Tuesday, August 03, 2004


Last week, I went to the Jack Vettriano exhibition at the Portland Gallery in London. I scrawled notes of such incomprehensibility that it’s taken me a week of painful reconstruction to figure out what on earth I was trying to say.

Now, I’m no art critic and my education in art is simply to have been dragged to galleries as a child – more and more willingly as time progressed – to listen to my mother’s (art specialist by profession) commentary on pieces. Eventually, I came to see the great satisfaction in seeing good art without sulking and kicking car tires first.

Nowadays, going to a gallery is a treat at home and a must every time I travel to a new city. I think I’m one of the only people my age that rates the Rijksmuseum as the highlight of their stay in Amsterdam.

Anyhow, on to my post and what I was thinking when I saw the exhibition.

Jack Vettriano isn’t popular with the art establishment, particularly the female subset who make vapid noises about the way women are portrayed sexually in his art. What better recommendation, then, could one have to go and see an exhibition?

There are two Vettrianos, though. The nice, light, romantic ‘Dance me to the end of Love’ Vettriano and the darkly sexual Vettriano. It was the latter on display at the Portland Galleries this time including some that are almost impossible to see outside of his live exhibitions.

"Dance Me To The End Of Love"

I think the impact was interesting for me because I (as a female) got to look through the eyes and step into the desires of an unashamedly sexual man. Vettriano is a singularly talented narrative painter; it’s very easy to be transported to his scenarios and even easier to become involved in them.

His talent, I think, is to bring movement to an inherently still medium. The same canvas and paint that could show the calm, frozen time of a still-life instead shows a great deal of movement – movement about to happen, movement suppressed, freedom of movement captured lightheartedly and perfectly. It’s almost painful for me to watch these characters, half expecting them to continue their paused movement at any moment to do what it’s so evident they’re about to do.

You won’t get the same feeling from these thumbnails, unfortunately. Don’t try for it in the reprints either. As with most oil paintings, the originals are so good because of the way that light interacts with the suspended particles in the paint – you have a richness and a glow that gives depth. That’s why serious collectors will buy an original – they really are getting something that no-one else can have, no matter how good their copy.

As I mentioned, this exhibition was dominated by the ‘darker’ Vettriano. I’m quite glad for it, as it seemed that his breezy beach paintings (well composed though they are) were just him warming up. Getting used to the human form, getting used to space and colour, getting used to movement.

This is not to say that he now uses the crisp, photographic form of the Renaissance painter. He seems to borrow a little of his style from the early impressionists, many brush strokes are obvious and you are under no illusion that this is oil on canvas. I think it aids in conveying the movement inherent in his compositions.

The evident brushstrokes also serve to give the hint of structure that you must fill in for yourself. The form is there, the detail is occasionally ambiguous, the intent and emotion behind the pose is all important.

So what is the intent? The scenes in this exhibition were split between portraits of his favorite models engaged in a solitary activity such as walking or gazing out a window and those of sexual tension and sexual encounters.

Now - if you think that sex should always be a gentle confluence of souls with lots of talking about feelings before and after (sometimes during) then I’m afraid you’re not going to like these Vettrianos. These poses are all about clandestine, forbidden, passionate sensuality. He openly admits that these couplings are doomed from the start and that he portrays people who just can’t help themselves when it comes to temptation.

"The Embrace of the Spider"

What you see, though, is not the ugly portrayal of sex which is evident in so many contemporary artists. These are not confrontational scenes of rape, the nudity is not incidental. At the same time, each painting is blatantly honest about what it is portraying.

"Passion Overflow"

Because there’s no attempt to hide the sexuality, there is no need for the audience to draw it out from insinuations in the images. It’s all there and it’s definitely unapologetic for its chosen theme – you have the time to focus on the sensuality of the pieces instead. To put it another way – you get over the fact that you’re seeing a garter belt very quickly and become far more interested in the positioning of the bodies and the expressions on faces than seeing a peek of something that is traditionally forbidden.

The focus seems to be on WHAT is happening far more than HOW it is happening. It’s why the subjects are in that situation in the first place and the relationship between them that is emphasized.

"Along Came A Spider"

Interestingly enough, unlike the artist that idealizes the virginal, the untouched, the woman before she is sullied with the taint of sex, Vettriano seems to show his women with the familiarity of an established lover. These women have ‘fallen’ into ‘sin’ already – yet don’t seem to be any less desirable for that fact. Rather than wanting to find and pluck something new, he seems to hunger for more of the same and venerate those women he knows can give it to him. This is where, I think, the evident appreciation for his models comes through in the painting and why the art is so sexually charged. It’s not a work of contempt – it’s a work of understanding and appreciation.

There is no contempt for the human form either. Although not sculpting his male or female forms to the fashion magazine ideal of today – there is no mistaking that both are rather attractive and both are DISTINCTLY posed and dressed for their gender. As he puts it:

"I’ve always loved women who dress as women, you know, pure femininity." ... "When you know a woman’s wearing stockings there’s no sort of question about it, and I love that world where there’s a strict division between men and women. If you were painting contemporary life now, man and woman, from the back, you can’t tell the difference.”

If the women are ultra feminine, then the men are ultra masculine. Far removed from the pretty-boy Beckhams, DiCaprios and Pitts, these creatures radiate masculinity, poise and strength.

The power play between the sexes is clearly shown. We don’t have two sexually androgynous humans coming together for a night of sensitive-to-each-other’s-emotional-needs lovemaking interspersed with tea, basket weaving and psychotherapy. There is a man who evidently dominates the woman physically – there is no shying away from who will be doing what to whom.

"Pincer Movement"

Equally powerful (although in a completely different way) is the woman, who is sure of her power over the man and is wielding it unflinchingly.

In fact, in the introduction to “Lovers and Other Strangers”, Anthony Quinn says of the brunette used in most of Vettriano’s paintings:

“..she looked like a woman to whom a pledge of eternal love might provoke her to stab you with a stiletto.”

Vettriano himself says:

“I portray women wielding sexual power.”

Clearly, these are not damsels in distress.

What I think I see in equal measure is the man surrendering himself to what he perceives as his basest desires whilst at the same time physically dominating the female in the piece. It’s rather a clichéd juxtaposition and one that relies on considering the longing for sex to be something other than honorable.

Although I don’t really agree with this dim view on humans as flawed due to their desire to copulate, I must applaud his mastery at perfectly conveying this idea.

Other paintings, those with a person alone, show a strong individual lost in a reverie – completely unaware of the viewer. Even when the subject is a very strong woman in serious and contemplative repose, there is a hint of femininity and sexuality through exposure of a piece of the traditional accoutrements of the feminine seductive arsenal – a hint of stocking, a little piece of bra showing, a very high stiletto heel, even just a beautifully tailored dress. There is no dichotomy between femininity and purposefulness - they coexist naturally and beautifully.

"Baby Bye, Bye"

"Edinburgh Afternoon"

The men he portrays alone are somewhat of a mystery to me. I get a sense of stoic, practiced isolation from them and am not sure if I’m misreading his intentions. Many are straight self-portraits, which I tend to find difficult to unravel at the best of times.

What I do know is that Vettriano is almost uncannily popular. In a world where it seems the public consistently opts for the worst creative compositions available, the fact that I had to crane around people to see what I considered very good art was somewhat gratifying.

Of course, he comes under fire for this very popularity and comments:

"Well you know, you run the risk of the wrath of the establishment by being popular, but at the same time why shouldn’t people have an image for £10 when they don’t have a lot of money to spend? And anyway, I own the copyright of my work until 75 years after my death and then it’s a free for all and you think - well why shouldn’t I benefit from it now?

"What would Van Gogh have done, what would Monet have done if they had had the opportunity? Instead of that what you get is, the marketplace is flooded with their stuff and they’re not earning a penny from it."

Happily, he’s earning far more than pennies. Annoying the establishment may be a faux pas – but what a profitable one.

"Reach out and Touch"

Vettriano quote source - interview

All paintings in exhibition

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