I loved the book, What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art, by Will Gompertz. I learned so much. It gave me a new view on the subject. It made me realise I’m more interested in the history of modern art than modern art itself.
I love much modern stuff - dammit, you can’t dislike Guernica - even if it is as kitsch as Old Mother Riley. But you can dislike much subsequent work, especially the ‘three eyes and a kipper on the head’ school that followed Picasso.
Mr Gompertz explains one of the objectives of modern work was to humble the existing establishment. That became its failure. The new became the establishment, and instead of being demolished, the opposite happened. The establishment constantly recycled itself and boomed. Art, with a capital a, A for anything goes, is now everywhere. Some modern work is wonderful. Some isn’t. It was ever thus. The inexplicable is now the norm. Private Eye gave up satirising it years ago.
It’s not that I didn’t give the new a chance. I went to the Guggenheim show at the Tate in 1965. I looked at the plain white and plain black canvases of Ad Reinhardt (?) and didn’t ‘get it’. Only gradually did it dawn on me the subject of this art was art itself. I think that’s when my interest in ‘the new’ began to wobble and my interest in the traditional began to grow. Thank you, WG, your book has graced my reading. It has been a gateway to a new viewpoint.
I read of the big Sotheby’s Picasso auction in Las Vegas - ‘the meadows’ as the Spanish have it. The show features “Femme au béret rouge-orange" above. I am, as is the world at large, in total thrall to the legendary great artist, fully signed up to the church of Our Pablo, forever and utterly Guernica’d. Indeed, I’m in even greater thrall to the magnificent PR machine that keeps Pabs ceaselessly bestriding the known universe while I, for one, creep about and peep about. Yet ‘the meadows’ is not New York. I wonder if there ever could be some sassy, Nevadan lassie, prepared to pile in and speak her truth to overwhelming power? To look, eyeball to eyeball, through the endless glazes of praise, layer after layer, at the paint mildly sitting there, rather dully, on the canvas. ‘Taint likely, I know. Am I saying I have my doubts? No, no-ish. I lack the education, the knowledge, the intelligence, the wisdom, the taste, or the ability to comment. All I have is slightly wonky eyeballs and the hairs on the back of my neck. Experience shows even them to be unreliable. So let me be clear about this. This is not amateur art criticism. I would not aspire so high. So, what is it then? Well, it’s yer bloggy ramble, innit. Here’s my opinion, my truth, my whole truth and nothing but the truth, for what it’s worth. If I found I was standing next to me at some art function or other, I’d move away, unobtrusively, but away, yes, definitely away. I advise you to do the same.
Picasso's "Femme au béret rouge-orange" depicts the model Marie-Thérèse Walter. They began an affair in the late 1920s and had a child together. Credit: Courtesy Sotheby's and MGM Resorts
Author, author, I hear you cry. Well, here goes. I come from haunts of coot and hern, I make a sudden sally… Hang on that’s not me, that’s Tennyson. Oops! Wrong copy, sorree. I’m James Kelso – and, actually, do you know what, I feel a tad awkward writing this sort of self-puffery. So, if it’s okay with you, can we leave it there? Thank you. I knew you’d understand. Browse on, McDuff.