Category Archive • Painting
January 05, 2005
Billion Monkey New York (1): MetroPlus

Instapundit links to a bunch of New York Billion Monkeys, these photos being my favourites of the ones I looked at, because I finally got to see some skyscrapers. I suppose locals get blasé about those towers, and want to do things like close-ups of peculiar signs or shops or hair or dogs or whatever. But I love those towers.


Dark grey at the front, lighter grey behind. Never fails.

And here's some excellent graffiti, …


… which always gives me a dose of mixed feelings. One: excellent graffiti. Clearlyl this is one of the defining art forms of our era. But two: graffiti suggests to me that the official owners of the place have lost some of their control of it, to a new and nastier sort of owner, and I don't like to see that. Saw some very witty graffiti-graphics yesterday evening at Vauxhall station last night, and I tried to photo it, but it was too dark and it didn't come out right.

Skyscrapers and graffiti have in common that both can be seen as male pissing contests. Discuss.

And also, discuss this. When I saved those pictures from the MetroPlus blog posting (which I assume he doesn't mind), they at first came up as just two of those annoying little red crosses in a little square, in a big blank square where the picture was supposed to be. But then, because I thought it might work and because I recall something like this having worked before, I looked at the "Format Options" in Photoshop when you save pictures (which are: "Baseline ("Standard")", "Baseline Optimized", and "Progressive") and switched them from Progressive to Baseline ("Standard"). Bingo. First I didn't see them, now you do. What's that all about?

So much of computer use seems to mean doing splig and remembering not to do splog, without knowing what the hell splig and splog really mean. So, what do splig and splog mean in this case?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:47 AM
December 08, 2004
A painting with other paintings in it

From time to time I wonder if I should stop bothering about "culture", stick only to the things that already fascinate me, and stop looking over the garden fence, so to speak, at other people's obsessions. However, I go genuinely enjoy rootling around at this site.

Today, my two favourites were this one (done in 1480), with its strangely different sized figures, and this one, which is interesting in that it contains other paintings.


It must have been the case that lots of the people painted by posh painters had lots of other paintings, yet you tend not to see these other paintings in the paintings. So, I find it refreshing that you do in this one. Where is that, in the one on the right as we look at it?

But. notice how the artist (James Holland – 1799-1870) has made sure that none of the picture frames behind his sitters interfere with their heads. The wall behind Father looks a bit of a mess though.

When photographing people I try also to remember about background interference. I am certainly angry with myself when I forget to and it comes out with the faces at the front all stabbed into by background objects or imagery. (Memo to self: I am working on that guide to being a Billion Monkey requested by Scot Wickstein (see comment on this), and must remember to include that, about backgrounds.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:08 PM
November 21, 2004
Pakistani truck art ascends the brightest heaven of invention

So I googled for news about "art" and this time, rich findings, in the form of the following excellent headline:

Alliance Francaise de Lahore to showcase Pakistani truck art:

Isn't that great? Gives a whole new meaning to the letters PTA, doesn't it? But sadly, no pictures with that story.

Google again, this time for "Pakistani Truck Art", and wow, what a great set of hits.

These photos are good, particularly this one (because of the mountains in the background) and my favourite, which is this one:


A muse of fire.

More information here.

And it occurs to me that this, which I found here (scroll to the bottom), says something quite profound about where art comes from:

... It is said that many truck drivers, unable to marry because of lack of time or money, pour all of their money, love and inspiration into their vehicles.

Art as sublimated marriage. Implication: allowing pre- and non-marital sex hurts art. Art of a certain sort - obsessional, time-consuming, intricate - yes, maybe. Don't really know, but it's a thought.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:49 PM
November 20, 2004
Art or people?

Here's a fun article:

At the height of the Cold War, with nuclear holocaust looming, British civil servants were engaged in a high-minded argument as to whether it was better to save priceless works of art or human lives.

The debate within Whitehall about how, or even whether, to evacuate masterpieces such as Constable's Haywain, or the Wilton Diptych, took so long that when disaster was truly imminent, no plans were in place, documents recently released at the National Archives reveal.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 came and went while the mandarins tried to fine-tune the number of pantechnicons they would need to transfer treasures from the National Gallery and the British Museum to specially prepared quarries in Wiltshire and north Wales.

I seem to recall someone having decked out Constable's Haywain with a mushroom cloud in the background. But googling by me was unsuccessful, so either it's not on the WWW, or I'm a crap googler which is a more likely explanation. Can anyone else do better?

Think what Constable would have done with a nuclear mushroom cloud, had he ever witnessed one.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:53 PM
November 14, 2004
Floral blog


Dear Brian,

Thanks for your culture blog, complete with remedial programming and steel orbs.

I figured you would to be receptive to a brothel controversy I report on today.

All good wishes,
Austin, TX

Yes. And Julie manages to link said controversy to this painting.

But, I was particularly diverted by what she says about Monet.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:01 AM
November 10, 2004
One London drama and two London tourist snaps

I kind of, vaguely, it must have happened, realised that the Houses of Parliament got burned down some time around when it actually did happen, which was 1834. But I never knew Turner had done a picture of it. Better yet, he actually witnessed it.

This (click to get it bigger) is my favourite of the pictures he did of this dramatic occurrence:


Those miniature Twin Towers must be Westminster Abbey.

This other painting looks odd to me, although it seems to be a bit more famous. The smoke and the bridge collide in a strangely unrealistic fashion, I think. Although, maybe that's what it did look like.

No fire for Turner to paint, and there would have been no this …


… snapped by me a few evenings ago. Commonplace to Londoners. A picture postcard view. (I only did it because I was trying to get the pink vapour trails.) But this is the Internet! I find it hard to believe sometimes, but there are wretches who do not live in London, and who, worse, seldom even visit. And some of these pitifuls have computers and Internet connections, to keep them in touch with civilisation. These people badly need to be shown views such as this.

And I might as well get shot of this shot too, another tourist view, which I took a few moments earlier, looking the other way along the river. The Hungerford Footbridges, which you can just about make out, are the ones with the oddly directed spikes, on either side of the original and very mundane rail bridge.


By the way, the bridge I was on when I took this (Westminster Bridge) is not the one featured in Turner's painting, for that too has been replaced.

Will I ever myself witness anything as dramatic as that fire? If I do, will I have my camera with me? And will my pictures come out as well as Turner's (good) painting?

If the Wheel fell over, would there be warning and could I rush out to catch it falling? Would they replace it? They might. It's very popular.

I wonder what a photo of the fire Turner painted would have looked like. If Photoshop had been invented first, would oil painting (like paper compared to computer screens) have been regarded as an improvement?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:16 PM
October 21, 2004
More pre-modernity

Time for some more proper painting.

Who did this?


It's a slightly cropped version (to exclude the signature and to fit it better here) of number two of these. (See also this similar posting here.)

And check out number seven, The Wall Of My Grandma's Shower Before The Gunge In Between The Small Multicoloured Ceramic Tiles Had Been Added. Click on each ceramic tile, but it won't do you a bit of good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 AM
September 24, 2004
Nikolai Getman's GULAG paintings

My very good virtual friend, Scott Wickstein, writes on Samizdata today about the painter and GULAG victim Nikolai Getman. Here's where you can see some of his paintings.

Samizdata is not that strong on pictures, because it's a group blog and group bloggers are often nervous about infringing picture rules which they only think about occasionally. So, here (where I do know the rules because they're mine) is a Getman painting. Any of dogs? - I wondered. I've read about those dogs. Yes.


I also nearly picked instead one of this, this, and/or this. That last one may actually be my favourite one of all, as of now.

I really do not know if connoisseurs of painting rate Getman's work highly or not, as paintings, assuming any of them are capable of being unbiased about it. They certainly look very striking to me. And the subject was definitely worth all the effort.

I'd never heard of Getman before, so particular thanks to Scott.

(By the time I got around to checking all these links, they had stopped working. Has Getman perchance been "Samizlaunched"? It would be nice to think so. I'll check them later, but that may be some time later as tonight I have a Brian's Friday. IMMEDIATE UPDATE: They all now work.))

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:18 PM
September 13, 2004
A picture of success

At the home where I was brought up, in the dining room, was this painting. Well, a copy. But quite a nice one. In a frame and everything.


It's called View of Delft, and it was painted by Vermeer, in 1660-61.

I am amazed how much it resembles a lot of the photos I now try to take, across the Thames, with light striking some buildings but not others.

I was reminded of this painting by reading, as I have been, a book called Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind. Chapter 4 is about "The Dutch Golden Age", and here's how it starts:

The prosperity of the United Provinces in the mid seventeenth century was evident to all visitors. They marvelled as much at the freedoms its citizens took as their birthright. Descartes, acknowledged as the first modern philosopher, since he admitted the new principles of science into his system, wrote his seminal works in Holland, because of the unique intellectual and religious freedoms he found there; there was no other country in which one could enjoy such complete liberty, he declared.' The English ambassador at The Hague, Sir William Temple, who travelled incognito through Holland, afterwards expressed his admiration for the liberty 'the Dutch valued so much' - in particular, 'the strange freedom that all men took in boats and inns and all other common places, of talking openly whatever they thought upon all public affairs, both of their own state, and their neighbours'.

Temple was equally struck by the religious freedoms. Calvinism was the official Protestant denomination, and no one could hold office in the republic without affirming membership of the Calvinist Reformed Church, yet a large Catholic minority and innumerable dissenting sects practised their own rites in their own places of worship and published their own sacred texts. Even Jews lived freely among the populace without being confined to ghettos; later they were permitted a synagogue in Amsterdam, which was opened in 1675. Such essentially pragmatic indulgence in an age of extreme religious intolerance so impressed the fourth Earl of Shaftesbury he recommended that England follow suit, in order likewise to attract and retain skilled workers.

I never really learned about the Dutch when I did history at school. They were merely a vague interlude between the French (bad) and the British Empire (good, mostly). Yet for a while, they were the leading mercantile power of Europe and a beacon of life, liberty and property for all, secure against the depradations of the old aristocracy, who struck fear into the autocracies of the rest of mainland Europe.

And they celebrated all this by producing lots and lots of great oil paintings.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
September 02, 2004
A Canaletto crowd scene

I like photographing tourists, and I like it when some of the tourists are my friends. Because of them being in London and me wanting to help show them round, I get to visit some classic tourist traps of the sort I often neglect, because, what with me living here anyway, they can wait.

Thus it was that when some foreign friends were in town last week I found myself inside London's National Gallery. I should go to this place more often.

You can't look at everything in a place like this. The trick is to focus in on a few works, either predetermined, or which force themselves on your attention on the day. With me, it was some of the Caneletto paintings I found myself scrutinising, in particular, this one.

This is what the whole thing looks like (and I hope the stuff at the bottom doesn't mean I'm going to have scary lawyer enemies):


But what fascinated me was the detail. I was struck, in some of the other Canalettos, by how badly he did water, which he often made look like a shiny floor covered in white squiggles. But, I was also struck by how well he did people, and buildings, and by how much detail he was able to cram in, which only the very best reproductions show. I like his people especially. His figures seem to have been done quite quickly and rather schematically, but they really live.

This is a situation where the Internet really does not (yet) do it. Here is the kind of thing I mean:


The original was much better, as I am sure you can imagine.

I had my camera with me while I was looking at this picture, but I don't think me using it would have gone down very well. Maybe there were postcards with detail like this. And I bet there are books with such details reproduced well. But no worries, because I can just go back to the original.

The other thing I found myself thinking, about the pictures in the National Gallery generally, was that there were lots of "famous" paintings on view. Suddenly, I started to wonder if their fame is a local thing, an English thing, a function of which paintings England possesses, as opposed to which ones by all these painters really are the best. Nationalism takes many forms, including the one that goes: our paintings by this foreign guy are better than yours.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:31 PM
July 29, 2004
Bunny Smedley on Making Faces

Excellent piece by Bunny Smedley about the National Gallery Making Faces exhibition.

Bunny starts her piece with some reflections on the fascination that brand new human babies already wired into them for the faces of other humans, and not just the face of mum. I'm going to stick that bit up at my Education Blog.

Later she writes about a Goya painting:

The distance between artifice and accuracy is one of the fascinating strands that runs through Making Faces. One of the finest paintings present – and, incidentally, one of the few genuinely capable of thriving against the fire-engine red walls – is Goya's magnificent Dona Isabel de Porcel. On one level, the work was a commissioned portrait of the wife of some long-forgotten minor bureaucrat. Yet if all it did was to represent her features accurately, why on earth should we care about it? But of course it does so much more than that. One doesn't have to take much of a leap of imagination to suspect that Goya enjoyed this particular assignment perhaps a little bit more than Dona Isabel's husband might have liked. Goya had, as do many men, a particular 'type' that appealed to him. Perhaps Dona Isabel approached it more closely than most. At any rate, what was meant to be a portrait has been elevated, here, into the stuff of full-bodied sexual fantasy – the slightly damp-looking curls, the flushed cheeks, the plump bosom only just encased within the black lace shawl, the remarkably full lips – and, most notably, those impossibly huge, luminous, indeed slightly bulging eyes. No one, frankly, has ever looked quite like this, which is perhaps just as well, because real life would render these exaggeratedly large and emphatic features freakish and unpleasant. As a fiction, however, they are stunningly successful. This is one of Goya's most perfect paintings, which is saying a lot.


My only complaint about Bunny's comments on this painting is that she, or someone at the SAU Blog, might have included a link to the picture, so that we know the one that she's talking about. I found the picture here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:42 PM
July 17, 2004
On lenses in the fifteenth century and on "art"

The invaluable Arts & Letters Daily links to this piece by Ellen Winner about scientists who try to throw light, as it were, on the history of painting. Wenner makes it clear that some scientists do a far better job of this than others.

The successful one she writes about is Charles M. Falco:

When Charles M. Falco, a physicist in the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona, presented mathematical support for artist David Hockney's contention that certain early Renaissance painters used lenses to project images that they then traced, he was greeted with fury and indignation by art historians. Falco's arguments were most widely publicized in 2001 in Hockney's extensively reviewed Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, and they were presented at a high-profile conference at New York University that same year with Hockney and art historians, but they can also be found in scientific journals.

Still, even recently, when I've broached Falco's arguments to art historians, I've been greeted with surprise that I can take them seriously. The assumption seems to be that the claims have been shown to be wrong and can be dismissed. However, then I discover that the art historians don't even know the details of the argument. The devil is in the details, and understanding the exact science does matter.

The controversy over Hockney and Falco grew out of Hockney's discovery of a sudden shift toward naturalism in the 1420s and '30s in Flanders. Hockney claimed that the shift was too abrupt to have occurred without the use of optical aids that allowed artists to project images of the 3-D world onto a canvas and trace them. With the entry of Falco, evidence took the place of opinion. Falco pointed out that concave mirrors can serve as lenses that project images and that such mirrors were available as early as the 13th century. He went on to analyze anomalies in certain paintings that were consistent with the use of a lens and - most important - difficult to explain otherwise.

That last phrase is the key. Only if lenses were being used could certain errors be explained.

This is the painting Falco is talking about


I find this kind of thing fascinating. Partly, this is because I have an axe of my own to grind, or maybe that should be a lens. My concern with this is that the word "art" is, I believe, too arbitrarily assigned to certain sorts of creations, and denied to others, and that this has harmful consequences.

If something is said to be "art", a huge amount of admiring attention is focussed upon it. Young people are taught to admire it and to do more stuff like that. But if something else, on the face of it more admirably made and with a more admirable message, is denied the label of art, then an opposite thing happens. Objects that ought to be admired and an example to the next lot of creators – to the next lot of humans, for goodness sake – are instead allowed to sink into obscurity.

What has this to do with whether or not painters used lenses in the fifteenth century? Or to put it another way, why are the propositions of Falco and Hockney being greeted with such fury, assuming Winner is correct about that happening?

I think that it is because what Falco and Hockney are saying blurs the distinction between "art" and merely, you know, making stuff to sell. The painter with his lens suddenly looks a whole lot more like a photographer doing wedding photos or publicity stills than he did before. The painter with only a brush inserts his precious "feelings" into the object he makes, with every brush stroke, or so we are told. The lens man only uses a brush because that is, technically, all he yet has. Show modern photography to the guy who did this painting that Falco analyses, and he'd grab it.

My view of art, and of the word "art", is not dependent upon the correctness of arguments like those of Falco and Hockney.

Here is a guy who thinks they are wrong. He argues that the errors Falco says could only be the result of moving a lens could also be the result of the artist merely changing his point of view, while using the regular manual methods. But what matters to me is that this critic is not a regular "art critic", he's from an "eye research institute". He is looking at picture making in the same way, and arguing in the same way, that Falco and Hockney are doing, even though he reaches different conclusions. He takes their argument seriously, and is perfectly happy to discuss the matter scientifically.

The point is: do you see this huge gulf fixed between image makers and thing makers (painters and sculptors) of one sort - of the "artistic" sort - and other sorts of image makers and thing makers (photographers and industrial designers and manufacturers of stuff)? To me, there is a continuum, with old style painters very much in the thing making industry, before they had things like printing and photography and giant machines to mass produce. But their attitude was much the same as that of these later thing makers.

If, on the other hand, you think that mass production is a crucial difference between art and mere stuff, someone tell Charles Dickens, and the rest of those printed book writer guys. I end by flying off at somewhat of a tangent, in the form of another Arts & Letters linked article, this time about what might happen next to the novel. Pictures are involved in that also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
July 12, 2004
From shock art to Christmas card

Another from here:


Go here for the same thing slightly bigger, which is worth doing.

I suppose that when this was first exhibited, I would have disapproved. Call that a painting? Now, of course, beaten into submission by later horrors, I like it. Now, the very quality that at first made this painting so abhorrent to majority opinion (insofar as majority opinion ever set eyes on it) is what now makes it popular. I'm talking about the way that it is so obviously painted – so obviously not a photo, as we would say – while yet contriving also to look like a landscape. This is a mountain – this is not a mountain. Above all: this is not a photograph of a mountain.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:26 PM
July 09, 2004
Winged hippo

Don't miss this work of art at Samizdata.

But, be aware that this hippo breaks the biological rule that the Angel of the North obeys, that is to say, it has wings and front legs.

That may be your lot for today. I am shortly leaving, to attend a talk by David Carr about intellectual property, at which I am hoping to learn a lot.

So, did Samizdata have permission to reproduce the hippo? And who thought of the idea of a winged hippo first?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:05 PM
July 07, 2004
Vermeer for sale

VermeerVirginals.jpg This picture has been sold at Sotheby's for £14,500,000, so Channel 4 News has just informed us, moments after it happened.

It's a Vermeer, "Young Woman Seated at the Virginals". But apparently it's not a very good Vermeer. Originally she was wearing a different shawl. Dear oh dear.

The thing about the art market is that the price reached by a painting is the price that the second most extravagant art lover in the world on that day is willing to pay, plus a little bit. It takes two, baby.

Vermeer, by the way, is the man whom Colin Firth played in Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has just come out on DVD.

At present it is in Blockbuster for £19.99, I think it was. But it will soon come down.

Two people willing to pay anything to buy a DVD does not a DVD market make. It takes more than two, baby.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:10 PM
July 03, 2004
David's Socrates

Another picture from here. (And they really are very, very good. As I said in my previous posting about these, I strongly recommend rootling around.)

It's The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David.


I love the certainty these old guys had that their pictures were the best pictures there were. There was no complicated excuse-making about how painters see more than photographers, photographers see only the surface, etcetera, because the photographers weren't doing it yet.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
July 01, 2004
Strange painting

This posting tells of the serendipitous path I followed to this, which looks like a really excellent collection of paintings. What all the pictures seem to have in common is that they are all really well reproduced. You don't, I believe, get everything, but what you do get is very, very good. None of those poky little postage stamp blurs you find with googling for images. Ideal if you want a virtual stroll around a fine virtual art gallery, but I should guess (but what do I know?) maybe not as good for finding a particular painting.

I browsed my way to this really strange picture:


To me, it looks not so much like a real group of people as a collection of cut-outs, just jammed together. A collage, in fact. It makes me think of that book and TV show that David Hockney did a few years ago, arguing that they knew a hell of a lot more about photography in centuries past than is generally assumed. Only the final step was painted. Everything up to that point was done by projecting a photo-like image onto the painted surface, as happens inside our cameras.

The reason I say that of this painting is that each individual figure is brilliantly executed, but the fitting of them together looks like a muddle, to me, if only because they throw no shadows upon one another. The one on the top right looks especially cut out and stuck on, don't you think? What we're looking at here is early seventeenth century Photoshopping.

But (reprise) what do I know? If I'm wrong, feel free to instruct me. When I say how old paintings look to me, my ego is not on the line. Comment at will.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:54 AM
June 15, 2004

No time for anything much today. Just a picture of your not so humble Culture Blogger, aged about five, in water colour, done by, if memory serves, the late Miss Elizabeth Scott-Moore, of somewhere not far from Englefield Green, where my mum still lives.


I visited Mum yesterday, for some strawberries. She isn't getting any younger, and I suddenly realised that that house could all be over, so to speak, very suddenly. So I took a couple of hundred pictures, inside and out, what with the weather being so fine, including a few more great ones of Mum herself.

Here's what the house looks like.


Circa 1900, I think. And there's a big garden, by current suburban standards.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:26 PM
June 03, 2004
Edward Hopper

EdwardHopperSelfPSm.jpgFollowing my mentions here of Vettriano and of Lempicka, it has been suggested that I also investigate Edward Hopper.

So last night I made a point of watching the Alan Yentob TV show about him.

It was fun. I didn't know any of that about his wife, whom he did not allow to have a separate career as a painter, and who did not allow him to use any other female models but her (and especially not if they would have been in the nude). The Hoppers were inseparable, despite her loving to chatter and him having nothing to say other than with his paint brushes.

EdwardHopperNighthawksDet.jpgEdward Hopper is now officially posh, because Yentob had Doctor Jonathan Miller commenting on his work undisapprovingly. And what was nice was that Miller was commenting on the stories the paintings told and the feelings they evoked, rather than doing artspeak of the more usual sort.

Someone (I didn't record who) said that in America, you have to drive or train-journey past an awful lot of ugly mish-mash places in order to be able to feast your eyes on the occasional beautiful vista. It occurred to me that maybe freedom equals ugliness, in the sense that free people do what they themselves want with their places, rather than what posh or powerful onlookers would like. Free people build their buildings not to look nice to posh people, but to accomplish things – like live, make stuff, or sell stuff to each other.

You want a beautiful country? You could try putting an aesthetically despotic ruling class in command of it. But that may not work. They might forbid and destroy beauty rather than impose it.

EdwardHopperExLTh.jpgThere's another, better way to make beauty out of ugliness, and that is simply to see beauty in ugliness. Hopper was the artist of the American ugliness of his time, and he ended up making it look, to us, now, beautiful. Hopper helps us, deprived of what we love to look at, to love what we must look at (at any rate if we are in America). If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with … And we do now love the mish-mash stuff that Hopper mostly painted, now that different mish-mash is being built. And if that trick can be done once it can be done again, with the mish-mash places that America is thrashing out now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:24 PM
May 31, 2004
Tamara de Lempicka

I'm watching a really rather good TV programme about Tamara de Lempicka, the woman who painted these pictures. The one on the left is apparently one of her most popular:

lempicka13.jpg   LempickaBoucard.jpg

Lempicka's determined exclusion from the official Modern Art canon began as soon as she got into her stride as a painter. She simply did not do the right things, or embody the correct ideas.

Her clientele was "bourgeois and conservative" (I'm listening to the BBC man, Andrew Graham-Dixon doing his patter), but instead of epater-ing them, she made no secret of her desire to be one of them, or rather remain one of them (what with her having been a rich Russian aristocrat who had fallen foul of the revolution).

The picture of hers I really like is the one glorifying a research chemist patron of hers, a handsomely heroic chap brandishing a test tube and standing in front of a microscope (see above). Dear oh dear. Can't glorify people like that. There is a distinct whiff of Ayn Rand about her, and I bet a lot of Randians love her.

She bombed in America, but Hollywood now loves her. A Royal Academy show of her stuff has just got under way.

Her best stuff is very distinctive. "Art Deco gems", Graham-Dixon is calling them. But she wore her marketing on her sleeve, and when her best and most natural style didn't cut it in the USA, she very visibly attempted to follow art fashion, and that is a deeply unfashionable thing to do. She even had an "abstract" phase, G-D is now saying.

Most of the art historians still hate her, but Graham-Dixon recognises the truth of it, which is that these are powerful and distinctive images. I've been meaning to blog about this woman ever since I saw a poster about the RA exhibition of her in the Underground.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:34 PM
May 27, 2004
A destroyed Patrick Heron

From today's Independent:

More details emerged of the losses yesterday. It was confirmed that more than 50 works by the late British abstract painter Patrick Heron, including his final two paintings, were destroyed. The works belonged to Mr Heron's two daughters.

I rather think that one of those last two paintings, which I found here, is this one:


Each to his own of course, but to me it looks decidedly ordinary.

But I can't help noting that it still, to me, looks ordinary, on account of having been copied, and despite having been destroyed. And I bet I'm not the only one taking a look at this thing for the first time.

I wonder how detailed and accurate the copies and reproductions of this and all the other lost items will prove to be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
May 17, 2004
Historic bras

So, by way of a substitute for a sensible posting, I googled for news about "art" (and I know that you all love it when I do that), and this was undoubtedly the most enticing item:

On May 13th, Moscow's "Crokin gallery" presented a new art collection of one famous Russian artist Andrey Bilzho entitled "History of the country from Kutuzov to Putin on bras." Andrey Bilzho proudly announced the opening date live on the "Echo of Moscow" radio station.

According to the artist, his previous exhibition of three bras which depicted Kazbek and Elbrus mountains was a great success among spectators and journalists. That is why he decided to continue with the collection.

The new art collection includes 25 bras, stated Bilzho. "There is one bra that is dedicated to Kutuzov, another one depicts Putin's eyes, Brezhnev's eyebrows, Khruschev's wart, Yeltsin's reign, Lenin-Stalin."

Bilzho also noted he decided to paint on bras was due to the following reason: "the object appeals to me; it is erotic; it attracts men and is used by women; it is also philosophical, because it portrays the everlasting battle of opposing powers, of Ying and Yang."

He had my respect right up until the bit about Ying and Yang. But that bit makes me think he's a crip artist.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:06 PM
May 14, 2004
Shelley in Soho

Quota picture for today, and I have a busy weekend, so maybe no more here until Monday.


Sadly, this mural is starting to show its age. But it brightens up its little bit of Soho nevertheless. It's the "Soho Mural", and it is subtitled "Ode to the West Wind". It was the work of Louise Vines.

I can find no direct reference to this mural on the Internet, perhaps because, according to the blue circular sign, it was done in 1980. But I'm guessing that it is an illustration of or a reference to this.

And this ends, rather famously I think, thus:

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:48 PM
May 12, 2004
A bankrupt currency?

As regulars here will know, doing my own photo photos excites me far more than the photos hand done by others. But lots of the kind of people who read this, will also be very glad to read this:

They are all noted, prize-winning artists at the peak of their early maturity. Yet in their more wretched moments they feel like a forgotten, exiled species, "afflicted" by their skills and fated by their sense of vocation to work in "a bankrupt currency".

JohnHurt.jpgTheir currency is an artistic medium running from Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Francis Bacon back to Michelangelo, and further still to the earliest human to discover pigment in a cave. And generally the public still chooses wall prints and quality greetings cards depicting works in this medium.

But, in the dominant and highest priced areas of contemporary art, the medium has been treated almost as a dirty five-letter word - paint. For the artists are painters whose vocation is to represent the human figure and human landscapes or cityscapes.

Later this month eight of the painters are putting on an unusually ambitious show at a fashionable London gallery. One of the aims is to test a conviction, which some others share, that the pendulum of critical, art market and media interest has begun to swing away from conceptual art, including installations and videos, and back to painting.

In a foreword to the exhibition catalogue, one of their admirers, the director of the National Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, writes that they are typical of "a whole generation of artists who are working outside the mainstream of contemporary art, as represented by the more fashionable avant garde".

And what's more, Charles Saumarez Smith is my cousin's wife's brother.

The rather striking portrait of the noted actor John Hurt (whom I wrote about recently here) is by Stuart Pearson Wright, another of whose works is used to illustrate the Guardian piece quoted from above.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:14 PM
April 22, 2004
Popular living painters and popular dead painters

I got an email a while back inviting me to contribute to this. But I have enough places to write at as it is. So, pass on that, I'm afraid.

But by going to the site, I did find something of interest, in the form of this list (which started out here), of Britain's most popular living artists, as measured by print sales:

1 Jack Vettriano
2 Gillian McDonald
3 Mackenzie Thorpe
4 Kay Boyce
5 Sue Macartney-Snape
6 Steven Townsend
7 Mary Ann Rogers
8 Jonathan Shaw
9 David Dipnall
10 Charlotte Atkinson

Vettriano I've talked about here. I looked at what the Internet could offer concerning the next five, and frankly, I was extremely disappointed.

This second list, of the dead artists which Britain likes most, again rated by print sales, I found much more interesting:

1 L S Lowry
2 Monet
3 Alan Ingham
4 Russell Flint
5 John Miller
6 Mark Rothko
7 Vincent Van Gogh
8 Pablo Picasso
9 Gustave Klimt
10 Henri Matisse

Ingham I had never heard of, and Flint only just. John Miller I still haven't heard of, because John Miller is too common a name. (There seems to be another artist called John Miller who is very much alive.) But the others are all big names, of course.

And what interests me about this list is its modernity. Where are the earlier big names, like Turner, Constable, Gainsborough, Rubens, Rembrandt? Where is the Italian Renaissance?

Could it be that print buying is a niche market, which doesn't really measure popularity? Or is this what is really happening to British public taste in paintings nowadays?

Anyway, I'll illustrate my little foray into the (what is for me rather) foreign country of painting with this picture, done by number two on the still-alive list, Gillian McDonald:


… and with this painting, by L. S. Lowry, of L. S. Lowry, from this intriguing collection of self-portraits.


The point I make with this is that Lowry was not all matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs. I was going to feature the two portraits here but they "cannot be downloaded for any purpose", although I think they actually mean "may" not be.

If you do download either of them, the man with the red eyes will come and get you.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:20 AM
April 12, 2004
Elderly couple with fish

I googled "Easter", and because of this, I found my way to this lady's work.

Of which this one …


… is my favourite.

Where this picture figures in the official art pecking order, or indeed if it figures at all, I have no idea.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
March 24, 2004
David Carr on Jack Vettriano

David Carr has a posting up at Samizdata about Jack Vettriano, and the comments, which are now piling up, are worth reading too.

I have joined in with an erudite reference to a cartoon character called Barry McKenzie, who gets a fleeting mention here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
March 22, 2004
More public recognition for Jack Vettriano

Last night I watched the South Bank Show, the TV show that is built around an artist of some kind being interview by Melvyn Bragg. This time, the artist Bragg was talking to was Jack Vettriano. Vettriano's immense popularity (particularly among women), and the disdain felt towards him by the modernist art establishment were both extensively discussed and reported on.

To me, the amusing thing was that modernist museum bosses are starting to get the kind of treatment from the the media, for refusing to answer questions about why they don't show Vettriano's work, that is more normally what they dish out to people like the bosses of tobacco companies or nuclear power stations. Tate supremo Nick Serota, for instance, "declined to be interviewed".

I have another posting here about Vettriano.

More Vettriano imagery here.

By the way, although I pretty much assumed that Vettriano worked form photos, this show made this procedure absolutely explicit. What he does is set up the scene he wants to paint, with live models. He then photos it. And he then does his painting by copying the photo.

Yet another example of the profound influence that photography has had upon painting.

You get the feeling that if all Vettriano did was try to sell photos like this, then however pretty they were, he wouldn't have done nearly so well. Personally I'd be fascinated to see some of these photos, to see what is added, or maybe subtracted, by Vettriano redoing them as paintings.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:42 AM
February 27, 2004
True colours?

tintmor1.jpgSo I was browsing through one of the art books my brother brought me the other day, and I liked the look of Vincenzo Morosini, painted by Tintoretto in about 1580. Here are two different versions of it. I like the colours of the one on the left, which I found here, but it is disappointingly small. And it's no use enlarging it. It would just end up looking electronically enlarged, and even less like the original painting, or any sort of painting, than it did before.

tintmor2.jpgThis, on the other hand, to my right, was more than big enough for my purposes, but the colours look all wrong. And if you look here which is the page of images thrown up by google when I typed in "Tintoretto" and "Morosini", you'll see that most of the pictures there are like this one, and in fact, if my guess is anything to go by, several of them probably are this one.

Until now, I would just pick out the least bad picture of what I wanted, and ignore the rest. But these pictures are really bad, and make me think of all kinds of questions.

Is most of the imagery on the internet of old oil paintings this tacky? Is the situation getting better? I'm guessing: yes, but only very gradually.

And: have I finally picked an unpopular painting out of an art book, and is that why the internet versions of it are so abysmal?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:39 PM
February 10, 2004
Whose mum and dad are these?

Okay, who do you reckon did these?

picasmum.jpg     picasdad.jpg

I dare say that there are now many painters who only do modern because they can't do ancient. But not this guy, I think.

You'll find slightly bigger versions here. Both are from 1896.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:04 PM
February 06, 2004
Why pieces of music are more popular if they have a number – an economic speculation about art consumption

Classical music fans like me have a mysterious fondness for pieces of music called, thrillingly, something like: "No. 14, opus 27 no. 2", rather than "Moonlight". I'm being ironic you understand. Also, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14, opus 27 no. 2 and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata are the same piece.

But whence the preference for numbers? Is it pure snobbery, nothing but a perverse pleasure in the esoteric which scares off the vulgar hoards, and nothing else? Maybe that's part of it. There is a shallow thrill to knowing "about" classical music, as well as knowing it, and feeling cleverer than the rest because you do.

But there is a more mundane and respectable consideration at work here, it has just this moment occurred to me.

The reason why numbers are good is that works of art with a number are ... more numerous! There are likely to be a lot of them!

It's a simple matter of economics. In rather the same way that you are more likely to start a business if, other things being equal, you stand to make a lot of money if things go well rather than merely a little, music fans (I'll stick with music, because this is what I really know about) are more likely to investigate a piece of music if, in the event that they like it, they know that there is going to be more of the same to enjoy.

Suppose you adore the Symphony Fantastique, by Hector Berlioz. Many do, for it is a fine piece. But me, I'm irritated by it. Why the hell, if Berlioz was good enough to write such a fine Symphony No 1, did Berlioz not rattle off another five, for all those who take a liking to the Berlioz way with a symphony?

Suppose that Beethoven had only written one piano sonata, the Moonlight, instead of the thirty two that he did write. I surmise that the Moonlight itself would be less popular than it is now. After all, if you gave the Moonlight a try, and liked it, there's nowhere else to go. As it is, if you like the first Beethoven piano sonata you listen to, there are thirty one others to enjoy, and isn't that great? So, all the more reason to give the first one you consider a go.

When you first learn about Brucker's symphonies, say, you pretty soon learn that there are nine of them, and you learn this long before you have heard all of them. Generally you hear all the chatter about the three final and particularly great ones – 7, 8 and 9 – and you hear them first. (That's a guess. I'm really talking about me.) But the mere fact of knowing that they are called 7, 8 and 9 tells you that in the event of you falling hopelessly in love with these mighty pieces, there will be a further six Brucker symphonies to wallow in. (Actually there are eight more Bruckner symphonies, because Bruckner wrote a Symphony No. "0", and even, if you please, an even earlier one now called Symphony No "00"! This was because he wrote them, then "withdrew" them, refusing the dignity of the titles No 1 and No 2 until he had works he considered worthy of such nomenclature, and then these early and at first unnumbered works were disinterred by scholars. You probably didn't know that, did you, you pathetic prole.)

Thus it is that obscure composers who, whatever their shortcomings, did at least write a lot of, e.g., symphonies, such as Arnold Bax (7), Havergal Brian (31 I think, or maybe 32), tend to do better than they would have done otherwise. I'm not saying that Bax is all that bad, or for that matter than (Havergal) Brian is all that good. I'm just saying that, other things being equal, numbers are enticing.

Although music is the taste I know most about for these purposes, I think it was painting that first got me to notice this tendency. The world of painting, it seems to me, is a world which rewards painters who stick with the same themes for longish periods. Think of Mondrian. Think of Bridget Riley. Think of Monet, solemnly doing the same haystack in a dozen different versions. Incomprehensibly creating a vast, matching set of works, rather than hopping about from one genre to another is, for a painter, a smart move. Concentrate, lad.

The usual explanation for this tendency to concentrate is, I guess, that this is how to create really good stuff. You stick with the same formula and perfect it, and you can't perfect it unless you stick with it.

But I think if you look at the situation from the point of view of the consumer of these vast aggregations of similar but not identical works of art, the reason for the success of artists who plough their one idiosyncratic furrow with bizarre determination and single-mindedness makes a little more sense.

I'll stop now, because this is an idea I have only just had, and it may be rubbish. I haven't lived with it, or kept an eye out for anyone else saying it. There are no links in this posting, because I am aware of no one else having said this, and before investing too much effort in this notion I need to know that I'm really on to something original here, and probably I am not.

My guess is that many a music critic has said something a lot like this, in passing, but hasn't quite realised that there is here a defence against that "number snobbery" charge, rather than a mere description of the nature of this alleged snobbery. That, I now surmise, is the original bit of this hypothesis. But even there I could be quite wrong.

Has anybody else said this?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:40 AM
February 02, 2004
Gainsborough's mentally unstable daughters

This is The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, which Johnson says was done in 1759. He calls it …

… a loving miracle of fatherly pride by Gainsborough, overshadowed by the fact that both Mary and Margaret inherited their mother's mental instability.

I never knew that.

There's no doubt about it, this quota posting foolishness forces me to learn things. Quite what you punters make of this procedure I have no idea, but luckily for me I'm not that bothered.

I found this version here, where there are more Gainsboroughs to be found, including another even more (I rather think) famous one of the two daughters (which I own in picture post card form), and one of J. C. Bach, which is something else I didn't know about.

I encountered further proof today of the extreme degree to which my tastes in paintings seem to resemble those of the general public, in the form of a poster on the Underground advertising the Philip Guston exhibition at the Royal Academy that I wrote about here. They used the exact same picture for the poster that I picked out as my favourite.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:32 PM
January 26, 2004
Thomas Jones in Italy – ancient and modern

Alice Bachini went, over the weekend, to see the Thomas Jones in Italy exhibition now on at the National Gallery. The plug for the exhibition offers this one tantalising image, A Wall in Naples, painted in about 1782.


Fascinating. Totally ancient in its style of painting, totally modern in its choice of subject. It's the pink and the blue at the top that is so weird and twentieth century looking.

With a name like "Thomas Jones", this is a hard man to learn about.

By the way if you are a lawyer for the National Gallery and you object to me publicising your exhibition like this and want me to remove the picture from this site, you have only to say. "All rights reserved" sounds like you'd be entitled and I'd owe you an apology which you would get at once. Plus maybe some ruminations on your salesmanship skills. Anyway, I hope that causes no problem.

UPDATE: By googling "Thomas Jones" "Wall in Naples" instead of just "Thomas Jones" (which got me all manner of irrelevant persons such as an NFL footballer) I found my way to this, which has much more on this man, and several more good pictures.

Interesting that the one the National Gallery chose to plug the exhibition was the most modern looking. The others are much more like regular oil painting type paintings.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:15 PM
January 11, 2004
Vettriano – not completely out in the cold

The Observer, to its credit, today gives another nod of mainstream media recognition to Jack Vettriano:

Anyone wishing to see an original Vettriano must travel to Scotland's Kirkcaldy Art Gallery, which has two. Last night the artist, a former mining engineer from Fife, launched a withering attack on the cultural elite that leaves him out in the cold.

In a rare interview, Vettriano said: 'The art world is not a lot to do with art; it's to do with money and power and position. Annually the national galleries are given a budget of taxpayers' money and they should spend it on behalf of the people of Great Britain, but I feel they don't.

"If they've decided you fit what they like, you'll be in; if they've made up their minds otherwise, you never will be. I appear to be in the latter category. If they were truly buying for the people of Great Britain then they would buy my work, that is as clear as day. But they don't.

'I have days when I couldn't care less, and other days when I wonder why the gulf exists. There's a snob association: when something's too popular it's regarded as a bit trashy. But I would rather my paintings sold to ordinary people, rather than being stacked in a store house at the National Gallery.'

Vettriano, 52, has sold more than three million poster reproductions around the world and earns an estimated £500,000 a year from the royalties. The works themselves disappear from public view into the hands of private collectors, with buyers including Hollywood star Jack Nicholson, composer Sir Tim Rice and British actor Robbie Coltrane.

You can see how the Official Galleries would hate such a person. Vettriano doesn't need them. He'd like their recognition, but is damned if he'll beg for it. After all, he thinks he's better than they are. And they think they're better than him. A classic dog fight in other words.

I believe that the internet can only add to the problems of the Official Art scene, by breaking their definition of "art" into a thousand pieces. In this spirit, I pick a nice looking Vettriano to reproduce here. This one is my favourite today:


But hello. What's this?

The next Vettriano exhibition will be at Portland Gallery in 2004. Further details and exact dates are yet to be confirmed but as soon as we have this information, our website will be updated accordingly.

And just whereabouts in the wilds of Scotland might the Portland Gallery be?

Just south of Picadilly, in a little Scottish village called London. So that would be the other galleries that are ignoring him, then. And could all this launching of withering attacks perchance be all mixed up with his forthcoming show at the Portland?

Half a million a year minimum, and a nice friendly London gallery. He's getting by.

So much for the up-to-the-minute tittle tattle. The real story here is that Vettriano is celebrating a way of life, and an attitude to life, that twentieth century Modern Art quite deliberately set out to destroy. Modern Art says that dreaming of your own personal, individual future, by envisaging it, picturing it, by representing it, is Old Hat man. A picture is just a thing. It ain't of anything. All representation is suspect, and if you do it, you must draw attention to the fact that you are doing it, and how suspect it is. God forbid you should ever perpetrate, in the bullseye words of one of Barry Humphries' alter egos, cartoon Aussie innocent Barry McKenzie, "hand done photos", which are about something completely other than the process of and the suspectness of picture making.

So along comes Vettriano. He hand does photos of achingly romantic beautiful people, doing achingly romantic things like have dinner parties on the beach. They have servants who aren't complaining. They yearn. They put on make-up. They race racing cars. They are the beautiful people, or they were, or they would like to be, or they would have liked to have been, and they want to become more beautiful or to remain beautiful, or just to imagine themselves beautiful. They're looking forward to, or wanting to remember, all their I-had-my-moments moments.

Vettriano obliges. He gives his public what they want. How vulgar. How ghastly. And as if Picasso didn't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:37 PM
December 27, 2003
More reasons to love France

Over on Samizdata the only thing that got said yesterday was this:

"France is the best country in the world."

I'm très proud to report that it was said at my last Friday of the month soirée, chez moi, by a beautiful young French woman. When beautiful young women attend your events you know you are doing something right, and the abundant contribution made by France to this category of human is, it is universally agreed, one of the very greatest things about France.

France, because of its amazingly corrupt politics and blunderingly anti-American diplomacy, gets a lot of bashing on Samizdata, so this utterance was a pleasing corrective to all that, as were a lot of the comments, to which I contributed. One of my other guests heard it said, and immediately stuck it up. Le blogging, je t'aime.

Here are two more correctives, in the form of a very early Monet, Garden at Sainte-Adresse:


And a very late Monet which obviously appeals to me a lot, Houses of Parliament, London:


Experienced painters and inexperienced photographers share a fascination with the tricks played by light.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:21 PM
December 24, 2003
A Happy Christmas to all my readers

I went looking for an appropriate Christmas Nativity scene with which to wish all of you the compliments of the season, and the picture I liked best from the many choices offered here was this one: Raphael's Sistine Madonna.


What got my attention was the extreme beauty of Madonna herself. She's standing like a supermodel, rather than sitting like a mumsy mum. But the most famous bit of this painting, which I swear I only noticed after I'd picked it as my favorite Mary plus Jesus painting, is right at the bottom, and features two winged child stars of a million posters and Christmas cards (scroll down!).

What's going on? Both the old gent on the left and the lady on the right appear to be aware that something may be up. The lady is looking downwards at the winged ones and the oldy is pointing at something also. Do they perhaps fear that our two grumpy little friends, perhaps because jealous about being upstaged by a mere baby for God's sake, are about to stage some kind of diversion? No doubt there is a learned explanation.

I seem to have extremely "popular" taste in paintings. Time and again, I choose the painting that everyone else likes too, but as often as not utterly unaware of its extreme popularity until after I've noticed it, and hence started to notice others noticing it also. I am to the world of paintings what those people are to classical music who say "Oooh I like that one", and it turns out to be Finlandia or Beethoven's Fifth or the Moonlight Sonata or Barber's Adagio. I'm not wrong and those are all great bits of music. I have good taste in paintings. It's just that I don't have very much.

Anyway, like I say: Happy Christmas.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:16 PM
December 21, 2003
More painted ladies!

You wait for ever for a website with painted women, then two come along in one day.

Thanks to

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:24 PM
Painted ladies

Instapundit links to this, and this links to this.

I love the Internet. From a deposed despot to decorated damsels in two clicks.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:37 PM
December 11, 2003
More PMI

Time I had another posh picture, straight, with no post-modern irony.

Here's one I found earlier:


Ah, culture. Seriously, can anyone point me to the original, into which ML is inserted? And I seem to recall that in the original, he isn't so happy, right?

I found it via (again), but can't remember how exactly. It's something to do with these people, who also link to this amazing page, which I am now about to link to from Samizdata, because they'll love it.

Post-modern irony is a hard habit to shake.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:01 PM
November 27, 2003
Turner surprise

I googled "Rembrandt" and I got here and was impressed by how good the Rembrandt reproductions seemed to be, and how numerous. So I sliced off the stuff at the end of the link, and got myself to here.

This blog being this blog, I tried this, but it was pictorially disappointing. I wanted oil paintings of ships and trains, but all there was was a bit of verbiage about the Italian Futurists.

So I went looking for J. M. W. Turner. He did a famous painting of a train, didn't he? Yes he did. But just below Rain, Steam and Speed, I found Sunrise with Sea Monsters. Sunrise with Sea Monsters?? By Turner? Apparently so.



And it's in the Tate Gallery, a walk away from me. I had no idea.

I thought I'd already seen the Turners at the Tate, and maybe I did see this painting, but didn't take it in.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:59 PM
November 22, 2003
Isabella Brant by Rubens

I own various big art books, in the hope that simply having them in my shelves or in a pile will somehow make me more artistically knowledgeable, despite me not ever reading them very much. One is called A World History of Art by Hugh Honour and John Fleming, mine being the 1991 3rd edition.

On page 500 of this I found a chalk drawing, done in black red and white, but reproduced only in black and white, which I liked but had never known about before. It's of a lady called Isabella Brant, and is by Rubens.

Here it is. It's in the British Museum.


So not, as was promised yesterday, an oil painting by a dead guy, because although there is an oil painting of the lady, I prefer the drawing that I assume came first.

No. That's not right. The drawing did come first, but they were two separate operations. Apparently the drawing was done in about 1622, and the painting about three years later. The painting, I think, lacks that final ounce of humour and sparkle and character, and looks as if he'd said to her: "That's the face, hold that", and she did, but not really.

I prefer her hair in the sketch, although I can't tell if this is because I prefer her hairstyle, or prefer how Rubens drew it compared to how he painted it in the final picture. Which is in the Uffizi in Florence.

And guess what. She was his wife! They were married in 1609. And she died not long after the painting was done. I wonder how. In the painting she looks okay.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:17 PM
November 21, 2003
Iain Faulkner

There is to be an exhibition/sale of paintings by Iain Faulkner at the Albemarle Gallery, 49 Albemarle Street, London W1 (nearest tube station Green Park), 26th November - 23rd December 2003. (I found out about this because my friend Chris called round and a book had been delivered here for him of Iain Faulkner pictures.)

Says the Albemarle website:

Iain Faulkner was born in Glasgow in 1973 where he was raised and educated. He graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1996 with a BA (Honours) Degree in Fine Art.

From the onset of his professional career, the fashionable and trendy routes of contemporary and conceptual art, adopted by many of his peers, was not an option. He chose instead to follow the more difficult and demanding path of figurative painting wherein clear, concise yardsticks of competence, draughtsmanship and painterly skills can be measured and judged, warts and all.

At the age of twenty-nine, the result of his endeavours during his relatively short career has brought a considerable measure of success with his last four shows in London and New York selling out which is clearly indicative of the public's appreciation and interest in his work.

Here's a Faulkner picture that I found at the Albemarle website.


I realise, looking at some of the other pictures at this site, that I am a total prude when it comes to paintings. One of the things I most like about Faulkner's paintings is that nobody is dressed in a way which, if they were dressed that way for real, they'd be embarrassed to show to strangers or I'd be embarrassed to see. See especially the paintings by Stuart Luke Gatherer for the kind of thing I have in mind. (Follow the link from the home page to "gallery artists" and then pick him.) When I encounter a scene where my reaction if I came across this for real would be to say "Oops sorry I'm obviously interrupting" and then to back out, I find myself feeling similarly uncomfortable, although far less intensely, when looking at the painting.

As for the endlessly repeated claim that art is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, I don't buy that. And I don't believe the people who say that they do buy it are being honest. I think that a picture which they have no problem with, but which they believe makes other people whom they disapprove of uncomfortable, makes them very comfortable indeed, and that that is the kind of discomfort (i.e. not discomfort at all, for them) which they like, and are referring to with all this discomfort propaganda. They no more like being genuinely discomforted by art than I do.

Or then again, maybe I am just not interested enough in paintings, and, painting-wise, am comfortable with what I'm comfortable with, and am not seeking fresh fields to explore. One way to find new stuff to get comfortable with is to find stuff which at first makes you uncomfortable. No, that's not it. The previous paragraph is what I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:54 PM
October 15, 2003
On bad old art, art (by William Blake) which works better as artwork, and inner light

Alan Little went to an art exhibition today. Well, actually it was on the twelfth. He emailed me about this, and if only to encourage others to email me about matters cultural that they've written about, I duly link. Apologies for the delay.

I found this paragraph to be the one that really intrigued:

Also striking was how much better and more interesting the "modern art" (for want of a better term for the art of the first half of the last century – there was very little on display that was less than about forty years old) was than the older stuff. People who dismiss modern art can’t, I conclude, have spent much time looking at eighteenth and early nineteenth century European art, most of which is hideous. I doubt if even Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin has ever produced anything as ugly and ridiculous as a sparkly porcelain bundle of asparagus.

I had a similar albeit not identical reaction when I went round the non-modern English stuff in the Tate, being struck by how bad I thought the worst of it was, how feeble, how small, and how much more exciting and shiny and "sparkly" (to echo Alan's phrase) the very same things looked in some of the book and magazine reproductions of them I'd seen. In particular, many of the William Blake pictures looked like they'd been dashed off on the backs of envelopes, which for all I know they may well have been. And he's supposed to be really good.

It's a change of subject, away from the badness of Ancient Art, because actually I don't think that Blake was an "artist" at all, in the orthodox sense that his pictures are at their best when you view the original artwork itself. Those originals are just that, artwork. They are instructions to a printer, and once the printer has got to work, they can actually look better than those originals. I'm not saying that they actually were instructions to a printer when he did them. I do not know, and would welcome education by comment, as often happens to me here. But I do say that this is how I think they work best. For me.

William Blake's pictures also work very well on a half-decent computer screen, I think. Maybe that's because a computer screen supplies an internal light source, which many of Blake's pictures cry out for, but which in the original they just do not have. Also, the originals are absurdly small, compared to, say, the big shiny posters that are made from them.

Talking of inner light sources takes me back to the Italian Renaissance, where, although they didn't literally have electric lights behind their paintings, they were masters at making it look as if they did.

I did a posting a while ago on Samizdata about a really interesting invention, which was basically a computer screen which did not have a light source behind it or otherwise built into it, and which only reflected light off its surface. It behaves exactly like a regular printed photograph or a painting, in other words. That'll be an interesting development, assuming it develops.

In general, when I go around a really big and famous art gallery, with lots of pictures from all the different art eras, I'm struck by how fabulous the very first oil paintings often were, compared to a lot of the later ones. Those first great renaissance set piece religious paintings were like Hollywood epics, and it can't be an accident that when movies first arrived at their technical peak, a lot of movies looked like renaissance paintings, and I don't just mean the Biblical epics. It's as if those first few generations of painters just exulted at what was suddenly possible, and maybe also suddenly allowed, the way only movie makers do now. And it occurs to me that the Bright Shining Dawn of movie making has maybe now, on the whole, drawn to a close. Or maybe it's me, and I'm getting old and am not myself dazzled by the sheer look of movies any more. And my impression of the Renaissance upstaging the later stuff may merely reflect either that this particular art gallery had better Renaissance stuff than later stuff, or that there was just as much good stuff done later, but a lot more bad stuff. Which I would suppose is the truth.

As for the general run of bad Ancient Art, I agree with Alan that there's tons and tons of rubbish out there, not involving the twentieth century at all.

A bit of a ramble, I fear, and no doubt hideously misinformed. Oh well. I'll learn.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:43 PM
October 09, 2003
The true art of rugby

The Philosophical Cowboy (link not working properly - scroll down to Sept 30 7.16pm), gearing up for the Rugby World Cup, likes this stuff.

With respect, as people say when they are about to say something completely lacking in respect hence the need to shake some verbal respect on with a verbal bottle of pseudo-respect, I … don't like it as much as The PhC does.

The real art of rugby is the game itself, and all the great photos of it that there are, and before that I daresay the odd painting. The idea that in order to make rugby artistic you have to subject it to abstract expressionism is insulting to rugby, and misses a basic point about art which is that it should be all of a piece. Art should be tight, and consistent, and the connections within it should make sense. The art should grow out of the thing itself, not be slopped on afterwards. This Adidas site makes "art" out of rugby in the manner of a Photoshop dork who thinks he can make his holiday snaps more "artistic" by pressing the Cézanne button. Okay, I'm taking it too seriously, it's only a bit of fun, blah blah, but this does suggest to me a wholly unjustified and unnecessary sense of artistic inferiority on the part of the rugby people.

That famous photo of Fran Cotton with mud all over him on a Lions Tour (that's the only www version of it I could find) is worth this entire Adidas site put together, artistically speaking (never mind rugbily speaking), and then some. No metaphorical violence was done to rugby with that photo. It arose completely naturally out of the game itself.

If those New York idiots who chucked paint about want to enjoy this photo too, and pretend that what they do, or used to do thirty years ago (isn't that nonsense rather passé now?), is being backhandedly referred to by it, fine. It isn't, but they can pretend if they want to. But the real art of rugby and of rugby photography is quite different.

Consider these two photos.

This photo doesn't capture the defining moment of this particular moment, which came a fraction of a moment later. What we see here is Jonah Lomu of New Zealand about to run over the top of Mike Catt of England. But we do not see Lomu actually doing it, although I've seen the exact photo somewhere that does show this.


This next photo, on the other hand, from the same site, does capture the exact moment of this moment, during the same game (NZ v England – World Cup 1995). That was exactly when Lomu got past the wretched Rob Andrew.


There's no need to splash paint about to make stuff like this artistic. Both photos have those blurry and "artistic" backgrounds that you often get in sports photos, if you like that sort of thing. Since it arises naturally out of the regular processes involved in photography (focussing, following the action by swinging the camera around to follow it, etc.), I do like this sort of effect a lot. It's quite unlike how the eye sees things, but that's half the fun.

To be fair to The PhC, he does have one terrific rugby photo up at his new World Cup Rugby site, namely the one of Wendell Sailor (who by the way is my tip for Man of the Tournament). He's the beautifully lit black guy, second row down on the right. Although, it does occur to me that there may also be something artistically contrived about this picture too. But if it is contrived, it's contrived in a good way, in a genuine hero-worshipping way, rather than in a pseudo-art way. It doesn't look as if it was taken during a game, but you never know, what with the floodlights they have for games these days … Maybe it was. Either way, it's dead artistic, I think. (Another argument for sporting floodlights!)

It really helps that the rugby players (like the soccer players) don't wear stupid costumes that drain the pictures of individuality, the way that cricketers and American footballers do. Complicated headgear is particularly damaging in this respect.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 PM
October 04, 2003
Nice picture

Just to say, I like this picture, "A Portrait of a Woman" by Robert Campin (1375/80-1444):


I got it here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:25 PM
October 01, 2003
Lynn Chadwick beats Bridget Riley

Like Alice Bachini, with whom I saw them last Sunday, I liked the sculptures by Lynn Chadwick at the Tate. I preferred the semi-representational ones that were definitely people to the more famous ones, i.e. the ones I've seen a couple of before, that look a bit like birds but basically lilke weird things with messy horizontal heads.

chadwic2.jpg    riley1.jpg

This one on the left is the best Chadwick picture I could find on the Internet, which I got from here.

After Alice had gone I paid £8.50 to see the Bridget Riley exhibition, i.e. all the stuff done by the woman who did the one on the right, above. Seeing the originals adds nothing to seeing decent copies, except the knowledge that seeing the originals adds nothing to seeing decent copies, which is, I suppose, something. The paintings of Bridget Riley are artwork for the printer, presented as if they were regular paintings, and although I like them a lot, I'd already seen them all, in perfectly satisfactory printouts thank you.

Some of the pictures are like those bits of artwork they have in magazines to show you how the eye can sometimes be deceived, into seeing colours that aren't there, and into seeing diagonals which are really upright, and so on. Some of them look like that new flag someone has designed for the EU, like a multicoloured barcode. They aren't unpleasant. Many are very pretty. And if you do the same artistic thing for about four decades, it will have its own kind of single-minded impressiveness. But … the Chadwicks were much better to actually see in the flesh, I thought. The Chadwicks are still there, unlike the Rileys which finished on Sunday, and viewing the Chadwicks costs nothing.

My favourite Chadwicks, and I couldn't find a photo of these, were three ladies with shiny golden triangular flat faces, and with shiny golden rectangles of accurately done bosoms and bellies on the front of otherwise very sculptural and black and abstract figures. It was as if they had a window on their fronts instead of clothes.

If Chadwick's reputation had taken a slightly different turn, things like these, only smaller (as some of the Chadwicks themselves are - as Alice explains) could easily be the stuff of car boot sales, with the art critics all sneering away at their crass popular appeal and shameless playing-to-the-gallery quality, what with the nicest of them so clearly being of something.

If they were at a car boot sale, would I have liked them so much? Probably not. At the Tate the Chadwicks are keeping out stuff that would almost certainly have been far worse, whereas there's usually fun stuff at car boot sales, if you look. At a car boot sale I would have said: these are okay. At the Tate I said: Hey! These are okay! With modern art, you are grateful for small mercies.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:30 AM
September 29, 2003
Art critics being silly

Perry de Havilland reports on the ruffled feathers of the art critics in connection with the Lloyd Webber collection now on display at the Royal Academy, quoting from an Ian Hislop piece from yesterday's Sunday Telegraph (paper only):

What appears to really annoy a lot of the critics is the literalism of the paintings: the idea that there is a story or a message, or even something as vulgar as a moral in the artwork, rather than just an impression or a mood or an emotion. Brian Sewell says that Webber has "a literal eye" and that this "has nothing to do with Art". Nothing at all? This seems rather harsh.

Indeed. Perry comments:

… Most art critics hate literal art because literal art can be understood by anyone who takes the time to learn a bit about the context within which the art was created. … much of what passes for art these days is so obscure that it requires an ArtCrit, such as Sewell or Saatchi, to give it some meaning. I guess what I am really saying is that much of what the likes of Tracey Emin does is so devoid of intrinsic meaning that only a professional arbiter of artistic values and taste can tell us poor muggles what the hell it means. …

Perry himself supplies that link to The Bed. (The Bed has now replaced The Pile of Bricks as the popular British definition of the silliness of Modern Art.)

I'd go further. Literal art can often be understood without any extra learning at all, especially if it is literal art of the here and now, like the movies or television or pop music. Yes, there may be plenty more to enjoy if one learns some more, but the enjoyment can start straight away, without any critic being involved at all.

A central skill for all culture vultures is that of keeping critics in their place, at the back, explaining why the punters seem to enjoy this rather than that, and adding humbly that they might also enjoy this, and maybe that, and that they personally rather like this, and also that. But what many critics seem to want to do is to decide that people must enjoy this rather than that. And sometimes they even announce that the punters do actually enjoy this rather than that, and that if the punters say otherwise, they are mistaken.

Perry supplies a link to a piece by Brian Sewell, who I think probably knows a thing or two about oil paintings, but who knows very little indeed about art in general. As I report at the end of this Samizdata piece, he proved this to me in just the one fatuously wrong-headed syllable with the answer he gave to a question I asked him about popular art. Basically I asked him if popular art can ever be to art of the higher sort, artistic type art. His reply was: "No." Idiot.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:04 AM
September 18, 2003
Tyler Cohen's Mexican painter friends

This is another "I love the blogosphere" postings, but I do, I do.

I started, as I often do, here, and scrolled down to this, and from there I went here, and then I clicked on "MAIN" on the page of that posting and got to this piece and that mentioned some Mexican painter friends.

I'm interested in how much you can learn about painting from the Internet. Okay, how much I am learning about painting from the Internet. For me, it's the ideal medium. For me, actually seeing all the paintings is too costly in time and travel, and anyway I'm not that interested. Picture books are too expensive in money and library muddle and space occupied, and too unwieldy to look at. I also find it impossible to keep track of where everything is to be found, again, on paper. However, flinging a semi-decent photographic reproduction of some paintings up on my computer screen is an ideal way to at least see what the paintings people are talking about.

Architecture and movies and classical music, in fact music of any kind, I completely see the point of. I don't have to try to get interested in those, because I already am. Painting, however, for me, is a foreign country, and requires a bit of effort. It's intriguing and beautiful, but I don't live there. However, I do want to see travellers' snaps and to read travellers' tales about the land of painting. This is one of the reasons I so like the 2Blowhards site. I can read pieces like this there, about a key Picasso painting, with all the pertinent illustrations, without deranging my day or having to borrow or buy anything.

So I clicked on "my Mexican painter friends", and I got to a collection of wild and wonderful images from Mexico, like the man says. Some of them remind me of the Bayeux Tapestry, others of sixties rock album covers, others of all kinds of things, including David Hockney.

The only really good way to see these Mexican pictures is to click on the wiggly shaped thumbnails and look at what you then get full size. Most of them have lots and lots of detail, which you just can't see if you want the whole picture on your screen at once. For me, with my primitive understanding of computerised pictures, that means downloading and then looking at them in something like Photoshop.

Here's my favourite one, by Eusebio Diez Alejandro:


Says Tyler Cohen of this man:

Eusebio is best known for his scenes of apocalypses and for his very forceful and highly detailed work. He works only in black and white, and spends most of the year working in the fields. I bought this harvest scene from him last year. I think he is one of the best.

On the basis of the pictures we can see, I agree.

I should add that many of the pictures Tyler Cohen shows are in the most vivid of colours. For instance, I also like the look of this one a lot, by the apparently much admired Marcial Camilo Ayala, although the photography is somewhat hasty:


Says Cohen:

Right now Marcial is at work on some larger projects for me, including a 16-amate history of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, plus the largest amate ever drawn, eight foot by four foot.

Which sounds impressive. If you want to know exactly what "amate" means, I can't help you there. You'll have to follow the link.

As usual, I hope that reproducing these pictures here isn't any sort of copyright infringement.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:40 PM
September 08, 2003
Getting back the art that the Nazis stole

There's an interesting culture story in today's New York Times:

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 — An organization for American museums is initiating a central registry of art objects on Monday, created to help speed the return to their rightful owners of paintings, drawings and sculpture seized during the Nazi era.

The Internet registry, which lists information on nearly 6,000 artworks in 66 of the largest American art museums, opens a new chapter in a controversy that erupted in the mid-1990's over the restitution of assets the Nazis plundered from Holocaust victims and others.

Recovering artworks, thousands of them seized by the Nazis from public museums and private collectors in Europe during the 1930's and 40's, has been a lingering goal, partly because of the difficulties in tracking the provenance, or trail of ownership, of many pieces.

Here is the website. Unsurprisingly, it is being said that this effort is not as much of an effort as it might be, and about that I have no informed comment to offer.

I wonder how long it will be before the world of art resounds to cries that it needs this stuff as well, i.e. little tiny hidden chippy thingies attached to everything that enables the Art World Government to track them wherever they go. Well, I don't really, because I don't know what I'm talking about. They've probably been using this sort of technology for years. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they were among the earliest customers for it and that they helped pioneer it.

The Nazis haven't been the only art criminals.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:08 PM
September 07, 2003
A copy of a copy of a copy of a great painting

Here is a very interesting exhibition of paintings:

Unfortunately, this exhibition can only take place in a virtual form. Its very principle of selection prevents us from offering physical access to the works on show. There are benefits, however, as well as frustrations. There are no queues. The actual works remain, by definition, out of reach, and only their reproduced image – which might be an old, faded, black-and-white photograph, or a copy done by another artist, perhaps merely on the basis of a written description – circulate.

I'm sticking up this particular picture from it here because it looks like a pretty good one to me, because it looks great on my screen and with luck therefore will also look good on yours, because I was able to copy it (often you can't), and because it is the right shape to make a big impact in a blog entry.


Here's the blurb from the guardian site:

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, The Just Judges, 1432

The most amazing thing is not how many masterpieces go missing or get destroyed but that something so fragile as art survives for any length of time at all. The vicissitudes of an early, wonderful work by Jan van Eyck and his brother are incredible. The Ghent altarpiece finished in 1432, was rescued from rioting Reformation iconoclasts in the 16th-century, only to be dismembered and carted off to Paris by Napoleon. After Waterloo, panels were sold, then finally reassembled after the first world war. Today it is once more, and hopefully for a long time to come, the masterpiece admired by Albrecht Dürer 500 years ago. Well, nearly. In 1934 one panel, depicting The Just Judges, was stolen. It has never come to light, and has been replaced by a copy.

Not bad for a copy.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:03 PM
August 22, 2003
Where photography meets painting

This is really interesting, linked to by, of all people, in their latest newsletter. It's a collection of after/before photos. When you mouse over the immaculate image, you suddenly get to see all the maculacies, so to speak, that have been computered out.

We've all read about this kind of trickery. But I for one have never actually seen the details of what is involved before.

b3ta: never knowingly profound. But they slipped up this time, I reckon.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:02 PM
August 19, 2003
Art and outrage – and Prince Harry

Jackie D of au currant has some art crit:

Modern artists the world over have spent the last couple of decades trying to push the envelope, coming up with ever more deliberately offensive works to the point where the world largely fails to notice anymore. Figure of Jesus Christ sculpted out of poo? Yawn. Two men and a donkey getting their freak on in an aquarium full of vomit and urine? Zzzz.

And then who should come along and produce works of art that result in honest to goodness controversy but Prince Harry. And with his art A-level submissions, no less. Aborigines are all pissed off, but as someone pointed out to me recently, Prince Harry's paintings aren't that different from the sort of prints one can easily buy at places in the mall like Pier One Imports.

One of Jackie D's commenters says read Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word, which I did a long time ago. It is the last word on the art/outrage syndrome, despite having been published nearly thirty years ago now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:54 PM
August 13, 2003
How losing at war changes painting

I'm feeling all cultured out at the moment. So here's Friedrich Blowhard to take up the slack for me:

Glancing over the newspapers of the past six months or so I've noticed an almost complete disconnect between the "arts" page and the front page – that is, between the arts and the war in Iraq. (I understand many artists have expressed opinions about the war, but I don't see much difference in the art being produced.) This got me to thinking about the relationship between war and shifts in “dominant” visual styles. The historical record would suggest that it's more accurate to say that it’s not war, per se, that alters visual styles, but rather losing a war.

For example, there weren’t a lot of wars between 1815 and 1914 in Europe. By far the biggest was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Is it an accident that Modern Art first started to flourish in France (the loser country) during the era immediately following that defeat?

While Germany, the victor of that war, wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Modern Art until … after its defeat in World War I, when it took over from France as the leader of Modernity (think the Bauhaus, abstract painting, etc., etc.)

In the original posting there are pictures to illustrate these transformations. So far so good. However, I'm not quite so convinced by these examples.

And how about the “takeoff” of Abstract Expressionism in the U.S – which didn’t happen in a big way until the Korean War and its aftermath? (To say nothing of how AbEx had been “fertilized” by European refugees from countries already defeated in WWII.)

And the practitioners of Minimalism and Conceptualism would seem to owe a major debt to the Vietnam War – if the U.S. had been triumphant in that one, I suspect we'd still be looking at versions of Abstract Expressionism.

First, a quibble. Korea was not a loss for America, was it? More like a draw, I would have thought. Still, an unsettling collective experience, and not at all what Americans must have been hoping for, especially after those tiumphant Inchon Landings, which provoked the Chinese into joining in and snatching victory away from the USA. Vietnam was certainly a loss, whatever Kevin Kline may have said about it in A Fish Called Wanda – "It was a draw!!!!" Although John Cleese was also wrong that "They wupped your arse!" It was more a case of the USA winning, and then getting fed up and going home. But a loss, even so.

More seriously, I don't quite see the cause and effect processes at work so clearly. Maybe it's that the closer you are to a culture – and I'm a lot closer to the USA since WW2 than I am to 1880s France or 1920s Germany – the less these Grand Narratives of this causing that jump out at you. After all, the history of art, as the Blowhards themselves make a point of emphasising repeatedly, is a lot more complicated than those simple grand narratives. And that's especially true in America, where so much of the unofficial story remains invisible – or else is visible but unwelcome – to the official guardians of the Grand Narrative. America and the totality of its "culture" is just so much bigger than any "art" book is likely to tell you.

Still, Friedrich Blowhard is a deal closer to the USA than I am, and he sees it, and that must count for a lot.

Basically, I think he's right.

I wonder if anything similar applies to popular art, or whether we're only talking "official" or "high" art here. I have the feeling that popular art is more detached from the triumphs and tribulations of official and "national" policy, but that could be wrong. After all, they supply most of the dead bodies when a war goes wrong.

Anyway, a fascinating post, and a typical illustration of why I think the 2Bs are the business and I'm just a hanger onner, culture-blogging-wise. (And yes you're right. Another favourite movie of mine is Capra's The Apartment. "I guess that's the way it crumbles. Cookie-wise.")

I can't resist adding that Friedrich's title for his posting – "Art An Extension of War By Other Means?" – made me think that what the posting was actually going to be about was sculduggery at the Venice Biennale, or some such, with National Arts Bureaucrats bashing into each other with all manner of dirty tricks to make their guys come off best and to prove that the other fellows' artists are second-raters. Like all the shenanigans that goes into picking the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Other time, maybe.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
July 17, 2003
Scruton on kitsch

I use google as a spellchecker, and all I did, while doing the posting below, was type in "Kitsch" to see if I'd spelt it write.

But what I found was this, an essay about kitsch by Roger Scruton from 1999. I'm a third of the way into it, and finding it most helpful and illuminating.

The guts of it (so far) is that avant-guarde art critic Clement Greenberg decreed that you had to be abstract, because representational meant you'd descend into kitsch. He had a point, but made rather too much of it. Not all recent representational art is kitsch, but a lot of the abstract avant-guarde stuff has been:

The problem is, however, that you land yourself in kitsch in any case. Take a stroll around MoMA, and you will encounter it in almost every room: avant-garde, certainly—novel in its presumption, if not in its effect—but also kitsch, abstract kitsch, of the kind that makes modernist wallpaper or is botched together for the tourist trade on the Boulevard Montparnasse. The effusions of Georgia O'Keeffe, with their gushing suggestions of feminine and floral things, are telling instances. Study them, if you can bear it, and you will see that the disease that rotted the heart of figurative painting has struck at its successor. What makes for kitsch is not the attempt to compete with the photograph but the attempt to have your emotions on the cheap—the attempt to appear sublime without the effort of being so. And this cut-price version of the sublime artistic gesture is there for all to see in Barnett Newman or Frank Stella. When the avant-garde becomes a cliché, then it is impossible to defend yourself from kitsch by being avant-garde.

One of the many things I also like about this piece of Scruton's is that it explains something of what was so wrong with pre-modern representational art, and what was so right about, say, the Impressionists. By stripping out the obvious classical allusions, the Impressionists at least ensured that the feelings they did capture were genuine, rather than just, so to speak, linked to.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:53 PM
June 30, 2003
How paintings are copied now

This seems to me to be a logical business:

If you want a Manet, a Van Gogh, a Renoir – then Christophe Petyt is your man: he has turned exact copies of masterpieces into big business; down to the last wormhole in the frame. He talks to William Langley.

Fresh back from the Riviera, his dark hair glossy and his toned body snug in a black Versace suit, Christophe Petyt is sitting in a Paris cafe, listing the adornments of his private art collection; several Van Goghs, a particularly good Rembrandt, a pair of cherished Canalettos, a Modigliani, a Miro abstract and a comprehensive selection of the better Impressionists.

"I can," says Christophe quietly, "have any painting I like."

Then he looks up from the frosted rim of his tall chocolat froid and murmurs, "and so can you."

I love the suggestion of illicit passion, of the love – in this case of faked old masters – that dare not speak its name. And made possible for you by one of those dubious citizens who always make such things possible. Dark glossy hair. Toned body. Black Versace suit. Chocolat froid. Not one of us is William Langley's clear implication.

Well, I think it's very sensible. I mean, if I owned one of these multi-million-dollar paintings, I'd bury it in a bank vault and hang an exact copy of it on my actual wall. And then, I think I'd sell the multi-million-dollar painting, because what is the point of it spending its entire life in a bank vault? In fact, I think I'd have lots of copies made, one for each of the people who ever owned it. They'd each want one. As a souvenir. As would many others, I expect.

I've been spilling a lot of electrons here wondering when computer screens will be able to fake all those grand masters to perfection. Meanwhile, here's the plan: have painters fake them to perfection. With paint.

That's all I have to say for now. This is the small hours of Monday, and I haven't had anything here since Friday. Sorry and all that. I did a couple of semi-cultural blog postings elsewhere, namely here (which happened because of this posting here) and here. Try to think of these as your daily Brian's Culture fixes for the weekend.

I met someone this evening who described himself as a fan of this blog, so I'm suddenly feeling conscientious again.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:18 AM
June 14, 2003
Unfinished Turners at Tate Ancient

Earlier today I went to an art gallery. I like the paintings I like, but I can go for years without looking at them, and I seldom visit art galleries alone, purely to see the pictures. I just don't love paintings.

But I do like the sort of people who do like paintings, and I like going to an art gallery with a friend of this sort. That's what I did today. We went to the nearby Tate Gallery – not the Modern one, the original one, Tate Ancient, ho ho.

We looked at only a few paintings before repairing to the café but they were very good and interesting ones, seascapes by Turner that he used to prepare in private and then finish in public. He was, you might say, an early performance artist. As I said to my friend, Rolf Harris used to do this on the telly long ago, but we agreed that clever as Rolf was, this didn't make him as good a painter as Turner.

These unfinished seascapes were remarkable. Close up, they look exactly like modern abstract daubs, but from across the room what they were going to be of became very clear. In most paintings of the sea, the distinction between the sea and the air above it is very clear. With Turner it's the opposite. He liked his sea spraying itself into the air to the point of utter confusion between the two.

The place was not at all crowded. The café food was good, and good value. So it was altogether a most pleasant and diverting few hours.

Which is part of why "modern art" is doing so well these days. (Yesterday I promised some words on this and I can now start to deliver.)

Music has to sound nice. Modern music mostly doesn't and is hence disliked and shunned. But modern art works almost as well as real art. It may be silly, but it can be walked past if you don't like it, and frankly most of modern art is offensive only in its pretentiousness. If you came across the same object, but not labelled as "art" and given a stupid title, you wouldn't dislike it at all. Therefore an art gallery, even if decorated with modern instead of proper art such as I saw today, is a pleasant place to pass the time, and a great way to spend time with a friend.

A concert hall with horrible modern music playing in it is of no use to anybody.

The point is: it isn't just modern art that is popular (and it is); it is art galleries. If you have a town and you want it to become a nicer town, with somewhere for quiet intellectual people like me to meet their friends, you build an art gallery. And then, because an art gallery without art would be peculiar, you stuff the art gallery with art - real art if you can obtain some. But modern art, which is mostly a lot cheaper, will do almost as well.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 PM
June 10, 2003
Really looking

Ever since I was a kid I've liked this painting by Picasso, which I found

here. I just think it's really clever, and moving.


And I guess, thinking about it, that one of the purposes of this blog is to make myself look at paintings that I like more carefully, and to work out, e.g., why I like them, and how the guy did what he did.

I'm certainly not alone in liking this picture. It's one of Picasso's greatest hits, one of the ones that millions of people like. Do a google for "Picasso" "Woman Crying" and you get plenty of stuff to check out.

For example here, I found this:


And here, I found this:


As I say, a very popular picture. Those are copies of this painting done by schoolchildren.

It says everything about my skill at looking at pictures that until I took a hard look at this picture a day ago, I never got how Picasso really did the handkerchief. Instead of making it like a regular white handkerchief, he made it white by making it transparent, but in black and white instead of colour. I literally had never seen this properly. I had just gaped at the whole thing, the general effect, and you know, liked it, and thought she looked very sad. But if you had asked me to reproduce this picture, the way the kids who did these copies reproduced it, I'd have got absolutely nowhere. I have yet to scrutinise it remotely as thoroughly as they did. If I did, I'm sure I'd have at least another dozen wonders to recount.

They didn't get her right though. The original is miles more exact, miles better. The draughtsman has her looking startled, and the computer graphics guy only has her going through the motions, as if she were at a funeral. Comparing the original with these copies also made me look at the original much more carefully, and see its virtues by seeing the differences.

The hat adds to the effect, I think. It does indeed suggest a funeral, rather than just a regular sad circumstance. And by having the woman dressed more formally, it makes the extreme … "informality" isn't the word … more like non- or anti-formality of her grief all the more potent, by contrast.

And then there's that characteristic twentieth century thing of the painting being very, very obviously a painting, very obviously not a photograph, and yet packing an emotional punch which draws you in past the obvious non-realism (for example the excessive colourfulness) of what you are looking at, right into the drama. I think it is this contrast which makes this painting such a popular favourite. The painting is both intensely artificial and intensely real.

Such are my thoughts on "Woman Crying".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
May 12, 2003
France - pretty as a picture

Today my host and I visited a delightful French seaside town, called Collioure. All that I've been saying here about the pleasures of vernacular architecture applied to this place. Cute or what.

There were, of course, many shops aimed at tourists, selling trinkets, food and drink of all kinds. In particular, there were a number of "art" shops.

Coullioure is one of a number of towns in these parts which are famous for their association with artists, rather in the way that the town of St Ives in Cornwall is, although that's not somewhere I've been so I don't know how exact the comparison is. But whereas St Ives is merely a quaint oddity in terms of its place in the life of the British nation, it is no exaggeration to say that France itself actually defines itself as an aesthetic enterprise.

Remember that film called The Train, the one with Burt Lancaster playing a French railway worker in the French Resistance, who gets embroiled into supervising a daring scheme to divert a bunch of French paintings which evil Nazi Paul Scofield is trying to steal and take back to Germany. True, this film was made by an American, John Frankenheimer, who also directed another favourite film of mine, The Manchurian Candidate. Nevertheless, I think this film captures something very basic about post World War 2 France, which is that France now defines itself as an aesthetic enterprise. Those paintings - the names picked out in big letters, "PICASSO", "MATISSE", "VAN GOGH", and so on - now are France, in a way that nothing else is.

I live in a country, Britain, which defines itself as its history, as its constitution - unwritten but proud, as its institutions, as its procedures. Insofar as Britain is the way it merely looks then that look would be the English countryside and a manner of occupying it both of which are now rapidly fading into history, and being buried under agribusiness and concrete and general modernity.

In France, it's the opposite. The national political history of France is a mixed story at best. They brag about "gloire", but they have precious little of it really to boast about. What they still do really well is this beauty thing. The place just looks so damned nice, almost everywhere you go.

So these art shops are not mere side shows; they are the equivalent of those many, many souvenir shops in Britain which celebrate the continuity of our political institutions (personified by the members of the Royal Family), the decency of our policemen, the honesty of our cab drivers, and the excellence of our Parliamentary system of government.

And I hate these French art shops in much the same way that I hate those ghastly London souvenir shops. Both these institutions are cashing in on something real, by selling trash which is the bastard cousin of these realities. These French art shops are crammed with faked up impressionism by the square yard, with mass produced Cezanne rip-offs, with pictures of pin-up girls done with Van Gogh clouds in the background, with stuff that is just not real. It would be okay if they sold photos and posters of the real stuff, the way lots of real art shops in places like Paris do. But what they sell is not the honest reproduction of art but the illusion of art itself. In fact, thinking about it some more, I think I probably hate these places more than I do those damned souvenir shops.

Everything else about this national aesthetic project seems to me to be working, at any rate aesthetically. But the important thing to get is that this is what is going on. If you want to understand French foreign policy, you have to realise that their anti Anglo Saxonism is not "political", it is aesthetic. The French are anti-American because they are anti-ugly.

There are, of course, lots of French people who wish France could be a bit less beautiful and a bit more, well, interesting - a bit more aimed at the future and aimed at making money and doing stuff not already done. Lots of young French people would love to live in a country where, even if you have crap qualifications, you could get a job with a future without travelling to ugly little Britain or ugly great America.

Will France be able to keep this aesthetic enterprise going? I doubt it. The way they are heading now is that they are well on the way to turning their entire country into a huge retirement home for the rich middle classes of the world. Will they settle for this indefinitely? My guess would be not. But it will be very pretty for as long as it lasts. Apart from those art shops, I mean.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:05 PM
April 22, 2003
On "knowing" about art

I'm only now getting around to commenting on this piece in the electric Sun, which Alice Bachini linked to last week. It's about how Saddam Hussein liked paintings of fantasy heroes battling snakes and monsters, and impressing scantily clad blondes.


Alice quotes the Sun approvingly for reporting that "experts" reckon that the pictures Saddam liked show that he knew nothing about art. Says the Sun's Sally Brook:

Experts also reckon they show he knows NOTHING about art.

The basis of Alice's complaint about these pictures is that she didn't like all the people she once knew who did like them. Fair enough. Don't tell my friend Chris Tame, the Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He loves this sort of stuff, as, I would surmise, do quite a few other libertarians.

But what interests me is this notion of "knowing" about art. Who says that in order to enjoy art you have to "know" about it? Liking paintings like this would prove that you "know nothing" about art, only if included in this "knowledge" is the knowledge that art such as this is completely worthless. But how can any such thing be "known"?

As I've said here earlier, somewhere, at some time or another, Tom Wolfe's book The Painted Word is a key Brian's Culture Blog text. This is because this book nails a certain sort of modern art which only has any meaning or value at all because of what those who like it "know" about it. What would otherwise have been regarded as mere items of refuse or of at best trivial decorative value become, because and only because of the theories by which art critics surrounded these objects, "important" objects.

You can see why critics – why "experts" - would love this sort of art, because it puts them right at the centre of the story. No critical "theory", and you have no "art". Just bits of junk.

And at the opposite end of the artistic universe you have paintings like these ones that Saddam Hussein stands accused of liking. Paintings that are "of " something, and what is more, of something exciting and glamorous and stirring to the imagination. These are paintings you can enjoy, if you enjoy this sort of thing, without "knowing" any more about them then you can see by just looking at them.

There is, of course, plenty that one might know about such paintings as these. There might be published stories to know about, of which this painting is an illustration. There might be other paintings to know about, by the artist who painted this one. And so forth. So I'm not saying that art "knowledge" is worthless and pointless. But if you have to know things for a work of "art" to be of any value at all, or to mean anything at all, well, that's something else again. Something else again from art, I would say. If it is art, then it is art of a very silly sort.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:54 PM
April 11, 2003
On the how and the why of canons

Here is what may be another of those feeble Brian's Culture Blog postings that I warned you about. A quota fulfiller, as I've long been calling such postings on my Education Blog.

In my film list piece, I touched on the Posterity thing. How does stuff make it into the "canon"? This, after all, is why it matters if something is considered to be Art or not. If it is deemed to be art, more people will be told about it in future decades.

Well, I don't now have anything profound to add, but meanwhile, this, from Aaron Haspel, is good stuff, in answer to Michael Blowhard's original question:

Woody Allen's movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It's subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of "metaphysical" poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne's "difficulty" when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a "classic," and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is "metaphysical." Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne's actual merits.

The problem with art that is addressed by having a canon is how long it can take to get acquainted with it.

Profound thought. It is much, much easier to get a rough idea of a painting, and of how much you like it, from one minute's acquaintance, than it is to make a similar judgement of a novel, or even a longer poem. Not necessarily easy, but easier. So the relative power of the literature canon-arbiters is likely to be bigger than that of their confreres in the visual arts, a state of affairs that will only be reinforced when just about all paintings of any merit are available for view in decent repros on the Internet, which is surely not the case yet, but equally surely soon will be.

That's one of the advantages that Michael Blowhard has over me, besides being cleverer and more knowledgeable and everything about these things than I am. He likes pictures, and he can show them in a form that gives us a very good idea indeed of what he's talking about. I can do the same with architecture, once I get the aesthetics of this blog semi-organised.

But one of my biggest cultural enthusiasms is classical music, and although I can say that the Brahms Violin Concerto is very nice, I can't show it to you for twenty seconds confident that you will immediately get, at a glance, that it has a longish first movement, a delightful shorter slow movement with a famously prominent oboe part, and a nice upbeat gypsy-style finale. I can tell you all that, of course, but what have I really told you? Not much, frankly.

Thus, we can expect the classical music canon to remain more solidly in place, alongside the literary canon, for a while yet and maybe for ever, and at any rate compared to the paintings canon.

Or maybe, the paintings canon is going to get a lot, lot bigger, and a lot more blurry at the edges, to the point where time also becomes a consideration, the time it takes you to glance at that many pictures. And what Michael is doing is throwing a few thousand more pictures into the canon at this technologically opportune moment. He probably says that somewhere.

Gotta rush now. Tonight I'm giving a talk, about "culture" – wouldn't you know? - and I have to, er, get it ready. So apologies if any typos (and worse) take a bit of a while to get cleaned up.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:32 PM