Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jock McTitian — Transfer Window About To Close

Glasgow South MP Ian Davidson has added his voice to those opposing the spending of public money on acquiring Titian's Diana And Actaeon from the Bridgewater collection (left). An announcement is expected at any moment confirming that the necessary £50 million has been raised.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland's 'Good Morning Scotland' programme, Mr Davidson, argued that it was difficult justifying spending such sums on "a picture by a long dead Venetian — it's not as if it's Jock McTitian."

This was interesting for all sorts of reasons — not least the way in which Davidson used the nationalist card (generally used to argue for the retention of cultural property) to argue against its acquisition. Titian wasn't a Scot. Ergo, why keep it?

But leaving aside the finer points for and against acquiring the picture, what struck me most was the way in which art history as a discipline once again subtly emerged as the whipping boy. "Very few people will ever have heard of Titian," said Davidson, unwittingly revealing his own ignorance of the history of western visual culture. "Many will have thought he was an Italian football player. What is the point of wasting this money in this way?"

His comment reminded me of a 2006 edition of Celebrity University Challenge featuring television journalists against television drama writers. The TV-hack team — comprising Kate Adie, Michael Buerk, Bridget Kendall and, I think, Nick Robinson — were shown three famous paintings from British national collections and asked to identify the picture and the artist. I recall the images included Sir Henry Raeburn's Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, from the Scottish National Gallery (right, top), Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage Portrait from the London National Gallery (bottom right), and Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano (centre), also from the National Gallery. The journos muttered and exchanged mystified expressions.

Should we be critical of them for not recognizing any of these pictures? After all, these guys are justifiably celebrated for their war-reporting rather than for their knowledge of art history. But it was notable that rather than the usual frustrated finger-clicking indicating that they knew but couldn't quite dredge up the answer, they all displayed totally blank faces as if they'd been asked to compute the molecular density of moon rock. The skating cleric aside, the other two pictures are, let's face it, seminal images from the history of art.

The fact that a handful of prominent BBC news journalists were unable to identify three of the most internationally famous images from UK national collections perhaps underscores Ian Davidson's point that one of the greatest artists of the Italian High Renaissance could be an Italian footballer for all it matters to the British public.

So isn't it time to promote the teaching of art history at primary and secondary school level? It remains a highly popular subject at university, but why isn't a basic knowledge of art history recognised as a valuable component of children's intellectual development and enshrined as such within the national curriculum?

I was interested to read that Munira Mirza, London Mayor Boris Johnson's director of cultural policy, has included in her manifesto: "raising the profile of art history in schools". Bravo.

This ought to be adopted as a matter of urgency. If our children — and indeed our celebrity news hacks — had a better visual education then perhaps these perennial issues over whether or not to save a picture for the nation would not be quite so fraught with marginal bickering. Most people would know who Titian was and would have some idea of his significance to the development of Western painting.

All we'd need to do then is decide whether or not to fork out for it. The transfer window for Jock McTitian is about to close. Hold the back page.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Crowds, crowds, and celebrities

Crowds were very much in evidence in central London yesterday afternoon – at blockbuster art exhibitions, at football matches and at political demonstrations.

While Annie Lennox, Bianca Jagger and thousands of others assembled in Trafalgar Square to protest against the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip, another crowd of biblical proportions descended upon Ye Olde Tate Britain to catch the Francis Bacon show before it closes in a fortnight's time. It wasn't that long ago that the Hayward staged a sizeable retrospective of Bacon's work, but his place in the public imagination, like the price of his work on the international art market, just keeps on growing.

The sheer size of the crowds willing to wrestle for a poor view of Bacon's paintings stood in stark contrast to the scant few dawdling through the last days of the Turner Prize exhibition. Hardly surprising, I concluded, given the standard of work on display. This year the preponderance of video-based nonsense was striking. I have limited patience for much of this stuff. There are never enough benches to allow you to sit down and concentrate properly. There is no way of telling whether you've entered the darkened room at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the piece. Does it matter? Who cares? What's the wing-span of an African butterfly? Did I remember to switch off the oven? Shall I have a latte or an espresso when I leave here? I wonder what's on at the Hayward?

I was momentarily intrigued by a Runa Islam video of a woman smashing a perfectly good china coffee pot, but the rest reached a level of tedium so profound that it quite literally propelled me out of the building and over to the South Bank to catch another slice of the Warhol show.

Like so many Hayward exhibitions, this one is horribly over-designed, probably because the curators always need to do something radical to distract us from the sensation of being trapped in a nuclear bunker. Bianca Jagger turned up again here, this time as the subject of one of Andy's polaroid portraits of 1979. But like just about everything else in the room it was displayed too high up and in such gloom that it couldn't be properly appreciated. Sorry if this all sounds a bit critical. It's meant to.

Warhol may have been one of the progenitors of the now pervasive video work that is a stock element of every contemporary art fair and Turner Prize. You can credit him with starting the trend but you can't blame him for how pretentious it all became. I sat for a good half an hour, mesmerized by a soundless film of the Velvet Underground and Nico jamming in the Factory.

But what helped end my gallery perambulations on a high note was a short video Andy shot in 1980 of a conversation between Henry Geldzahler, former curator of contemporary art at the Met, and his friend and erstwhile colleague, Diana Vreeland, the high priestess of couture.

The two were seated on a couch in DV's boudoir (left), a corpulent Henry lounging at one end in a sharp grey suit, puffing on a cigar and stroking his wispy grey beard, Vreeland staring down at him from her great gondola-like nose and giving forth in her gravelly baritone.

The conversation turned to the Louvre. Vreeland related how as a five year-old living in Paris she and her sister would be taken with clockwork regularity to see the Mona Lisa. On each occasion their nanny would position them in a different part of the gallery to demonstrate that wherever one stood, La Gioconda would always be watching you.

On one occasion in 1911, late in the afternoon, as their zealous guardian was once again re-positioning them to labour the point, a guard entered and told them the museum was closing, it was time to leave. The next day, the Mona Lisa was stolen.

"We were the most famous children in Paris," Vreeland boomed. "We were the last children to see the Mona Lisa before she was snatched!" Seventy years later, Diana Vreeland was still dining out on the story.

So using stolen art as part of a process of self-aggrandizement is nothing new. It's just not always done with such elegance.