Getting to Glasgow is always a bit of a struggle for me, but today I made the effort. The reason was the offer of a trip to see the retrospective exhibition of paintings by Jack Vettriano at the Kelvingrove Museum.
There is a problem with writing honestly about Vettriano’s painting, and that is that the pro- lobby has got its retaliation in first. Any criticism of the painter’s style, content, or expertise is instantly greeted with accusations of snobbery. One must not attack ‘The People’s Painter’, or so it appears, as to do so is to betray oneself as insufferably bourgeoise. However, Vettriano suffers from an obvious flaw of the self-taught – a lack of technical power*. Getting up close to original Vettriano paintings, close enough to reach out and touch, in the basement of the Kelvingrove, has to be worth £5, though, just to see what all the fuss is about and to check out the source for the million-million images on mugs, postcards, and tea-towels.
Many of his most famous paintings are on display, including The Billy Boys, The Singing Butler, and the zinging Bluebird at Bonneville, loaned from the collections in which they are hoarded. The whole exhibition must be worth an arm and a leg. That’s a problem; standing there feels like I just paid a fiver to glorify marketing, not to appreciate art. But then in 1988 Vettriano sold his first two canvases accepted for the Royal Scottish Academy’s annual show on the first day, and hasn’t looked back since. Inevitably, in the prevailing private-market-driven culture of art, the question is asked – how many of his paintings now sell because they are appreciated and how many because they are a sound investment? Somebody must like them, reproductions are as common as chips and disappear off the shelves rapidly.
Let me deal with what I do like and do appreciate in his work, first of all, and then go on to say what I honestly think lets it down. I shall use paintings that are on display at the Kelvingrove, wherever possible.
Probably my favourite Vettriano painting, leaving aside his self-portraits, is the one of Malcolm Campbell’s ‘Bluebird’ on Pendine Sands in 1924 (fig.1). It is highly stylized, as many of his paintings are, and has his low horizon, distant breakers, and wet beach tropes, along with figures back-lit by watery sunlight. It displays his wonderful knack for painting reflections on surfaces, in this case the wet beach. I love the fragmentation of the reflections. Another Vettriano trope is the frozen attitudes of the figures, each one looking as though it has been caught at an individual moment. The whole painting is like a pause in conversation, with the only sounds being Bluebird’s engine ticking over, and the ‘start’ banner snapping in the breeze. I enjoy looking at it, it has a definite ‘feel’.
A similar capturing of reflection can be seen in the picture of the woman in slacks and a headscarf, leaning against a car (fig.4).
The whole picture is very stylized of course, but apart from the familiar device of the fragmented reflections on the wet ground, there is the clearer view of a building and trees in the car window, and a more indistinct, angled reflection in the misted rear quarter-light (or are we supposed to be looking through it? It’s debatable, and sometimes Vettriano does pull our leg and trick our eye). There is also a subtle difference in surfaces on the car, where an imperfection in the bodywork appears, just below the door handle. Things like this convince me that Vettriano can paint.
He’s weak on faces, about which weakness more later. The one face he does seem to have the measure of is his own; it is almost the only one that he tackles from straight on, that is not obscured by a fedora or something. I can look at his self portraits and feel engaged with the person depicted there. I would happily hang one on my wall. I like the one where he is shown absorbed by a book (fig.2). Behind him on the wall is an empty frame; it seems to imply that the artist-subject’s face, on which we might pretend to read his character, is as important to appreciation of the painting as is the whole, larger composition. At the same time it reminds the onlooker that the painting’s subject is an artist.
The more full-length self-portrait below (fig.6) shows him posed almost like one of his 1940s-kitsch male figures. However, there is more relaxation, less striking of an attitude. Once again the subject is caught in a suspended moment. This painting also shows Vettriano’s knack with light. He often paints light from a window in this way, sometimes filtering it through thin curtains, and more often than not he nails it.
I mentioned that he is weak on faces. I believe this to be demonstrated by his hiding them. Very few faces in his paintings are shown anything more than sideways on. Many that are, are shaded by a hat, or suggested rather than depicted. Meanwhile other details in the same painting – the fold and hang of clothes, for example – may be sharp and well-executed. He has made a virtue of this, seeming to suggest that his subjects are anonymous, mysterious rather than open, menacing, furtive, sometimes ashamed of themselves or of the decadent world they inhabit – the bars, the dives, the back rooms, the cheap hotels. On some occasions a painting is embarrassingly bad. In The Direct Approach (fig.7), the young woman’s head, neck, and right shoulder are anatomically impossible.
I look at some faces – hands as well – in a Vettriano painting and think that I’ve seen better in the end-of-term display at the local high school. It seems to be a matter of hit-and-miss; stepping from one painting to the next in this exhibition can often be a matter of stepping from a good one to an awful one, and there are too many that leave me shaking my head to convince me that Jack Vettriano is all he’s cracked up to be. His obsession with creating a kind of soft-porn, 1940s, high kitsch with mobster overtones has been flogged to death. He has painted himself into a corner as a one-trick pony; no matter that it is a highly successful, highly commercial trick (and good luck to him on that score, as he can ignore my opinion all the way to the bank), a whole room full of them soon starts to grate. I often wish that his application to study fine art at Edinburgh University had not been turned down, that he had gone there and acquired some of the technical power he lacks. His painting doesn’t seem to have been going anywhere, and I have the feeling that it ought to have done. He is very talented, and ironically had he been less so he would have been lauded as a primitive. The trouble is that he has too much technique for that, but not enough to rise above the mugs and postcards.
I wish he would. If I could paint as badly as he does (if you see what I mean) I would want to paint better.
* I am all too aware that I am expressing this opinion as a self-taught author and poet; ours seems to be the only formal genre, however, where the necessity of ‘learning’ the art is considered irrelevant by most critics.
Artworks reproduced are acknowledged to be the painter’s copyright, but are displayed in this essay for illustration purposes and as examples for legitimate criticism and comment.