Thursday, 20 June 2013

On Jack Vettriano & working class art

There's a great series on BBC4 called 'What Do Artists Do All Day?" Short and sweet interviews with different artists, about their working methods and their lives. They have a good cross section of different kinds of artists and they've all been compelling. Norman Ackroyd, printmaking hero, showing total cavalier disregard for health and safety as he waves his cigarette around in the midst of highly flammable materials in the etching room. Cornelia Parker who endearingly can't seem to believe her luck that she makes her living doing this.   (Must confess I skipped Polly Morgan's though. Taxidermy, meh.)

Most fascinating was Jack Vettriano. He is scorned by the art establishment and probably the most successful living British artist. I'm not sure why they scorn him so much, there's worse painters and much worse art about which is critically accepted. Maybe its appeal is too easy to understand. Pretty girls, pretty colours, nostalgia, kitsch. But not meant ironically at all.

One day in the the far distant future some hip young curator will rediscover him, write a monograph which repositions him and demonstrates how he was misunderstood and he will become fashionable for the first time. But he'll probably be long dead and unable to appreciate it. *

You felt sorry for him somehow despite his millions. He seemed hurt by the viciousness of the critics, and not able to understand just why people might not like his work. Loved by the public and forever shut out in the cold by the art world. He explained that he grew up in poverty in Fife and worked down a pit from age 16 and how it was hellish - it became blindingly clear what motivates him to paint this idealised, glamorous movie still world. Pure escapism.

There's a moving moment when he talks about how he went to see a Francis Bacon exhibition and had a moment of crisis and nearly gave up painting. "I just got this awful feeling that I was looking at a real artist..."

 Francis Bacon is like the anti Jack Vettriano. Interestingly I think what makes him the subject of critic's scorn is his refusal to see or paint darkness or ugliness, to prettify things and present the world as this glossy, 2D graphic, Hallmark card. Some of the better paintings in this programme are self-portraits which seem to be more doubtful and human, more rough around the edges, and therefore better art. His journey from working class boy working down the pit to successful artist must be a riveting story, but it's not reflected in his work at all (and they missed a trick by not including any of it in the programme.)

* Parallels here with Lowry. Even the Tate curators seemed to want to distance themselves from him.


  1. They're just so anonymous and bland. Go into any charity shop, pick any 500 page bonkbuster off the shelf, look at its cover - that's Jack Vettriano. It's everywhere. It's boring.

  2. What places Lowry closer to Bacon than to Vettriano is the kinetic nature of his paintings. His crowd scenes bustle with life, even if the individual figures are simplified; Bacon's deformed, screaming figures also seem to be squirming on the canvas. What I hate about Vettriano is the sterility, the stillness. His subjects are just standing/sitting there. Artog is right, he does competent book covers at best.

    Do people who like Vettriano also like Cath Kidston?

  3. Artog, I agree - but then so is Warhol anonymous and bland, so is Anthony Gormley and Gary Hume and Damien Hurst . They somehow managed to be taken seriously.

    Tim, it's not that I like his work, but 'the stillness... his subjects are just standing/sitting there' could also be levelled at Vermeer and Velasquez. People can like him or not like him, I just don't think the censure of the art world really stands up to scrutiny. His work sells despite the sanctioning of the critics and that seems to rile them.

  4. Oh - and also, he does it all himself, which is not the way with art world stars like Anish Kapoor, who has the idea then pays a studio to make it for him.

    Poor Jack got slammed for the butler picture because he used figures from a drawing manual, but as he says in the programme "I thought that's what they were for." It's ironic,when classical art training involved copying the work of other artists.