Painting is terribly difficult

From The London Review of Books:

Early in​ 1971, Robert Hughes, recently appointed as Time magazine’s chief art critic, was ripping out his loft apartment at 143 Prince Street when he received an unexpected visitor. This was Henry Geldzahler, curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum. Hughes, probably the most macho and combative critic in his profession, was, by his own account, sweaty, foul-tempered, sore-footed and ‘grey with ingrained dirt’. Geldzahler, a ‘happily smiling little roly-poly fonctionnaire … [was] immaculately jaunty in a pale blue suit’. He wanted to see the loft. Hughes told him there was nothing to see; Geldzahler insisted. They took the elevator to the fifth floor, where there was only dust and filth and dangling cables. The following exchange then took place:

‘Well, come on,’ he said, ‘I want to see it.’

‘This is it, Henry.’

‘No, no. Where do you keep it?’

‘Where do I keep what?’

‘Your collection. I want to have a peek. Is it in storage somewhere?’

‘There is no collection, Henry. I’m not a collector. I’m sorry, I don’t have a goddamn collection.’

Geldzahler peered at me incredulously.

‘Well,’ he exhaled at last. ‘Someone in here is going to die poor, isn’t he?’

This exchange is recorded in Hughes’s trenchant essay about the New York art scene, ‘Graft – Things You Didn’t Know’. He describes a place where money, or potential money, was sloshing around, and where ‘the whole domain of relations between artists and critics, critics and curators – indeed, of everything that bears upon the art market and its insiders – was then and largely remains today an ethical slide area.’ The high-priest critic Clement Greenberg ‘didn’t believe in buying art, but he liked receiving it,’ from artists and art dealers whom his words had assisted or would assist. But ‘by far the most corrupt art-world figure I knew in New York … was Henry Geldzahler.’ When the director of the Met, Thomas Hoving, wanted to put on an Andrew Wyeth show, Geldzahler was against it – Wyeth’s figurative paintings were the very opposite of the art he believed in and succoured. But when it became clear the show would go ahead, Geldzahler ‘wrote privately to Wyeth himself, offering to curate the show in return for a nice Wyeth watercolour that Henry would personally select. Much to the flinty Wyeth’s credit, this overture was rebuffed.’

Nearer home, there was the case of David Sylvester, perhaps the leading British art critic of the second half of the 20th century. Hughes valued him as a friend and a fine analyst; he was also the best exhibition installer of his time. But he was a very slow writer with ‘an indurated laziness’. And he liked fine things, so privately dealt in antiquities, rugs and modernist drawings, as ‘a purveyor of semi-masterpieces to the rich and fastidious’. As Hughes put it: ‘He would demand gifts from an artist whose work he was about to honour with a review – according to Lucian Freud, who knew Sylvester for decades, the expected rate was usually two pieces, which could be small as long as they were choice, for one article.’

This is all very shocking, the more so as it involves critics and curators at the top of their profession. These men weren’t struggling for the rent, occasionally stretching the rules to put food on the table; they were, or had become, institutionally – and constitutionally – corrupt. But is it surprising? The art market is international and barely regulated; its products are easily transportable, squirrelled away in freeports or swiftly turned into cash. Grifters, fakers and thieves naturally abound. There is often a cosy nexus between artists, dealers, gallerists and critics; value – or at least, price – is constantly moving, usually upwards; and there are an increasing number of very rich people for whom art is a status symbol. Authenticating a work is difficult, and a lot may depend on it. How might a grateful owner or potential purchaser reward such connoisseurship? The classic example is that of Bernard Berenson – in Hughes’s mocking words, ‘the disinterested, Goethean sage of I Tatti’ – who charged his employer 25 per cent on the sale of any work he had authenticated. Today there are art advisers at the shoulder of new money; the deference might be difficult, but parts of the job must be pretty easy. Warhol, tick; Koons, tick; Basquiat, tick; Picasso, tick; Freud, tick; Banksy and Bacon, tick tick; and so on.

When and where did it all start? Probably in Paris; more unexpectedly, when the Impressionists came along. For centuries, the Salon had ruled over taste, over what was and wasn’t art, and therefore over most artists’ incomes. There had been the famous Salon des Refusés in 1863, but that experiment in imperial permissiveness was not to be repeated. So the Impressionists, following Courbet’s example, put on their own exhibitions, the first in 1874. They made little money but received a good deal of publicity. Gradually, the stranglehold of the Salon was loosened: it had traditionally been such that some collectors, seeing a work in an artist’s studio, might offer to buy it as long as the Salon jury found it good enough (and uncontentious enough) to be hung on their walls. At the same time, a younger generation of more imaginative dealers came along, looking for new buyers not just on the home market but abroad, especially in London and New York. Then there was the press: both the critics themselves and the hacks who sought scandal and sensation. Critical mass had arrived: that nexus of artist, dealer, critic and curator, plus shock value and a rising market. Monet, as leader of the Impressionists and the group’s highest earner, was at the heart of this new world. At one point he had three or four different dealers, and delighted in playing them off one against the other. There is no direct evidence of graft in Jackie Wullschläger’s new book, but all the conditions for Hughes’s ‘ethical slide area’ were now in place.

It can seem as though Monet has always been around. In my teens I had a poster of one of his greyer Rouen Cathedral pictures on my bedroom wall; around the same time, I bought a classical LP with The Poppy Field as cover art. In my thirties, after Monet’s house was opened to the public, I came back with two ‘Japanese’ dinner plates from the gift shop (Limoges white, with a yellow rim – the yellow of his dining room – and a fine blue edging), which I still use today. He is one of those artists I have consistently admired while complacently assuming that I had mastered his extent; also, without being at all curious about his life. The first response is the mild (if lingering) sin of youth: the artists you first see and admire can sometimes get cocooned away without re-examination. The second blankness is perhaps more understandable: there was and is no personal myth of Monet. He didn’t die young, or cut off his ear, or even travel to exotic places: London (which he loved, but only in winter, when there was fog) and Venice (also pleasingly foggy) were about the furthest he took his brushes. He also painted at such a consistently high level that it comes as a relief when he produces as ferociously awful a picture as La Japonaise (1876). He knew and admitted that this was ‘a piece of junk’ and presumably saved it from destruction only because it was an image of his first wife, Camille.

In seventeen years it will be the 200th anniversary of Monet’s birth, yet he might still be the best way to introduce someone young to art – and not just modern art. This is partly because of what he didn’t paint. He didn’t do historical or religious subjects: no need to know what is happening at the Annunciation (let alone the Assumption of the Virgin) or what Oedipus said to the Sphinx or why so many naked women are attending the death of Sardanapalus. He never painted a literary scene for which you need to know the story. None of his paintings refers to an earlier painting. He was the first great artist since the Renaissance never to paint a nude. He painted portraits but it didn’t matter (except to him) whom they were of. You don’t need to know the history of art to appreciate a Monet picture because he wasn’t much interested in the history of art himself (though he revered Watteau and Delacroix and Velázquez). He had even less interest in the science of visual perception. His art was secular and apolitical.

In Britain, we like to believe that Turner was a precursor to the Impressionists; Monet always denied that influence. He started afresh, a new eye in a new head (but what an eye, and what a head!). Manet had spent six years in the studio of Thomas Couture; Monet dismissed him as not worth studying under. He never set up an easel in the Louvre to copy from the masters. He went briefly to the sort of art school where you paid a small fee to sit and draw from life models, with a weekly visit from an older artist who made comments. He painted what he saw around him, much of which (the river, the landscape, the sea, trees, gardens, snowscapes, a lunch table in the sunlight, figures walking through a field, haystacks) are still to be found – or at least, their equivalents can still be found; even the cities he portrayed, or the parts that he portrayed, are not much altered. So the way into Monet’s art is comparatively smooth.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

1 thought on “Painting is terribly difficult”

  1. I’m just a casual observer of the art scene, but I’ve always been perplexed by modern art. I understand it much better after reading this article, and my suspicions are confirmed. …And I do like Monet. Well, ‘like’ is an understatement.

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