Byline: Brian Sewell
THE THREADNEEDLE PRIZE SHOW Mall Galleries, SW1
On Wednesday next week, 2 September, the anniversary of the first flame of the Great Fire of London, an exhibition of paintings and sculptures entered for this year's Threadneedle Prize will open at the Mall Galleries. Threadneedle is a discreet investment management company working largely on behalf of institutions. Some of its directors collect paintings of a kind that, unfaddy and unfashionable in the polenta-eating purlieus of Islington, are dismissed by the Arts Council and the various Tates as of no interest. "no interest" is a portmanteau description of canvases not propped on the stools of elephants, not breaking into the third dimension with the addition of a dead cat or used condom to the surface, and small enough to hang in the front parlour of a semidetached house in Ponders End, of paintings that depict such silly old-fashioned things as landscape, still life and the figure - particularly the figure.
As taxpayers, these Threadneedle men observed that the painters of paintings of the kind they like and want to live with are never supported in any way by these state agencies of art, though annually they dispense many tens of millions in support of supposed artists who, in order to attract attention, deliberately break the ancient boundaries of art. For these subversive jackanapes the Tate and the Arts Council provide grants and commissions and exhibition space, issue catalogues and press releases, and, best of all, provoke the daily press into denouncing their challenges to reason, for offending the Sun and Daily Mail is the surest path to notoriety and yet more public funding.
Asking themselves what might be done to turn this ridiculous situation on its head and bring to the fore the very artists whose work the state's arm's-length agencies proscribe, the Threadneedle men last year instituted the Threadneedle Prize for Figurative Art. This generated an immediate squabble over the definition of the word figurative. Obdurately at one end of the scale, I took figurative to require the representation of a figure, either as the prime subject, as in Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, or engaged in some activity, as in the rank of figures watching his Boar Hunt (both in the National Gallery); at the other end, opposing me, were those who thought figurative another word for broadly representative and thus applicable to anything not abstract. This loose interpretation triumphed and this year the prize is merely The Threadneedle Prize, and only in the unprofessionalism of those competing for it is its exhibition distinguishable from that hoary annual, the New English Art Club.
With Figurative dropped from its title, the prize seems to have lost its artpolitical punch, purpose and determination to return to the human body its ancient primacy in all its beauties and its uglinesses too. Without Figurative in its title the prize does nothing to urge artists to explore the well of symbolism in the body naked and the body clothed, nothing to define the line between abstractions of physical beauty and erotica, nothing to plumb the heroic misery perceived by the Russian Itinerants in the serfdom of their day, and nothing to engage in the tyrannical, exalted, spiritual and unhinged of ours - that is, nothing to attach the painters of today to the ancestral interests of the painters of the past.
Forget landscape and still life; beautiful though these can be, they are only adjuncts on the edges of great painting. Yes, yes - I hear you shouting the names of Turner and Constable, Chardin and Melendez, William Nicholson and Eliot Hodgkin, but it was not landscape and still life that made great artists of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, though all to some degree explored it, nor of Bernini, Canova and Rodin who, as sculptors, were denied these subsidiaries as subjects. Compared with a century ago, landscape and still life may seem to languish now but they have not been abandoned to anything like the extent to which we have lost the human figure as the central subject of European art and are still the stock-in-trade of artists in their thousands, of dealers and collectors and exhibitions too. …