Thursday, 16 October 2008

Vettriano and the body-bag

There is something almost perfectly contemptible about Jack Vettriano, but I don't do contempt, at least I don't do it well, and in any case why complain? You might as well complain about cravats or candy-floss, and I don't. However, there is a kind of betrayal there and I am trying to define of what. Mostly it's a romanticisation of cinema, a blanding out of problematic and interesting imagery into gloss. Take the couple above, on the ice. Annigoni meets Antonioni. It is period, statuesque, faceless and depthless. It is all association and no substance.

Here's another:

More movies. The gangster film begins to move towards genteel pre-pornography. Of which there is more. Everywhere we find curious blends of the received glamorous, the received romantic and brutal vacuity. If we, for a moment, imagined the scenes depicted in their original contexts - and there always are original contexts - they would be fleshed out and, even when cheap, carry about them a certain pathos. There is no pathos anywhere in Vettriano.

I don't say say he means the brutal vacuity. I do think the pornography is implicit. Another step here:

The pornography is not in the image but in the picture. What people do is not pornography. People having sex is not pornography. Even pictures of people having sex is not pornography. Pornography is to do with distance, facelessness and presentation. It is a brutal blanding out and I think that is latent in even the most harmless of Vettriano's work. I do not for a second mean to imply that Vettriano as a man is brutal. How would I know what he is? It is the pictures that nudge the way of brutality, and the more so the prettier they are.

And here is where I sense the betrayal. Because the scenes depicted - always nostalgic, always some time in the past, even if only in the eighties - have a certain second-hand life, a hand-me-down received kind of life. But the paintings zip them up and place them in pictorial body-bags. Nothing is moving in them, only a closed-down, hollow parody or betrayal of desire, a clumsy brutal emptiness without the redeeming feature of irony.

I'm struggling to work it out, I really am. And I don't mind the clumsiness. I never mind the clumsiness.


Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello George, I agree with you about the "second-hand life". There are all sorts of diverse influences, all of which have been submerged in a glossy, "Pirelli calender" look. Silhouettes are popular because they capture the viewer's attention. The influences that come to my mind (as well as the film ones you mention) include Hopper, Balthus, Monet, Boudin and August Sander.

George S said...

Yes, certainly those. Not so sure about Sander but I'll look to see.

I don't mind Pirelli calendars or pin-ups generally. I think people have a sense of that realm and its limits. I suspect I don't even mind what is generally called pornography. Such things are not even vaguely high-minded. They don't regard themselves as art. Vettriano comes on as art, especially with those references to cinema and other paintings. Maybe it is simply the betrayal of art I find annoying. I would sooner have those cheap crime fiction covers of the fifties and sixties. They do have pathos. They sort of believe in themselves.

I'll think more about this as I am not quite satisfied with this formulation or the one in the post itself.

Where are you writing from now?

Anonymous said...

What I find intriguing is what you might call the J.K. Rowling question: why is that artist in particular so successful?

I mean, I have a lot more time for Rowling than Vettriano, and it's not surprising that people like the Harry Potter books, but still, her status as a publishing phenomenon seems out of proportion to the specialness of the books. It's even more true of Vettriano: I can certainly see why enough people would like his paintings for him to earn a living. But the fact that he's one of the world's most successful artists: it just seems baffling.

Obviously, beyond a certain point these things can develop a momentum of their own, but it has to start from somewhere. Is it just blind luck? Is it really all just built on one poster that hit a sweet spot, or is there something in these paintings which I'm not seeing?

George S said...

The difference for me, Harry, is that the Rowling books are what they are. I read the first two. The first was good, the second less so. It did not tempt me to plough on through the rest. I did ponder, like you, on their popularity and supposed they must have answered to some particular need or lack of the time, a fantasy involving good and evil, set in childhood and dead straight. Children like to be frightened and assured. They like the ordinary to become fantastical. They like the idea of transferred parentage on a temporary basis.

I know this is a perennial need, but I wondered what else was satisfying it at the moment the first Potter book appeared? Philip Pullman, a far finer writer, might be too literary. Harry Potter is more C S Lewis in level. Supernatural powers, morality. Rowling does nothing fancy in terms of style. Her very flatness may have been the invitation. The fact that her books have so readily transferred to film might demonstrate the old truism that the better the book the worse the film and vice versa.

Good luck to her, I think. Vettriano is something else.

Mark Granier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Granier said...

The most contemptible thing about him may be his decision to exchange his birth name, Jack Hoggan, for his mother's maiden name, Vettrino, to which he added an a. That a (possibly) speaks volumes. Reminds me of the professor of dancing, Denis J. Maginni (born Maginnis), in Ulysses.

I don't see the similarity to Balthus, in style, imagery or subject matter. As far as I know, Balthus painted pubescent girls (sometimes accompanied by adults), almost exclusively, and his style has elements of impressionism, expressionism and surrealism. B apparently claimed that his paintings were not erotic. Perhaps, rather, some of them are so frankly erotic that they cancel/short out that element. For another essay, I guess.

Coirí Filíochta said...

"The most contemptible thing about him may be his decision to exchange his birth name...for his mother's maiden name.."

in Spain people take their surnames from both their mother and father, in either order, so for example - in english - my name is kevin desmond and my mother's name pauline swords and so in spain i am kevin swords desmond or kevin desmond swords.

. in gaeilge, caoimhín claimhte deasmhuman or caoimhín deasmhuman claimhte.

Frank O'Connor was born Michael Francis O'Connor O'Donovan, and chose to ditch his father's surname and go with his mother's who was the closest person to him in the world.

Robert Graves reckons that:

...the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Med and N Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating to the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry - in the modern nostalgic sense of the unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute. The language was tampered withy in late Minoan times when the language was tampered with by invaders from Central Asia who began to substitute patrilinear for matrilinear institutions and remodelled or falsified the myths to justify social changes

The mercantile Bronze Age Minoan civilisation ran from circa 2700 to 1450 BC on Crete with sigs of serious disturbance caused by earthquake or invasion (as Graves posists)around 1700BC.

XXX Graves Evidence naked women, CLICK NOW!!

..religion focused on female deities, with females officiating.[7] The statues of priestesses in Minoan culture and frescoes showing men and women participating in the same sports such as bull-leaping, lead some archaeologists to believe that men and women held equal social status. Inheritance is thought to have been matrilineal.

Graves blames Socrates for what he terms, intellectual homesexuality as he reckons Soco uncomprimisingly rejected the earliest myth when he came on the scene as a thinker a 1000 yrs after the fall of the gentle trading civilisation had been overtaken by the warrior-centric
Mycenaean culture after - what some specualte was the Dorian Invasion and others a natural disaster or mix of both on mainland Greece, which extended to Crete and ran circa 1600 - 1100 BC, the time frame in which a national epic that formed the bedrock of the modern English poetic myth, happened, the Iliad occured and after the end of this short lived empire in which there is no evidence of any temples or religion -- the
Greek Dark Ages are our terrible void of not knowing any jollies, until Homer comes 300 yrs later and our father who's art is spenglish jammers be thy name, forgive the serfs as they forgive the toffs, for now until the end of enders and corrie, fanx for all the tv and techno..

This scenario supports the position in the broadest of stroke on the Graves cheerleaders' evidential canvas, that a hetrosexual (a sober Jack K) religious trading type of gay people (not in the modern *queer theory* sense - a drunk Jack and Neal wiv ginsey filming) into fun and frolics, a live and let live attitude - displaced by harder chaps into butch smackings, top dogs and showing who's boss to the big softies who didn't wanna fight, only dance about in their temples with naked nuns in the frenzy of a pure poetic i Bob Cobblers hope to get back on the go tonight in my bedist with any interested parties who must be:

1 - slim, attractive and wanting to do as they are told

2 - men only.


Mark Granier said...

Re Jack Hoggan's name-change, I have done a little googling. One person says it was to spare his parents embarrassment, another that it was a smart marketing move (which is what I'd figured). Whatever. "Contemptible" is far too strong a word, and my qualifiers don't let me off the hook. So yes, Des, you're right to take me up on it. One's name is one's own business after all.

Jonathan Wonham said...

I am writing these days from Stavanger in Norway. Moved here about two months ago. Difficult to quit Paris after five years, but Norway is good for the children and we are happy here.

I will continue the Connaisances blog, but have also started a new one for Norway which is called Icebus. I hope to link up with the Norwegian poetry scene that way.

The August Sander comparison I had in mind was this and this.

The Balthus comparison between pictures like this and this.

George S said...

Formally the Sander does bear some resemblance. I am a lot less sure about the Balthus. Even with the Sander - maybe especially with the Sander - the differences seem very important. If anything the Sander is an expansion of the given. More dignity, more history, more general substance. Sander is a sort of Velasquez among photographers. Vettriano reduces. But it is not so much the specific issue of Vettriano that is (briefly) interesting, as the question of what happens and how it happens when an image fails.

Stavanger? I know some other people in the same area of work as you, Jon, somewhere near Stavanger I think.

Coirí Filíochta said...

Yeah Mark, it was the C word that triggered the response, but we are all human beings, all capable of being despicable. i know in my early days i was a right C myself for a prolonged spell, being cruel because i had no conscience, i wasd young, had never been raised in the C of B and only a tongue and incredibly fizzy imagination to govern myself with, back then before i chaneled the imbas into learning about who i really am, as a P R oh eff soar bard sad and sorry the government of mind meant a restrictive flight down the building site and signing on office with the ppl i furst thought it was my fate to boss, as the son of DD, dicken's desk on the guardian BB, for he is one's papa and did you hear that relative of Dickens on Joe Duffy in June.

Perfect poetry, Joe was speaking to the living relatives of famous dead authors and in the same afternoon show, got hold of the man who had just bought for $890,000, Dicken's desk. Tom Higgins, 49 - ex hack living in Wicklow and then after chatting to Joe.

For those outisde the republic, Duffy is the top of the tree radio jock by fair competition, in a pool of first point of call media folk the normal joe in the street go to when they have no other avenue, when the legal system's failed, for the serious events, straight from the street to Joe Duffy, he can unblock commercial, govermental unfairness, reunite lovers and generally unblock what's logjammed through opening the first gate, talk to the man people turn to and who gets things done live on radio in a peculiarly Irish institution, effectively a Brehon (look it up) doing his effortless man of the people routine.

On the same day, at table, during one of the rare days i listened, Joe also got an Irish actor who had played Dickens in a one man show to great acclaim, like PJ Brady did with Kavanagh - and then after more blather, Joe roped in the head of one of the Dublin Museum's a twinkle in his voice and had them all gassing before casually engineering smooth as swans on the grand canal, the furious undetected paddle, there beneath in the innocent to and foing between the guests and Joe, suggesting, all casual, natural, not a bother on him, that wouldn't it be grand if the desk could be displayed in the museum and, sure an answer and plan of attack, retreat, all nailed on, fixed it up, live on air, making it happen as he went along, and Higgins agreeing, because, well, he couldn't really say no, not after all the spiel he'd been winding out, about all the love he had for the magic literary object where the man himself wove the golden threads of English speaking history.

And the most memorable poetry, totally silent, was the juxtaposition of this and what came immediately before it. Joe was talking to some creache workers who were losing government funding in a mad scheme whereby, because of the transfer of responsibility between departments, for the sake of 80 grand, a very valuable local facility for kids, would cease to exist, and Joe all, yer know, well, ar sure, erm, yeah, yeah, of course, well, human, a nod, letting us know, he cares, and then to Tom straight after disengaging from this little tragic reality, switched registers effortlessly, the obvious hanging in the air, why didn't Tom just bung them it, he paid seven times over the odds for a dead mans desk, and could save poor kids, improve live the literacy in yr neck of the woods, in Dun Laoghaire, but no, the swans don't swim an obvious route and sure, you could feel it in the air, the history of the desk about which fro and to, the ghosts of who we are my deepest dearest darling mark, ha ha

thanks for being a good sport

Talk FM - Making it Human.

gra agus siochain

as were right to take..up on it. One's name is one's own business after all.

Anonymous said...

They have an airbrushed quality which reminds me of album sleeve art. The last two, in particular, look like the kind of stuff that adorned the covers of 1980s "Adult-Oriented Rock" LPs (Robert Palmer, for example). So maybe it's nostalgia for the days before such images were shrunk to fit CDs or perhaps it's aspirational stuff for men going through a mid-life crisis.

George S said...

aspirational stuff for men going through a mid-life crisis

What a nice phrase. I vaguely remember mid-life. Though with modern medicine, who knows... Mind you, I have nothing against aspiration.

Vettriano as Robert Palmer? You can keep your thong on...

Mark Granier said...

I don't know if Vettriano's images "fail". But then, I don't think they aspire to much in the first place. They have a sheen, a polish, a slickness which deflects any viewer's involvement past a certain point. "Airbrushed" is absolutely right. Tom Paulin once described Michael Jackson as "Teflon music". I think the same could be said of Vettriano's illustrations.

Like Harry, I can see why they are popular. They are utterly undemanding, perfect greeting card stock, but with a dash of surface-mystery, an allusion to noir, a nod to surrealism. If they aspire to anything, I think it might be fashion photography, or the slicker advertisements from the 1970s or 80s. So, yes, perhaps a kind of nostalgia for that period. Those images were easy on the eye too, and they hinted at sexy, delectable, grown-up worlds just out of reach. But I think it may be the fact that Vettriano's images are paintings that gives them that elevation into "fine art". Then their air of perfumed mystery (no more than coyness really) allows people to read into them whatever they wish. They are no more than glossy wallpaper. And to answer Harry's question as to whether "there is anything in them that [he is] not seeing": no, there is nothing, or nothing much anyway.

So I don't see the point in comparing such images to those of Balthus or Sander on the basis of a few rudimentary compositional details. And these are VERY rudimentary. To take just one of these comparison's, the Sander photograph of the peasants in suits (apparently on their way to a village dance). The photograph is rich in detail: the fact that we can clearly see the mens' faces, the awkward way their suits sit on them, their measuring regard, at the photographer (at us), the way they hold their canes. As Berger says: "Their hands look too big, their bodies too thin, their legs too short. (They use their walking sticks as though they were driving cattle.)"
Berger compares this to another Sander photograph, of a village band. He makes the observation that in both images the mens' suits "deform them. Wearing them, they look as though they were physically misshapen. A past style in clothes often looks absurd until it is re-incorporated into fashion."
Whether or not you agree, you can see what Berger means: there is a wealth of living, breathing detail, of what Barthes calls "punctum". (you can link to the article here: )

In Vettriano's painting of the group on the beach the mens' faces are blanks, the scene like a still from an ad for "the good life", courtesy of Martini or Iberian Airlines. There is absolutely NO punctum. In fact, I imagine it is the absence of such details (those gritty irritants) that makes the image attractive to certain tastes. You can let it wash over you like a jingle: non-stick music/muzak.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello Mark

I was writing about the "second-hand life" of his pictures. What seems to me a copy-cat aspect. I wasn't trying to suggest he was the new Balthus or Sander. I do think there are "Balthetic" elements in Vettriano. Another of Balthus' signature paintings was the girl lounging provocatively on a chaise longue. It is also one of Vettriano's.

As for the men's faces being "blanks", Vettriano himself has an explanation:

"I will spend half an hour putting a seam on a stocking and two minutes on a man’s face. I know my priorities."

That rather sums it up don't you think?

Mark Granier said...

Hello Jonathan,

I didn't think you were suggesting V was the new B or S, and yes, there is certainly a second (fourth) hand quality to V's images. I am just not convinced that those examples are the ones which influenced him, even unconsciously.

I was wondering why George bothered to mention Vettriano in the first place. Then I checked out his website, the depressingly slick Heartbreak Publishing:

And I see he is apparently being taken seriously in some quarters, e.g. awarded an OBE, being interviewed by the BBC for a series of artists on artists (V chooses Van Gogh), articles in respected litty journals and so on.

The images of women and men are generally of the kind we've been discussing. V loves the soft-core, sex-shop paraphernalia: black stockings, stilettos, garters etc. (yawn). But there is one exception, this image:

This is not by any means a great painting. It is a rather flattish illustration, the closing frame in a film or comic strip. Everything is filled in for us, the background diligently playing its part in a script whose soundtrack (the world's largest string instruments) you can almost hear. I imagine Hopper might be an influence. But if you compare V's figures with those in Hopper's stronger paintings the former's seem crass. Hopper really could paint loneliness, aloneness. His style is occasionally crude (NEVER slick) but his vision is unique.

Still, there is a sense in V's picture of actual hunger and relief, of what it is to get hold of someone you've missed passionately. That kiss has a flavour of the real, even if it is overwrought. Here, V seems to be at least trying to get his hands dirty for a change (or his eyes dirty with looking).

George S said...

I wonder why I bothered too, Mark. Not at all a big deal. And yet look what a lot of comments. How very odd.


Mark Granier said...

I don't think it's really that odd, considering our recent little dander with Damien (by way of Bosch, Goya etc.). I'm glad someone brought JV to my attention. No reason why bad art cannot make good conversation.

Stephen F said...

But at least he's not Hirst, eh...

George S said...

Not much to choose between them, Steve. I think Hirst ought to do an 'ironic' Jack Vettriano. Ideally by Vettriano himself (anonymously of course).

Vettriano is a genuinely popular low-art commercial artist. Hirst is an internationally venerated high-art commercial artist.

Next to Hirst, Vettriano is a naive. I generally prefer naives.

Stephen F said...

We're never going to agree on Hirst George, but I think that comparison is a mile out.

Vettriano is like a verse on a Hallmark card; Hirst is like Eliot.

Anonymous said...

Ahem! Hirst is NOT like Eliot! Sorry. George, I think you're onto something there.

As to the Vettriano, I haven't commented yet but I did read the post and such comments as were up to that date, amnd it did start a whole train of thought off in my head, so yes - very interesting subject. I think precisely BECAUSE Vettriano is what he is, he's off our discussion radar, we think we're supposed to know what we think about him. But I've always found him troubling, both the vacuity of the images and him himself, as a person, and it is very good to have a reason to think it through. The Hirst comparison is great because it opens doors.

George, I think in fact that because he's so bad and so popular - and by bad you know I mean enervating etc - is why we need to try and understand. What is this sapping thing people love so much? Why do people love stuff that takes away from them, rather than giving them something back?

I really don't get it.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Have you (anyone) looked at the website that Mark linked to from Heartbreak Publishing? I thought it rather impressive, especially the exhibition section. Exhibitions such as "The Passion and The Pain" look like they come from a classy comic novel depicting romance circa 1935. I'm guessing 1935 because this is the year of Bluebird on Bonneville, another one of Vettriano's paintings. What I find impressive is the coherence of his style. The people in his paintings are never peripheral, they are always the stars of the painting. They generally look very ordinary, but the paintings reformulate them as something rather more, a la Mrs Marple's glamorous neice and the suspiciously handsome lieutenant.

Suddenly, looking at all this, I do think my comparisons to other artists seem rather pointless (as Mark already pointed out). Vettriano, love him or loathe him, is in fact his own man, with his own style. He is simply a good illustrator with enough gumption and energy to keep making up the plot in his head and painting it big.

Seen as an illustrator, or a comic book-artist, I think a lot of the problems about Vettriano go away. After all, we don't ask why Hergé's illustrations of Tintin are so two-dimensional... the point is the story, the characters, the evocation of a certain period, the fantasy.

The fantasy may be sometimes brutal, but that is often the case in comic books. Isn't the problem/betrayal then (if there is really a problem/betrayal) that he has simply transgressed away from his more obvious format?

George S said...

If only Hirst were Eliot! I can see why the comparison might be suggested but the suggestion falls apart for me from the very first shark onwards. Eliot did not make gestures. But many congratulations on achieving no 6 in the paperback non-fiction best-sellers, SF. Brilliant. (And by the way, can I touch you for a tenner next week?)

I'll check out that website, Mark and Jon. I like the idea of transgressing away, Jon. That's been the downfall of many a good relationship.

Maybe he's not as bad as he's painted, Ms Baroque! I never thought so much would be written about him by ladies and gents of such calibre as yerselves. Or even meself.

Well, it gets us out of the house, I suppose.

Coirí Filíochta said...
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Coirí Filíochta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Coirí Filíochta said...

manuscript B found him troubling, both the vacuity of the images and him himself, as a person

..her use of the!! indicating - i dunno, i am assuming IRONIC!!!, as per the upper case to signify a shorthand for making a point. As a picture could when we are talking of a fish and chip supper in a michelin starred chefs eaterie, trying to convey how very beyond yr usual Burdocks chippy FISH AND CHIPS!!! to drop dead for, almost -- as an act which alerts ones' peers to our refined pallete and expert knowledge on the finer intricacies of material taste when dining. The fish and chips themself, costing perhaps a weeks wages for an Albanian gopher employed by an enterprising business person showing great intelligence at acquiring money in a way which will cause us to respect them as a success in the material age, perhaps?

I am fantastically concerned by B's statement about being troubled by this jumped up crayon user who has the gall to con his peers, armed only with a meagre talent for illustration -- if she has not met himself in person to judge his moral charachter: as her posts do not make explicit if she has or nay? I mean, he isn't doing Annie Sprinkle shows.

If she has met him, then fair do's, but if she is troubled by himself as a person and not met him, this i would find comedic, and if i was deep acting more than i already am, would not have chosen the word comedic, but summat to wind her up, like gravely troubling, ramping up the register she employs to signal her moral dissaproval of this person who the consensus in the comment box, being honest, i have to be careful what i say, as to tell the truth, i find his stuff ....erm..well i am clearly not going to use the word like, as this is pointless, as it will only mean antagonising the mob here, and if B thinks this man as a real life person is the devil - especially if she hasn't met him - gawd knows how the !!! and HOW DARE YOU!!! caper will get that is de riguer in the hotter critical discourse portals for the online 40 summat gen poets who gather there to...erm, not praise their leader/s and show thumbs up or dissaproval, depending on, depending on, it!! goes should the mouse control MC's head should one spake heretical statements what a single person executive body facilitator of online freedom groups (which manuscript B's and one's age group act as kids..i mean very grown up adults in), and get hung for being morally..erm i mean critically unapproved of as a refined artist wanting to only spread love and peace.

So, thin ice at the edge of the abyss, poetically strapped up in the first twitch of the 21C -- and being honest, though i too agree he is all fur coat and no undies, there is a quality of life likeness about the thumbnails i have witnessed, which made me think they were photographs, and though i am appalled at the vacuity of the images and how they treat Ms and mister, i have to admit, not to being turned on in any way, as i am above all that (and a gay poet who has been in a relationship with one's husband for many years, and we do not engage in any physical stuff as i am simply not interested in any of that), as i am a monk really who is devoted to Ogma the god of poetry; but my mate who is a plumber, he reckons they are sexy, which i naturally and immediately gave him the proper leaflets for re-conditioning to empty his head of the mysogny which is still very very troubling to me now, as i compose waiting for Alan to come with my cocoa..

In the meantime, cheer yerself up, have a gander at this which proves Obama's Irish

grá agus síocháin

Stephen F said...

haha: pop down to my office George and go for a score while I'm flush...!

Padhraig Nolan said...

I think a lot of the attitudes to do with (not) accepting Vetrianno/Hoggan as a fine artist (as opposed to commercial artist) result from intellectual snobbery ...yes, apparently it does exist (not in this parish though - I'm sure ;->).

But he does bring most of that wrath on himself by drawing that distinction, writ large, in his interviews and attitude - the humble beginnings, self-teaching, self-branding, self-aggrandisement, self-justification etc.

His work reproduces well and there's a market for it - the 'originals' are secondary. But the 'local boy done good' PR ignores the fact that there are much more successful commercial artists out; brad holland, paul slater, ralph steadman to name a few. But, of course, their success is measured personally and by their peers - not by sales value, which mainstream media decrees as some kind of creative bottom line. AND they're broadly accepted as artists beyond the remit of their trade (although Holland can be as defensive as Hoggan at times).

The artist's representation is a factor too - creative management is more often a factor in their public success than artists care to admit. I'd guess the epstein/mcguinness/cowell factor translates to the visual art world too? Perhaps even the world of OBEs?