THE NATIONAL ART AUDIT
Vienna, 30 July 2017
As is my wont, I was perusing the electronic newspapers a few days ago during a leisurely breakfast (ah, the joys of retirement!). Normally, I focus on the unfolding Brexit tragedy, shooting off comments on various articles (another product of leisurely retirement hours), or on the soap opera that US politics has become. But a few days ago my eye was caught by an article on a “National Art Audit” conducted in the U.K. This very fancy term covers a publicity gimmick paid for by Samsung, to advertise its new television which doesn’t actually turn off when you turn it off, but instead shows electronic copies of paintings, photos, etc. Samsung has given the TV a picture-like frame so that you can hang it on the wall to make it look like a picture.
But back to the National Art Audit. It purports to give a snapshot of the Brits’ favourite pieces of art at the moment. In truth, the result seems to be a bit cooked in that works of art were pre-selected by a committee of arts writers and the final choice made by a mere 2,000 people. But let’s give the organizers of this exercise the benefit of the doubt and assume that the tastes of Britain’s arts writers more or less mirror the tastes of the general population and that the 2,000 people were a statistically valid sample. So what do we have?
I list the first twenty works in their order of preference:
1. We start with some street art, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon. The man, or woman, or collective (for who knows who hides behind “Banksy”?) stenciled copies onto walls in several locations. This copy is to be found – I think – on the stairs of the South Bank, Blackfriars bridge, in London.
There’s a lot of poo-pooing by art critics of Banksy’s work, but I rather like these whimsical pieces with a political sting which appear mysteriously overnight. Personally, I find this particular work somewhat twee, but no doubt that explains its popularity. I used one of Banksy’s more political works in an earlier post. Here’s another.
2. Constable’s The Hay Wain. The original is in London’s National Gallery, but copies are to be found in their thousands on biscuit boxes, tea towels, and puzzles, which no doubt both drives and explains its popularity.
I suppose the painting feeds into that nostalgia which so many English (not necessarily British) people have for the country’s past, although I suspect that that past was not quite the Garden of Eden that this painting would have you believe.
3. Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler. The original is in a private collection, but reproductions of it have made it the best-selling art print in the UK.
Interesting fellow, Vettriano. You wouldn’t think so from his name, but he’s Scottish – he adopted his mother’s name at some point. He had a very poor childhood, almost Dickensian, even though he’s more or less my age. But he managed to teach himself to paint, so there’s hope yet for all us frustrated artists. I’m not terribly keen for his work, I have to say, much of which tends towards sado-maso soft-porn, like this painting.
4. JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. Another painting which hangs in the National Gallery.
For those of a romantic bent, His Majesty’s Ship Temeraire fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, and here the grizzled warrior, old and outdated by modern technology like the steam tug towing it, is being taken to its final berth to be broken up for scrap.
5. Antony Gormley’s The Angel of the North.
This 20-meter high steel statue stands very close to the motorway to Scotland, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Probably the view most people have is from the motorway as they drive north. Since it is quite a striking sight as you drive along it has no doubt impressed itself on the memory of many a motorist.
6. LS Lowry’s Going to the Match.
Although Lowry is undoubtedly very popular, I personally find him depressing as hell. He painted from the late 1920s to the 1950s (he produced this painting in 1928), and his visions of industrial Britain in this period – these bleak urban landscapes with smoking factories, treeless streets, and gaunt people – are a nightmare as far as I’m concerned. This painting in particular makes me think of George Orwell’s 1984:
“So long as the Proles continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern…Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”
7. John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott
Well, if you like the painter’s style, “the epitome of the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”, then head down to Tate Britain to see it. I prefer to quote the lines from Tennyson which inspired the painting:
And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
8. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album cover, designed by Peter Blake (and which I happened to refer to in a recent post).
I’m glad that album covers have made it onto the list, I’ve always believed that I had a rich collection of art in my LPs. It was one of the reasons I was unwilling to make the switch to CDs. It was great to lie on the sofa admiring the album cover while the music boomed around you. Mind you, personally I would have chosen the Yellow Submarine album cover for the Beatles.
9. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover, designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie.
Another great album cover, although personally I would have chosen Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover.
10. George Stubbs’s Mares and Foals in a River Landscape, another painting in the Tate.
I put its being in the list down to the British love of horses. But even I, who have no great love for horses, can appreciate that they are very fine specimens of the species.
11. Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, in London’s National Gallery
This seems to be the epitome of an English painting, and I use that geographical term advisedly; I see nothing Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish in this painting. That being said, I do remember years ago, a lifetime ago in fact, during the French elections of 1981 which François Mitterrand won for the Socialists, the French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé published a whole magazine on the wrongdoings of the-then President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the cover of which was this painting with the faces of Giscard d’Estaing and his wife pasted over those of Mr and Mrs Andrews.
So perhaps the painting’s message is more European than Little Englanders might think?
12. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, in Tate Britain.
Like I said earlier, you have to like the Pre-Raphaelite style to appreciate the painting. I find it more interesting that Laurence Olivier, in his film version of Hamlet, chose to model Ophelia’s death scene on this painting.
I should also say that I am not untouched but this painting. As I’ve evoked in an earlier post, an evening in a cold airport in China set off a train of memories from my childhood which led me to this painting.
13. Andy Goldsworthy’s Balanced Rock Misty. Anyone who wants to see the original photograph should go to the Carlisle Museum and Gallery.
The work dates from 1979 and is located in Cumbria (or more probably was; I can’t believe that that rock is still balanced like that). I must confess to never having heard of Andy Goldsworthy before looking at this National Art Audit. I read in Wikipedia that he “produces site-specific sculpture and land art situated in natural and urban settings”, that he “is generally considered the founder of modern rock balancing”, of which this is surely an example, and that “photography plays a crucial role in his art due to its often ephemeral and transient state”, no doubt the reason he took this photo. Without knowing it, I’d actually come across a work of his at the Storm King sculpture park north of New York when my wife and I last visited it, where he had built this stone wall snaking through the trees.
14. David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, another painting in the Tate.
It’s from his time California during the 1960s. Personally, I prefer Hockney’s much later work, like this landscape, painted when he came back to the U.K. a decade or so ago.
15. Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares, painted in 1961.
For once, this painting is not in the Tate, although still in London. It’s in the Arts Council Collection at the Southbank Centre. I’ve never really liked these optical illusion paintings. I find them too visually unsettling and I don’t see why I should look at a painting that unsettles my balance. But hey, beauty is in the eye of the observer.
16. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit.
I’ve never seen this thing (not sure it really fits the definition of a tower), so I shouldn’t comment. I suspect, though, that it will become London’s response to Paris’s Eiffel Tower.
It certainly seems to be attracting the same kind of passionate criticism and praise that the Eiffel Tower did in its time. I understand they’ve added slides to the Orbit, to attract visitors. Maybe the Eiffel Tower could add them too.
17. Stik’s A Couple Hold Hands in the Street. Another street artist, this time with a face but no name. I’m not completely sure what work this entry refers to, but I think it’s this one.
This is what the artist had to say about it: “This one, with the burka, was done around the back of a mosque on Brick Lane. I was really nervous about doing it actually, because there had just been an attempted assassination on a cartoonist who had depicted Mohammed somewhere in Sweden. … But I did my research and I found that actually, within Islam, if you choose to depict living beings you have to do it in a two-dimensional way without any illusion of depth, and that’s me!” First time I’ve heard of this.
18. Maggi Hambling’s Scallop.
The sculpture stands on a beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, where Benjamin Britten lived. It is a tribute to him; the words piercing the shell, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, come from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The artist has had this to say about the sculpture: “An important part of my concept is that at the centre of the sculpture, where the sound of the waves and the winds are focused, a visitor may sit and contemplate the mysterious power of the sea.”
19. Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure. The problem is, Henry Moore did a lot of reclining figures and I’ve no idea which one this little exercise is referring to. So I show here reclining figures of his from 1929, 1939, 1957, 1969-70, and 1984, and readers can take their pick. (Giving a time-series like this also allows one to study how Moore went about “decomposing” the body into abstract masses)
20. And so we come to our final entry, Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks album cover, designed by Jamie Reid.
Interesting. Can’t think what else to say about it. Perhaps because I was never a Sex Pistols fan the picture doesn’t evoke any fond memories in me.
So what do we conclude from all of this apart from the rather unsurprising conclusion that my personal list of the best 20 would have been somewhat different – I mean, this list represents some sort of national average. One thing that struck me is how London-centric the list is, with the majority of the works to be found in the capital. Maybe I noticed it because recently so much of my newspaper reading has been about Brexit, and “London vs the rest of the country”, “London getting all the attention” has been an important thread in the arguments between Leavers and Remainers. But it does seem to me from this list that London is sucking the cultural air out of the lungs of the rest of the country.
The other thing that struck me is the absence of any advertising art. Yet this can be a very honourable art form, and I’m sure certain ads are very familiar with many people; the old Guinness ads, for instance, which I’ve often seen copies of.
Or how about propaganda art, which is a close relation to advertising art? This one from World War II seems to have taken the world by storm. I constantly see T-shirts with endless variations on the theme.
Or that most iconic of all posters, the London Underground map?
I don’t know, it seems to me that there’s a whole form of art here that people are very familiar with and enjoy, yet is missing. Maybe for the launch of its next super-clever TV product Samsung can make sure this gets included.
Samsung The Frame TV: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/the-frame-4k-tv-samsung-wall-art-standby-uhd-led-a7630716.html%3Famp
Banksy Girl with Balloon: https://hubpages.com/art/banksy-girl-with-balloon
Banksy Make Trouble: https://www.canvasartrocks.com/blogs/posts/70529347-121-amazing-banksy-graffiti-artworks-with-locations
Constable The Hay Wain: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/john-constable-the-hay-wain
Jack Vettriano The Singing Butler: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Singing_Butler#/media/File%3AVettriano%2C_Singing_Butler.jpg
Jack Vettriano Fetish: https://www.collectorsprints.co.uk/product/fetish/
JMW Turner The Fighting Temeraire: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fighting_Temeraire#/media/File%3AThe_Fighting_Temeraire%2C_JMW_Turner%2C_National_Gallery.jpg
Antony Gormley The Angel of the North: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel_of_the_North
The Angel of the North from motorway: https://www.reddit.com/duplicates/3obbfn/angel_of_the_north_gateshead_uk_a1_motorway/
LS Lowry Going to the Match: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/going-to-the-match-162423
John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_The_Lady_of_Shalott.jpg
Sgt Pepper album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_images_on_the_cover_of_Sgt._Pepper%27s_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band
Yellow Submarine album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Submarine_(album)
Dark Side of the Moon album cover: http://www.b-wave.be/blog/david-gilmour-on-the-run-dark-side-of-the-moon-on-synthi-a/
Animals album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animals_(Pink_Floyd_album)
George Stubbs Mares and Foals in a River Landscape: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/stubbs-mares-and-foals-in-a-river-landscape-t00295
Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews: https://mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/mr-and-mrs-andrews-by-thomas-gainsborough/
Les dossiers du canard: https://www.priceminister.com/offer/buy/143212034/giscard-la-monarchie-contrariee-les-dossiers-du-canard-n-1-de.html
John Everett Millais Ophelia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophelia_(painting)
Ophelia drowned in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet: http://arainbowofchaos.blogspot.co.at/2011/12/?m=1
Andy Goldsworthy Balanced Rock Misty: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/image/?tid=1979_068
Andy Goldsworthy Storm King: http://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/505388389415343402/
David Hockney A Bigger Splash: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Bigger_Splash
David Hockney Landscape: http://minimatisse.blogspot.co.at/2014/12/hockney-landscapes.html?m=1
Bridget Riley Movement in Squares: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/movement-in-squares-64038
Anish Kapoor ArcelorMittal Orbit: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ArcelorMittal_Orbit
Eiffel Tower: https://www.getyourguide.com/eiffel-tower-l2600/
Stik A Couple Hold Hands in the Street: http://www.eastendreview.co.uk/2015/09/08/stik-new-book/
Maggi Hambling Scallop: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maggi_Hambling
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1929: https://www.henry-moore.org/collections/leeds-sculpture-collection
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1939: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-reclining-figure-r1147454
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1957: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-working-model-for-unesco-reclining-figure-r1171983
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1969-70: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/lost-art-henry-moore
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1984: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4637053
Never Mind the Bollocks album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_Mind_the_Bollocks,_Here%27s_the_Sex_Pistols
Guinness poster: https://www.amazon.com/Guinness-Poster-Lovely-Tucan-Weather/dp/B009SDXUUM
Keep calm and carry on poster: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-surprising-history-of-keep-calm-and-carry-on-2015-6?IR=T
London Underground map: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Beck