The Collector - Helly Nahmad Gallery, Frieze Masters

November 30, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

The Nahmads - more interesting than your family.

The Collector - Helly Nahmad Gallery

Frieze Masters

Regents Park

 

There was really only one stand worth a visit in the whole of this travelling circus called Frieze and Frieze Masters in October, amongst the spray-tans, Armani suits and Hindmarch handbags, and that was the Helly Nahmad Gallery’s offering called The Collector. This was thinking outside conventional gallery precepts, in that it was more like a film set or a piece of theatre. Visitors could walk around this ‘apartment’ from Paris 1968, peer into the sitting room, a study, the bedroom and the small kitchen, with the sink piled up with dirty dishes and marvel at the attention to detail, even down to cinema ticket stubs, receipts, overflowing ashtrays, with Gitanes butts, naturellement, and piles of Paris Match, Le Monde and L’Oeil, the French arty mag. There were stacks of period newspapers, catalogues from auction houses and exhibitions on the floor and tables, postcards, photographs and political posters pinned to the wall, monographs, catalogues raisonnés, art books and vinyl records packed into bookshelves.

On the two small televisions looped black and white Truffaut and Godard films were playing, interspersed with shots of Brigitte Bardot, newsreel clips from the Paris student riots of ‘68 and the Tour de France, with Miles Davis hauntingly mixed with Les Swingle Singers, and the soundtrack from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

We were told the apartment belonged to an obsessive and imaginary collector. As Helly Nahmad said in his introduction, “Our Collector is a complex character with a completely unique [sic] personality. A passionate, brilliant, eccentric and humble man. Living in post-war Milan and then Paris, he lives and breathes art.”

The man who breathed life into the installation was production designer Robin Brown, who was responsible for a cute Bonnie and Clyde period commercial for Entenmann's cakes. In amongst this deep-litter disarray were hanging paintings by Picasso, Miró, Morandi, Cy Twombly, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Magritte and Dali. On a bedside table, there were three striding Giacometti figures, as casual as you like.

The Nahmad family descended from a prosperous banker, Hillel, from Aleppo, Syria, where he lived until just after the second World War. Following anti-Jewish violence in 1947, he moved to Beirut, and when the situation there became difficult, he took his three sons, Joseph, Ezra and David, to Milan in the early 1960s. All three brothers ended up making a fortune from art. With the emergence of the Red Brigade in the 1970s, Milan was perceived as too dangerous, and the family moved again. Joseph and Ezra headed for Monaco, and David to New York.

Today, their art inventory takes up 15,000 square feet of a duty-free building next to Geneva’s international airport. It is estimated that the warehouse in 2007 contained between 4,500 and 5,000 works of art, worth between $3-4 billion at the time, according to Forbes, including 300 Picasso’s, worth some $900 million. According to Christopher Burge, Christie’s New York chairman, they have sold more works of art than anybody alive. They have bought and sold art on a massive scale over the years, including Morandi’s Natura Morta and a Picasso portrait of his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, for $2.6m, which they sold in 2007 for $30.6m. Other auction purchases for their collection include Picasso’s portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, La Dormeuse au Miroir for $5.5m in 1990, Monet’s Le Palais Contarini for $4.2m in 1996 and Les Canotiers à Argenteuil for $9m in 1998, now valued at $40 million. To cap it all, they paid $60 million at Sotheby’s in 2008 for Kazimir Malevich’s 1916 Suprematist Composition. Léger’s Still Life went to the Nahmad family for $7.9m, while Kandinsky’s Study for Improvisation 3 was sold to them for $16.9 million at Christie’s in 2008.

Helly’s cousin, son of David, also called Helly, (confused?) operated the Helly Nahmad Gallery out of the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and in April this year, in connection with his leadership role in the operation of a high-stakes illegal sports gambling business and money laundering, he was sentenced in a Manhattan federal court to one year and one day; as if he didn’t have enough money. He is now $6.4 million lighter, as that was the extent of his fine, and all his right, title, and interest in Carnaval à Nice by Raoul Dufy, went to the United States, as the painting was involved in a scam to con a British model, who wanted to ‘lose’ some earnings in the Bahamas.

He and professional poker player Illya Trincher, who was also fined $6.4 million, operated a nationwide illegal gambling business in New York City and Los Angeles that catered primarily to multi-millionaire and billionaire clients, including Russian gang bosses and Hollywood film stars, like Leonardo DiCaprio. As part of this business, the organization ran a high-stakes, illegal sportsbook that utilized several online gambling websites operating illegally in the United States, which made millions of dollars of sports bets each year. Nahmad was the primary source of financing for the illegal gambling business, and he was entitled to a substantial share of its profits.

The Nahmad family story would itself make a terrific film, a cross between Catch Me If You Can and Citizen Kane, maybe starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Helly, with Christopher Walken as his father? At least one set has already been designed.

 

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

Masterpiece 2014 London at the Chelsea Royal Hospital

September 10, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Sadly art is now all about money, as this event proved conclusively.

This is the fifth year of Masterpiece, otherwise known as the ‘Unaffordable Art Fair.’ The opening night saw a large sparkle of guests, dealers, jeunesse dorée, hangers-on, collectors, art lovers and euro-trash milling about.

They hung around the curtains from whence poor, harassed girls emerged carrying salvers of canapés. They only made it a few yards before the gannets pounced and devoured the lot.

Could the popularity of this event be down to the fact that it trumpets the fact that it has become the premier antiques and art fair in the UK, or could it be the enormous amount of Ruinart Champagne on tap? A bit of both, one suspects. Certainly, they invite la crème de la crème from around the world, selling clocks and watches, jewellery, porcelain, furniture, antiquarian books, sculpture, paintings, prints, photographs, maps and folk art.

Amongst all these recherché objects is a perfectly ordinary Maserati, which one can see in their showroom in the Old Brompton Road, so why has it been elevated to the status of ‘art’? It’s a car! Now a Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic could be labeled ‘art’, but not a Quattroporte, which is simply Italian for four-door saloon.

If you want to buy a Lowry for £200,000 or a scaled-down cast of Rodin’s The Kiss, for quite a few hundred thousand, this is the place for you. Last November, a 3-foot-high ‘lifetime’ cast of The Kiss sold at Christie’s New York for more than $6m, more than four times its lower estimate; although the current record paid for a Rodin bronze is $19m, for a 6-foot Eve.

This fair is all about money. And class, although, there was a stack of very expensive bling on view, as well. The main sponsor was, after all, RBS Wealth Management, which underlines the notion that art is now all about money. In true fat-cattery fashion, there is even an obnoxious, high-gloss supplement called How to Spend It, published by the FT, telling their readership what to invest in, and nothing about the quality or integrity of the ‘art’. Once it was claret, then classic cars, now paintings and sculpture.

Rob and Nick Carter are young masters of creating digital images from Old Masters. Previously, they took Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s Vase With Flowers in a Window and somehow three-dimensionalised it. For Masterpiece they produced a version of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, using a digitalised background, with day turning imperceptibly into night, into which they have placed a breathing, twitching model; unfortunately, this enhanced being has lost the innocent charm of the original, and resembles more an airbrushed Playmate, or a Vargas painting.

More successful is Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s own masterpiece. Created from the remains of mummified animals, which have been cast in solid sterling silver, it creates a silhouette portrait of the artists on the blank wall behind when illuminated from the front.

If one wanted something a little older, then a visit to Ariadne Galleries from New York would have revealed a Head of a Cycladic Idol, a beautifully simple Greek stone carving dated c.2500 BC from the Cycladic Islands in the Aegean, selling for many millions.

Both Henry Moore and Constantin Brâncuși were strongly influenced by Cycladic sculpture, and although not seen at Masterpiece, a Brâncuși head will still attract some of the highest prices of any sculptor, too rich even for this fair.

Rolls Royce car-dealers used to respond to the question, ‘How much is it, then?’ with a snotty ‘If you have to ask, you can’t afford it, sir’, which is why presumably many pieces were labelled POA, or maybe because many stall-holders were prepared to do a deal.

Robert Young was very much in evidence, with his stylish stand selling folk art, which ranged from painted peasant furniture, trade signs and treen to George Smart fabric collages and old, Welsh oak Windsor chairs. As one of the world experts on this difficult-to-categorise genre, he recently advised Tate Britain on their widely-acclaimed British Folk Art exhibition, reviewed in the June edition of this paper.

Sladmore had not one, but two, stands this year, one focussing on Nic Fiddian Green and his ubiquitous horse’s heads, bending down to drink, and the other devoted to such modern sculptors as Rembrandt Bugatti, who had a delightful Flamingo on view.

If Masterpiece regards itself as part of the ‘Season’, it has to stand alongside the RA Summer Show and Henley Royal Regatta. Adrian Sassoon had for sale an astonishing work of madness by Giovanni Corvaja, a hat, hand-crafted entirely from 160km of gold wire. The headpiece, priced at £350,000, took over 2,500 hours to make, with each of the 5 million hand-hammered gold wires being drawn through a diamond. That would certainly have turned heads at Royal Ascot.

 

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

The Years of La Dolce Vita

May 20, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Don Grant luxuriates in the black and white world of celebrity culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Years of La Dolce Vita
Estorick Collection
39a Canonbury Square,
 N1 2AN

Until 29 June 2014
Admission £5 

Over at the V&A they have a somewhat unglamorous show called The Glamour
 of Italian Fashion, but if it’s real fascino you are after, then the Estorick has it in spades, and you can luxuriate in the black and white world of celebrity culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Paparazzo was originally the name of a character in Fellini’s 1960 seminal film La Dolce Vita, played by Walter Santesso, who focused on the hedonists, partygoers 
and sybarites in Rome at that time.
The man who inspired the character
 was actually an amalgam of photo-journalists, including Marcello Geppetti.

In real life, as opposed to reel life, the film stars, attracted by the relative inexpensiveness of Cinecittà were seen
 to be out and about the Eternal City, frequenting the restaurants, bars and night clubs of the exclusive Via Veneto and Tre Scalini in the Piazza Navona. Rino Barillari and Felice Qinto were fellow snappers, and there exists an uncredited photo of Rino being thumped by an American actor Mickey Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield’s husband, while top-model Vatussa Vitta smacks him with her purse. So the paparazzi being ‘papped.’

Geppeti had better luck when he shot Franco Nero smacking poor, old Rino again at the Trevi Fountain, scene of the most famous scene in La Dolce Vita, in which Anita Ekberg cavorts in a black velvet dress with no visible means of support. The Swedish bombshell made her home in Rome after the success of the Fellini film, and became fodder for the Italian press,
 and there is a photo of her driving her Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster in Rome in 1962 taken by Geppeti. She also attacked a couple of paparazzi, including Geppeti, firstly with a bow and arrow and then unladylike fists.

During this period, European actors like Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon and Sophia Lauren mixed with big Hollywood stars, like John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas and Liz Taylor and were all in Rome, in full public view, to be snapped at will
 in what became known as ‘an open-air film-set’. Taylor and Richard Burton were famously snapped by Gepetti having a snog on a boat in Ischia off 
the Amalfi Coast, where the scenes on Cleopatra’s barge were shot.

There were other candid photos of Elizabeth Taylor sunbathing and swimming, taken by a ‘proper’ celebrity portrait photographer, Bert Stern. Arturo Zavattini worked 
as a cameraman for many great Italian directors including Vittorio De Sica, 
and produced some fascinating behind-the-scenes photographs on the set of La Dolce Vita, with Fellini’s full co-operation and consent.

There is, of course, an unsavoury side to this fascination with fame, which, ironically, is central to the theme of La Dolce Vita, and spawned 
a whole industry of stalking, intrusion and invasion of celebs’ privacy. Not a 
lot has changed in the last 50 years, 
and some would argue that it has got a lot worse, culminating in the death of Princess Diana, after being hounded
 by the paps.

Some people court the attention, including Lady Di herself in her early years, and then cannot control the monster they have created, and 
there are rakes of magazines devoted 
to this unhealthy obsession. For all our ‘guilty pleasure’ we take in them, there is, however, a certain schadenfreude coursing through our veins when the biter gets bit. The name of Max Clifford springs
to mind, perhaps accompanied by the headline 'Gotcha!
'

 

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

Martino Gamper & Haim Steinbach

April 10, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Don Grant reviews a pair of art exhibitions in disguise as IKEA product displays, or is it the other way around?

Martino Gamper: design is a state of mind &
Haim Steinbach: once again the world is flat
Serpentine Galleries
Until 21 April 2014
Admission free

Back in the late 1980s, posters advertising the V&A used the coy slogan ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’. The new Sackler Gallery has a ‘caff ’ called The Magazine, in deference to the old gunpowder store from the Napoleonic Wars, to which it is attached. You can get away with anything, it seems, if you chant the mantra ‘traditional meets the modern’, a bit like parking a Lamborghini Veneno in the courtyard of a Palladian villa in Veneto.

So here we have a wannabe rural villa in the neoclassical style in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park with one of those cheap stackable plastic chairs you find in pub gardens parked alongside. But, let’s venture inside. This is an exhibition, curated by Gamper, about shelving - mostly shelving with objects on them.

Some shelves have no objects on them and they are none the worse for that; designs by Alvar Aalto, Franco Albini and Ettore Sottsass of the Memphis Group, and Gamper’s own, could easily be stand-alone pieces, although Vico Magistretti’s beechwood Nuvola Rossa contains objects selected and curated by Andrew Stafford, including indicators from an Austin A30, some string found at Brick Lane market in 1985 and a door release switch found amongst the demolished ruins of James Turrell’s 1999 Cornwall eclipse inspired installation, The Elliptic Eclipse. And so on. Wire whisks, wooden spoons, Ron Arad’s ping-pong paddle, a heater knob from a Peugeot 205, a cigar mould, a bell-shaped knitting needle gauge, yellow packing foam and, on an off-the-shelf IKEA shelving unit, a display bristling with tools.

There were über-trendy, goth attendants at every turn, as it would have been only too easy to trouser a bicycle light bracket found in London in the late 1990s or a zinc die-cast model of the Eiffel Tower. Somehow my tendency to purloin, liberate or simply steal an object was dampened by a lack of desire to own virtually any of them, apart from a few books and records collected by Simon Prosser to fill Dieter Rams’s natural anodised aluminium, powder-coated, pre-treated, mild steel 606 Universal Shelving System. A collection of bricks adorning Andrea Branzi’s laminated wood, ash wood, and crystal Gritti Bookcase was collected by Maki Suzaki from Carl Andre’s assistant in New York and brought back in his luggage, instead of the 36kg of reference books he had purchased at Strand Book Store on Broadway. Without a trace of irony, he states in the catalogue, ‘ This is why to me, they are not bricks, but books I have not read yet.’

I entered another, smaller gallery and liked quite a few of the objects on display, even to the point of pocketing one, but I then realised I had wandered into the shop.

Across the bridge that spans the short distance between the two galleries is, according to their web-site, ‘a theatre that interweaves history, art and adventure’. In the original gallery, and running concurrently with Gamper’s show, Haim Steinbach was displaying, amongst other things, objects on shelves. Also utilising everyday objects, Steinbach’s interest is in the fundamental practise of collecting by exploring the placing of objects on shelves. Déjà-vu, or what?

He abandoned Minimalist painting in the seventies, some pleasing examples of which are on display, and started to create works using linoleum. He also invited the public to lend their salt and pepper shakers to be displayed within his installation of modular building systems, i.e, shelves. Somewhat portentously, his participatory gesture reactivated the salt and pepper shakers within a new context and made the connection between the private and public sphere. He had also borrowed some perfectly nice Victorian doll’s houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood and displayed them high up in the gallery, out of reach, and almost out of sight. With a last glance at an Ajax cleaning can on a wood and plastic shelf, and a kitsch Little Orphan Annie plaster figurine atop another shelf made of Spiderman masks, I left and felt I had shortened my own shelf-life by a couple of hours.

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

Two exhibitions side by side: Castiglione and Gifted

December 3, 2013 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

From Genoese tantrums to offensive royal gifts.

The Queen's Gallery

Until 16 March 2014

I completely mis-read the invitation to the press viewing at the Queen’s Gallery as Castiglione: Lost Genius and Gifted. It transpired that there were two exhibitions, side by side, the first featuring the extraordinarily talented, but relatively unknown, Genoese painter Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione; he was born in 1604, making him a contemporary of Anthony van Dyck, who also worked in Genoa, the French painter, Nicholas Poussin, and Rembrandt van Rijn. If Caravaggio was a bit of a bad boy, Castiglione must be regarded as Giacchino the Lad, forever getting into punch-ups and rows with his patrons, at one time throwing a hissy fit and slashing a painting commissioned by the Doge of the Republic of Genoa Giovanni Battista Lomellini to shreds. This was not a good diplomatic move, either in terms of his career, or making friends and influencing people. He subsequently fled his home town for, first of all, Rome, then Florence, Naples, Venice and Mantua. He was, in effect, una gazza ladra, borrowing styles and compositions from other painters, and in the case of his Study of Heads, he clearly ‘liberated’ two figures from Rembrandt’s Ecco Homo. He soon, however, developed not only his own style, but some innovative techniques, from painting in oil paints on paper to monotypes.

The large oil drawings are the colour of sanguine, a reddish-brown pastel favoured by Renaissance painters a hundred year earlier, but the effect has a fluidity and fuzziness achieved when the oil soaks into the unprimed paper, which he would apply spontaneously and directly without drawing first. These are some of the most striking images in the exhibition, including Circe with the companions of Odysseus transformed into animals and Omnia vanitas, but his etchings, particularly his large and small Oriental heads, have a dark, brooding quality, which mark him out as great exponent of the medium, although still not a patch on his Dutch contemporary Rembrandt. As well as facing a dozen lawsuits and shooting a fellow artist during an improvised theatrical event, he is said to have been in brawls, beaten up people and even attempted to throw his own sister off a roof. He suffered badly from gout, which may account for appalling temper, and he died intestate.  

The second exhibition features works on paper by the one hundred Royal Academicians, and given, or rather gifted, to HM The Queen during her Diamond Jubilee year, with the standard ranging from the inspired to the downright dreadful. At the top end, Humphrey Ocean’s Birds of Ngong is a simple, pared-down and charming gouache, while David Remfry once again demonstrates his ability to capture movement in Dancers, Havana. Ken Howard looks as though he may have simply delved into his unsold daubs in his plan-chest and come up with Florentine Farmhousedating from 1959. Lord Foster, still annoyingly referred to as Sir Norman, has the most feeble of drawings - School in Sierra Leone, 2009 - which stands out as being the worst work on paper in the entire two exhibitions, which is quite an achievement in itself.

Runner-up to his lordship is Tracey Emin, who has on offer a monoprint entitled HRH Royal Britania (sic); her appointment as Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Schools brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s famous quote about quitting song-writing: ‘Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.’ Tom Phillips also must have ferreted about in his drawers to come up with a handily apposite Sixteen Appearances of the Union Jack from 1974, while David Hockney is one the few artists to do something specifically for Her Majesty Jubilee, a vivid iPad birthday card.

Some works have a tenuous connection to The Queen, the inclusion of Olwyn Bowey’s charcoal and watercolour drawing of a West Sussex pony, Susie (2007), being justified because she hoped that it would appeal to Her Majesty’s interest in horses. Grayson Perry may have given the excellent Reith Lectures this year on the subject of art, the first entitled ‘Democracy Has Bad Taste’, but his own royal offering is a piss-poor drawing of a motorcyle that he sent the motorbike builder to be custom-made for him. It is ‘the equivalent of the Queen’s glass carriage’, he adds spuriously. It is a mystery how the bike ever got made.

So, gifted? Well, not on the strength of what’s on show from the RA, whereas the exhibition Castiglione could have the descriptor ‘Extremely Gifted'.

 

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life

July 22, 2013 / Arts and Culture

By DG

An art exhibition with a strong, yeasty flavour.

Tate Britain

Until 20 October 2013

Admission £15

 

Both Marmite and Lowry have polarised Britain. Even the curators at the press view were more than a touch tentative, acknowledging there was a great divide between the devotees and the cynics, but hoping that this exhibition would persuade the doubters that there was more to Lowry than scores of little hunched figures on their way to work at the mill or scores of little hunched figures on their way home again. Or scores of little hunched figures at a football match, or a fairground, or a cricket match, or on a boating lake. Hundreds of them. Painting after painting, full of little hunched people, against a grim backdrop of mills, chimney stacks belching out smoke and flat skies. Lowry’s reputation has suffered over the years, particularly in his homeland, although he did have some critical success in France.

The organisers have included a number of French works by Pissarro, Utrillo, Seurat and his tutor at Manchester School of Art, Adolphe Valette, whose paintings of urban life at night have a whiff of Atkinson Grimshaw, but without the spark. There is even van Gogh’s oil of the outskirts of Paris, painted the year before Lowry was born, which is a puzzling inclusion. By showing his attempts alongside these others only serves to highlight the fact that he was simply not a very good painter. There, I’ve said it. He is not a naïve painter, as he had formal training; it is not outsider art, as he was in the mainstream world of galleries and museums; he is not a folk artist. What is he? The merchandise in the shop at Tate Britain says it all - Lowry placemats, Lowry coasters, Lowry tea trays (rectangular or circular), Lowry mugs, Lowry tote bags, Lowry cufflinks and Lowry silk ties are all part and parcel of this, and most other ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions these days, but the inclusion of a ‘Lowry’ flat cap at £28, is either a postmodern ironic statement or just downright patronising. The chasm that has opened up between those for and against Lowry is nothing to do with elitism or snobbery, or a north-south divide, or working class versus the middle class. It is to do with quality, and, frankly, he just doesn’t cut the mustard.

One thing that stands out about his subjects in this exhibition, is that he never gets close up and personal, and his people are mostly little dots in the landscape, as he never actually engages with his subject, painting poverty, suffering and everyday life in Manchester from a distance. This is a shame, as some of his portraits have a rawness and wit about them, redolent of Bernard Buffet. One painting, however, 6, should have a dynamic evoking the tough world of construction in the city, and yet, we are offered another distant view of a few dark figures with ladders, wheelbarrows and shovels. Compare this feeble attempt to three paintings exhibited at the RA a few months ago by George Bellows, in which the American depicted slices of urban realism in his views of Penn Station being excavated, both at night and in the snow, full of drama, dynanism and life. One painting from 1946 entitled Snow in Manchester is a rare example of a genuinely atmospheric composition, as is his Industrial Landscape, Wigan from 1925 in the gallery called Ruined Landscapes. Alongside is a quote from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, who described ‘the lunar landscape of slag heaps’ and ‘a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.’ Apart from these few successful portrayals of urban life, which includes the slightly quirky A Protest March from 1959, Lowry is pretty much destined to remain as placemat art, under the dinner plates of the British nation.

 

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

George Bellows: Modern American Life

May 3, 2013 / Arts and Culture

By DG

A vital depiction of real American experience from George Bellows.

George Wesley Bellows (1882–1925).

Riverfront No.1, 1915.

Oil on canvas, 45 3/8 x 63 1/8 in. (115.3 x 160.3 cm).

Royal Academy - Sackler Gallery

Until 9 June 2013

Admission: £10

 

George Bellows was a product of the so-called Ashcan School run by Robert Henri who "wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter."

There are few American painters that have captured the feel of snow better than Bellows, other than Andrew Wyeth, seventy-five years later. Bellows’ Snow Dumpers is a masterful painting, full of drama and dynamism, with the helmeted workers backing horse-drawn wagons up to the East River’s edge to unload their shovelled snow, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a steam tug chugging past. The same tug reappears in some of his other work, including The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island and Splinter Beach, and then again in Riverfront, No. 1, 1914, which was in the Washington and New York exhibitions, but, sadly, not in the London one.

This slice of urban realism is typical of Bellows’ work, as are his views of Penn Station being excavated, both at night and in the snow, and a bustling composite view of New York painted in 1911. His most celebrated painting is probably Forty-two Kids, painted four years earlier, and shows, well, 42 kids, mostly naked, standing, lying or diving off a dilapidated wooden pier in the Hudson East River. Twenty years before that, Thomas Eakins painted The Swimming Hole, which displays, in a more stilted way, his fellow students swimming and diving off a rock in an idyllic river setting.

Whereas Eakins used photography to capture the various poses, Bellows sketched mainly from life. Both the British artist Henry Tuke and the German Impressionist Max Liebermann, had earlier painted young boys cavorting about in the water, although the former’s motives may have been more prurient than artistic. Bellows’ energetic boxing scenes are full of punch, literally, as well as beautifully observed spectators around the ring, and the most famous of these is Stag of Sharkey’s, depicting a prize fight at Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club, across the way from his studio in the Lower East Side. There is true homage to the old masters, Velazquez and Franz Hals, in his use of paint in his portraiture, as well as nods towards Manet and Whistler, and even Sickert. His seascapes have a great understanding of the way waves swirl, eddy and crash against rocks, as well as the calm and reflections off water. Although he was not in the Great War, he took it as the subject of five monumental paintings, four of which are included in the RA show, along with some truly horrific lithographs. These are stark, brutal images that drive home the futility and cruelty of war like a stake through the heart. He went to live  in a house in Woodstock, in upstate New York , with his wife and two daughters, a great success, both critically and financially, even more famous than his fellow student Edward Hopper.

He continued to paint until his untimely death from a ruptured appendix aged just forty-two, but his later portraits had acquired a stiffness, and his landscapes, like The Picnic and The White Horse, became very busy, with too many focal points, as though he was trying to cram everything onto the canvas at once. This is a balanced and well-curated exhibition which may come as a welcome diversion from the hordes flocking to the Manet downstairs.

 

Footnote: It is a puzzling thing that, exactly 20 years ago, the Royal Academy staged an exhibition entitled American Art in the 20th Century, featuring Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993. In the lead-up to the current show, the RA have been extolling the skills of this artist, stating that he was considered one of the greatest artists in America . . .  and he chronicled America’s pursuits and passions like no artist before or since.  Yet, neither in the 1993 exhibition, nor in its catalogue, does he feature at all, and only warrants one mention. ‘In terms of artistic rank, a Kenneth Hayes Miller, a Reginald Marsh, a George Bellows, were no more than visual journalists, reporters with the brush. They illustrated rather than shaped our times.’ Curious.

 

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

 

Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite

January 21, 2013 / Arts and Culture

By DG

DG bravely delves into Brian Sewell's second autobiography.

Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite

By Brian Sewell

Quartet Books
ISBN: 978 0 7043 7291 7 RRP £25. 284pp. Illustrated

 

Well, I’ll be buggered. About ten years ago, when I was Chairman of Chelsea Arts Club, I wrote to Brian Sewell, offering him an honorary membership. He replied promptly and effusively but declined, saying that he was not a very clubbable person. I wrote back regretfully saying that, in view of his vituperative criticisms, there were a number of painters in the Club, including Peter Blake and Ken Howard, who would love to club him - to death.

As an art critic, he has been reviled and hated in equal measure by artists, gallery owners, editors, fellow critics and Royal Academicians, particularly Royal Academicians. In fact, in 1994, thirty-five art world ‘worthies’ wrote to the editor of the Evening Standard demanding that he be fired. One of the signatories, Sarah Kent, ‘the silly woman who was the despised arts editor of Time Out,’ gets it right between the eyes, literally - Sewell wanted to bequeath her his eyes, ‘who is not blind but cannot see.’ Sandy Nairne doesn’t fare much better - ‘servile lackey of the Tate . . . now the unctuous Director of the National Portrait Gallery.’ The music critic Norman Lebrecht, also gets the full treatment: ‘Never was a favourite so puffed up with amour-propre, so arrogant and so thick-skinned; never was a man so loathed by those with whom he worked and sought to oversee.’

He found Emma Soames ‘as sexually attractive as a saucepan of boiled socks.’ All delicious, snobby stuff, and if said with his plummy, dowager voice, described by one commentator as ‘making the Queen sound common’, all the better for it. Having worked at Christies for nine years, he finally asked for a department of his own from Sir Alec Martin, ‘a vile, arrogant and ignorant old martinet’, but his chances were scuppered by the Hon Patrick Lindsay, whose ‘blindness and obstruction’ led to his resignation. He was then told ‘we’ve got one homosexual on the board; we don’t need another.’

His promiscuity is eye-watering in its detail and numerousness, from being gang-banged in Chelsea Barracks, or the Royal Military Police barracks, or shagging anyone who came along on the tow-path by Hammersmith Bridge and ducking down to avoid being picked out by the searchlight on the river police boat, to observing pretty Bruce Chetwyn alternately fellating two other pretty boys in a New York steam room.

Central to the book is the unmasking of Sir Anthony Blunt as a Russian spy, and how Sewell tried to hide his one- time tutor and mentor at the Courtauld from the press. It seems that loyalty to one’s friend was more important than loyalty to one’s country. In the first volume of his autobiography, he states that an early ambition was to become a priest. In the light of what has been revealed in the Catholic church in recent years, he may well have been better off.

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

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