of this portrait as it once belonged to the Spanish court, but I suspect it’s stretching it a bit to suggest it led to his use of the mirror in Las Meninas. One of the great surprises of this show is a partial copy of Las Meninas by John Phillip from 1862. It’s extremely well painted, especially the maids’ dresses, but surely it represents an approach the Pre-Raffs were trying to escape.

Also at the National is a show of pastels by Degas, ‘Drawn in Colour’. Well worth seeing, especially the women bathing. There are three of these, quite large for pastels. In one a woman bends over in a shallow blue tub, the blue of the tub reflected on her flank, and all against a red background. The pastel is laid on in broad parallel streaks in several built-up layers.

There are dancers, horsemen and café scenes mostly from the Burrell in Glasgow. Next door to Degas is a gallery devoted to small landscapes painted mostly on the spot. Outstanding is Sunset in the Auvergne by Theodore Rousseau showing a distant view of the Puy de Dôme. It’s only about nine inches by seven. Don’t miss it.

In the central hall you can see a show of paintings by Luca Giordano or Fa Presto as he was popularly known – the fast one. These are preparatory paintings for his decoration of the Galeria and Library of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. The whole project took him only a year, 1682-83. I was particularly taken by the Allegory of Temperance. Maybe his tongue was in his cheek. There’s a very large Giordano further on in the National. It’s Perseus turning enemies to stone, very dramatic and well worth looking at. I suppose you could call Giordano a very late mannerist.

At the Tate in ’64 they had a retrospective of Marcel Duchamp. Everyone took it very seriously, including me. I spent a long time pondering the significance of The Large Glass which I think was a replica made by Richard Hamilton. I thought it must be the repository of some arcane wisdom – serious and precocious that was me. A long time afterwards I realised that it was a joke, a very good joke which continues to amuse people to this day. Not many jokes can be funny for a hundred years. You’ve got to hand it to him. How about this … “The Bride fundamentally is a petrol can of love (or power-timidity). This timid potency, distributed to the motor with weak cylinders in contact with the sparks of his constant life (magneto desire) explodes and expands to the virgin who has arrived at the end of her desire.”

I almost forgot, it includes a “gravity regulator”.

Following a disappointing visit to The Chequers, the wonderful Spanish barmaid having moved on, I crossed over to the RA to see the Duchamp/Dali exhibition. Duchamp was quite a good cubist. He added some dynamism whereas Dali’s attempts at the same style were dreary, but it wasn’t long before the Spaniard developed his trademark illusionistic technique which curator Dawn Ades considers exquisite. I would call it “hobbyist”.

All the familiar stuff is here, the bottle rack, stool/bicycle wheel, and that bloody urinal. What tedium. How can anybody still be interested in this crap a hundred years on? But they are.

In one room there are a series of short films. I was hoping to see more of Gala and her charms but it wasn’t to be. One film shows an enormous banquet with Dali and Gala at the head of the table. I think it’s based on the feast scene in Bunuel’s great film Viridiana. It’s a theme that crops up again in the centrefold of the Rolling Stones album Beggars’ Banquet. Curiously, Bob Hope is among the guests. He takes the lid off a large serving dish and two frogs hop out. He does that Bob Hope face as they leap down the table.

The traffic was so bad it took me an hour to get down to the press view of Outsiders at the Saatchi Gallery. I got there with only half an hour to spare. Imagine my surprise to find that when I signed the book mine was the only name in it. I wouldn’t normally have bothered but the ticket showed a nice girl’s bottom. Outsider art usually refers to the work of eccentrics or the mentally ill but the stuff on display was “general issue” by those just released from art school, all of which had been  knocked out very recently to fill the space available.

To Whitehall for my morning draught in the Cock and Bottle. That monument with the dangling coats and hats is truly revolting, and the clay modeller’s conceit of leaving the pellets proud of the trousers makes Montgomery look as though he’s got dysentery. How refreshing for a while to gaze on the Burghers of Calais as I stroll along the river towards the Tate.

Entering the Duveen Galleries I saw that the Queen of One-Trick Ponies is back in town. Her absence has not done much to furnish the space between her ears. I felt a great surge of pity for the poor woman as I surveyed the ranks of castings displayed along the floor (they are supposed to be the casts of the space underneath chairs).

On to Haydon’s Punch and Judy where I can happily spend ten or fifteen minutes. And then a wander promiscuously through various galleries. I was in the mood for Samuel Palmer and after a few minutes with him I stepped through the arch to the unexpected pleasure of the work of Ray Harryhausen and some of the artists who inspired him such as John Martin and Gandy. Harryhausen was the maker of vintage Horror films such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Jason and the Argonauts. He specialised in stop-motion animation and many of the models he made to work from are on display. A single scene could take four months to produce. He bought Gandy’s extraordinary painting Jupiter Pluvius but the Martins were beyond his pocket. Displayed are many of his drawings related to his film scenes. They are certainly better than Dali’s drawings.

Wandering again I found a beautiful Pastoral by Cayley Robinson (above). I remember it being in an antechamber when the National was showing Acts of Mercy about ten years ago. Tonally, it’s remarkable, the simplified shoreline reminiscent of Munch. The fleece of the sheep is picked out by the golden moonlight which slices vertically across the lake. This is the sort of picture that would be extremely popular as a poster, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Apart from that Scotch bloke I don’t think we have any popular art. And so on to the scandalous Duchess of Argyll, a woman I’ve always admired. Gerald Brockhurst’s portrait of her is rather good although he hasn’t quite managed to suggest her lascivious nature. Goya would have managed it somehow. Apparently the famous “headless man” was Douglas Fairbanks junior. As the picture was probably a commissioned piece it wouldn’t have been appropriate to be too revealing of her predilections.

News from the grotto. The Sage has been giving much thought to the North Korean situation. He thinks that North Korea is China’s  opening move.

Dick French
The Jackdaw Nov/Dec 2017