Dick French: Art of Jazz, London’s Art Scene

Dick French

A curious little book has just come out called The Death of Francis Bacon. The author, Max Porter, won the International Dylan Thomas Prize some time ago. Whenever awards are deployed I always think of Charlotte Rampling who, in her film The Swimming Pool, remarked: “Awards are like haemorrhoids, sooner or later every arsehole gets one.”

It’s not a very good book. Maybe it was written as a short radio play. However, the author is sound on Bacon’s 20-year decline, which was not so much a decline as a falling off a cliff, about 1970. After that he floundered desperately, grasping at old motifs and habitual tricks, the arrows, the Letraset, the spunk shots … not forgetting the cricket pads. Who could ever?

Fat Vlad in the Sunday Times writes about the 2017 Soutine show at the Courtauld … “The first and only Soutine exhibition in living memory.” Well, I don’t know how old he is but I vividly remember a splendid Soutine show at the Hayward in the early ’80s. It was enormous and completed banished the effect of all that concrete. Vlad makes much of Soutine’s squalor, the bedbugs in the ear, etc.. But Soutine became successful and quite rich, an elegant hombre about town, if always rather nervous and twitchy. He is supposed to have painted just one nude, part of which is illustrated in his little article. It’s so good I can’t believe that it’s his first. There must be more. Don’t believe everything you read in art books.

The Carcass of Beef is said to have been a big influence on abstract expressionism. This is nonsense. In spite of the violence of his approach and the seemingly random application of paint, as you look at it you realise that every brushstroke describes form. Look at the dangling stomach sac in the centre, which at first you don’t notice, shiny and translucent, quite sick-making.

A rather nice book called The Art of Jazz has just come my way. It’s be Alyn Shipton (perhaps he’s Welsh) the chap who says “he…llo” at the start of Jazz Record Requests on the wireless. There are quite a few record covers by Andy Warhol before he became famous. He did them with the aid of an epidiascope before colouring them in.

Photographs, record covers, paintings and drawings from the old Ragtime syncopaters to the present day… Clearly written it’s a pleasure to read, and such a change from art books. Quite a bit on Cab Calloway, always one of my favourites. A photo of him performing in a white zoot suit is outstanding. He was a major figure in the swing era, although Dizzy Gillespie hated him and once stabbed him in the bum on the bandstand. But it was only a playful jab, half an inch or so. Dizzy needed to improvise but Cab made everyone stick to the score.

It’s interesting to read about the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s. Off-duty servicemen would prowl around looking for ‘hep cats’ to beat up. It was a period of relative austerity in the USA and materials were supposed to be used sparingly. The zoot suit guys liked to flaunt their cloth.

There is no mention of Louis Jordan in this book which I find odd. He was a major bandleader of the time who also like to flaunt his cloth. Open the Door Richard is one of the earliest tunes I remember. People used to sing it at me all the time. Stanley Kubrick took some photos of the George Lewis band in New Orleans. They were known as the ‘keepers of the flame’ for revivalist jazz. In one of these pictures he entrusts the camera to a local and sits in on the drums.

And so to the ’60s and London’s New Scene by Lisa Tickner of the Courtauld. I’ve been putting this off because I’m so familiar with the period, and also a little bored with it. But then I never knew much about the financial side of things so I learnt a great deal from this book. Although I’d read Harriet Vyner’s biog Groovy Bob about Robert Fraser I’d forgotten what an arsehole he was. When artists sent him slides he would put them straight in the bin without even looking at them. It was left up to his secretary to rummage them out and send them back with an apologetic letter. Slides were very important in the old days, and very expensive.

It seems that Kasmin started almost be accident. After wandering into Victor Musgrave’s gallery in Soho he met his wife and became her sex slave. Musgrave didn’t mind and paid Kasmin half a crown a day to get on with it. Looking at the photos I can imagine him dressed as a French maid on all fours with a dustpan and brush, or maybe his duties were more exotic/onerous.

Eventually Kasmin webbed up with the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava who put up the money for his gallery. Talk about the “Musgrave Ritual”. Nowadays, Kasmin is a dealer in rugs and oriental knick-knacks, a most accomplished spiv.

What about the art of this era? Revolutionary and vigorous, or thin and forgettable. Edward Lucie-Smith writes: “The public loves artistic virgins, the young artist must in consequence spread his tail, do his little dance, utter a shrill cry, will we look or won’t we? We all know well enough that it is a personality that is on trial, not a collection of works of art.” This is a pretty good evocation of the New Generation exhibitions at the Whitechapel in the mid-’60s. 

I was all in favour of candy-coloured plastic taking the place of brown lamps. Briefly, it was refreshing. But who wants this stuff nowadays. I imagine a lot of it is in store at various museums but there is a house not far from me on Savernake Road by the overhead railway at the bottom of Hampstead Heath (the unfashionable side) and in the front window they proudly display Philip King’s sculpture Tra La La from the ’65 New Generation show (illustrated). I wonder if King ever read Last Exit to Brooklyn. The playful, optimistic mood of his piece suggests not. Tra La La was a poor Brooklyn tart who ends up being used as a human ashtray. I suppose it was important to get away from all the angst and seriousness of the post-war era, but the angst never really goes away in spite of all the cake-topping.

Throughout the period it was important to be part of either the homosexual mafia or the Kosher Nostra, a term coined by Leslie Waddington, himself a Jew. Pollock himself was deeply involved with the Manhattan shirtlifters which led of course to his exaggeratedly butch behaviour. But this is a digression.

The book is interesting until the author gets to the late ’60s with all the protests and sit-ins – the section on Hornsea Art School is tedious in the extreme.