A Painter's Worst Enemy ; the Hayward's Exhibition Proves That It Was a Bad Day Indeed for Painting When Artists Put Down Their Charcoal, Pens and Pencils and Picked Up the cameraEXHIBITION OF THE WEEK
Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)
MY FIRST observation in the current exhibition in the Hayward Gallery was not of the pictures there but of their guardians, hangdog in expression, their repetitive pacing reminiscent of wild animals imprisoned in their cages. Within a moment, the reason for this pattern of behaviour, just short of head-banging, was unarguably evident. The reward for being such a guard must be not the tiny weekly wage but the privilege of keeping company with masterpieces.
Imagine days spent with paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens in the National Gallery, or with the Greek and Roman sculptures in the British Museum one would have to be a mutton-head not to benefit from such imprisonment; but then imagine days, weeks, even months, trapped in what is in many ways the worst-designed gallery in Britain, the most hostile to both the visitor and the things exhibited, hung with a hundred of the worst pictures ever put on view in a major London art gallery, and you will understand why the guardians are as behaviourly disturbed as the lions and tigers at the zoo.
The curator of the exhibition, Ralph Rugoff, who doubles as the director of the Hayward Gallery, exploits the history of art to justify his title for it, The Painting of Modern Life, for this immediately conjures (at least for some of us) the ghost of Charles Baudelaire, one of several celebrated fathers of art criticism in the 19th century but perhaps a little too much revered. He published a long essay late in 1863 under the title The Painter [not Painting] of Modern Life, for it was specifically about one artist, Constantin Guys, a prolific minor draughtsman whose obsessive business it was to sketch (often to the point of caricature) the manners and morals of the middle classes of his day, and contemporary political and military events; he was never a painter Baudelaire uses the term only in its most general sense.
Rugoff, though utterly ignoring Guys (who has had no successor since Forain made his excursions into social satire before and during the First World War), has drawn from Baudelaire conclusions that he now applies to a generality of figurative painters active in the later 20th century and the first years of this, using Warhol, Hockney and artists of the Pop Art movement to demonstrate what he sees as unbroken continuity. The thesis creaks with insecurity: one might with some small reason look back a century from Baudelaire to the little French painters of low and everyday life in the 18th century but to link him to our present day, our manners and morals, makes no sense at all.
Examining his choice of paintings, Rugoff's alternative thesis that painters are now dependent on preliminary photography rather than preliminary drawing is demonstrated well enough, but as this is self-evident and has been so for decades in every exhibition of contemporary portraiture and figurative subjects, he need not have made the point. Everybody knows it and every reasonably educated adolescent could have made it at least as well as he; even I could have made it but then my interpretation of precisely the same material would have been that only one 10th of one per cent of paintings has in any way drawn benefit from a photographic root. Forty years ago, Richard Hamilton, father of Pop Art in this country, argued that he was, as a painter, trying to get as close as possible to photography without losing his identity as a painter. This may well be so but the sane man must ask why? What is the attraction of photography to an artist who has technical competence in the ancestral businesses of drawing and painting, and the intellect and imagination to apply them to an idea or observation? Is it the laziness of the short cut? The use of photography to those who are technically incompetent as draughtsman or painter is, in this exhibition, immediately obvious, for it makes incompetence more spectacularly evident.
This exhibition is typical of the modern curator, generated not by an academic with something worth saying to demonstrate, not by the need to take a long, hard, retrospective look at an artist worthy (or unworthy) of his reputation and commercial status but by a curator who deems it his job to mount exhibitions that attract visitors. …