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