Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
IN THE depths of this past winter, Charles Saatchi opened the first section of his tripartite and yearlong exhibition, The Triumph of Painting.
The triumph over what, I wondered - over photography, video and its own manifest decline, its triumph over death? Saatchi seemed to be arguing that we can still do what German painters did between the two world wars in terms of political comment, and that we can still range as widely as the School of Paris did in the 1950s in terms of experiment and exploration, but clinging to the past and doing less effectively what has already been done do not accord with my idea of triumph. Holding my fire, I suggested that none of us should jump to conclusions about the survival, revival or rebirth of painting until, in November, the third section is on view. Only then, I argued, when we have seen all that Saatchi has to offer, shall we know whether he has proved that painting is indeed energetically alive and perhaps triumphant, or whether what we have seen on his walls is, as it were, the waste emptied from the bowels and bladder of a corpse as its sphincters relax.
The second section, recently opened, is not reassuring. There is still no substantial intellectual argument for or against the notion of painting as a now triumphant art, and looking at the material offered as evidence by Saatchi, the old hand can only again observe that he has seen it all before over the past halfcentury and that in this last revisiting it seems impoverished. Worse, it seems material so haphazardly and hastily assembled that only a curator skilled in Jesuitical casuistry could possibly find a common point to it.
In the quarter century that I have worked as an art critic, the perennial question has been: "Is painting dead?" It has been asked by those who would delight to dance on its grave but do not want to be premature, and by those who are distressed by what they see promoted by the Arts Council and the sacred Stations of the Tate. Let me ask the question of the Royal Academy, the Venice Biennale and the Kassel Documenta; let me ask it of those who teach in the long-established art schools of London, once the powerhouses of painting; let me ask it of those grand old men, Freud, Hodgkin, Hockney and Kitaj: is painting dead? And I ask it because although paint is still being applied to canvas in prodigious quantities, I see no evidence that in this century it is better - by whatever criterion we choose to apply - than the painting of any previous century in western Europe. I am well aware of all the stale claptrap about painting that has come down from the wall and sculpture from its podium, well aware of the broken restraints of ancestral boundaries between the arts, well aware that anything deemed new must necessarily be superior to anything deemed old, but when all that is taken into account, the sane man finds the consequence to have been half a century of continuous and continuing vandalism and degradation of a form of art that has, throughout its development, reached zenith after zenith, from the first glimmerings of the Renaissance in the hands of Duccio and Giotto, to the musical and other abstractions of Kandinsky just before the First World War.
Freud, Hodgkin, Hockney and Kitaj could none of them match a late- Venetian watercolour by Turner, nor the portrait of Napoleon, now on view in Greenwich, painted by Ingres when he was only 24 (nor could any current art student of that age). I have no doubt that all four would argue that they do not want to compete with such painters from the past, that they have moved on and taken painting with them, that painting is now so different a creature that the betteror-worse argument is specious. But i f we are prevented from unfavourably comparing them with Rembrandt and Velazquez, then we have a new political correctitude that not only makes them inviolable to criticism but separates us from our aesthetic past - a past that then becomes the historic manifestation of another culture in which our present culture neither has nor needs to have its roots. …