I neither have the time nor the income to traipse down to London to every exhibition I might want to see but I have been lucky to be able to peruse the massive and expensive tomes that pass for exhibition catalogues these days, for both Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, at the British Museum, and Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 – 1900, at the Victorian and Albert.

There is, of course, plenty of Western erotic art around, some of it from the most unlikely figures. Turner and Lowry I believe indulged, if that is the right word, although I have not seen their efforts in this vein. What I am familiar with does not seem to have much to do with making love. It’s all about male lust often tinged with sadism. There are images on Greek pots and even Rembrandt has a couple of etchings of sex scenes, one of a monk rodgering a girl in a cornfield. Some of Picasso’s erotic images show women alone displaying themselves. Where the other sex is involved, and not in the forms of centaurs, satyrs or minotaurs, they display the same lustful characteristics. The many sculptor and model images suggest that the artist has leapt on his model as Rodin was reputed to do.

The Japanese shunga works are quite different. In the main, they show couples enjoying sex together. Women (I hesitate to write feminists for some are against penetration altogether) should approve, as there is great emphasis on female pleasure. Given the giant scale of the sexual organs of both sexes, there is no disguising the fact of male arousal but the curled toes of the women show an equal involvement. In one print, her furrowed brow, indicated with masterful economy by a tiny line, shows the intensity of the woman’s orgasm.

That said, the majority of images in this huge selection are not great works of art.  They are inevitably very repetitious. I was pleased to find that I have a selection of the very best of them by Utamaro, Shuncho and Kuniyoshi in a Thames and Hudson paperback that originally cost £2-50. One of the finest by Utamaro is not explicit at all. It shows a couple lying on a balcony gently touching each other’s face and neck. All that is exposed from under the loose and beautifully patterned fabrics is a glimpse of the woman’s thigh and slender buttocks.

In the exhibition of Chinese painting at the Victorian and Albert Museum the very lengthy scroll Prosperous Suzhou is the work I would have most liked to have seen. The reproduction in its entirety is too small to make anything of.  Leafing through the catalogue, I noted that the first reproduced detail could have been of the restaurant where a group of us ate on a visit to the city this year, but a fuller image later shows the city much changed. The scroll seems to have been made in imitation of the famous Riverside Scene in the Forbidden City, Beijing, painted about four hundred earlier later in the thirteenth century, which I have seen.

While in Suzhou, I visited the New Suzhou Museum designed by I. M. Pei of Louvre pyramid fame. He has a family connection with the city. There I saw an exhibition by a modern Chinese painter He Xi who works in ink and wash on quite a large scale and not in scroll form. His imagery includes fish, insects, plants, animal skins. His achievement is to bring forward the Chinese classical style in the most successful manner that I have come across. I have written before of a contemporary art cliché consisting of a sequence of identically framed variations usually with minimal content. In contrast to these dull works, He Xi has produced an intriguing version where landscapes in the styles of classical masters are contained in glass bottles of different shapes in a bonsai tribute to them. This was only one small part of a wonderful exhibition. I would have loved to take away a well-illustrated catalogue but none was available.    

One is always wary about passing opinions on work one has not actually seen. For this reason, had I been in London, I would certainly have gone to see the murals from the Burghclere Chapel that are being exhibited at Somerset House while the chapel is being restored. Some regard these as Spencer’s masterpiece. I disagree. Much of Spencer’s work, for me, is flawed by awkwardness and arbitrary distortion and some of these defects seem to be prominent in this memorial work based on the artist’s Great War  experience. The curved tops to some of the panels have led to unsatisfactory compositions. But what makes the total effect very ugly in every photograph I have seen is the white bands, broader than the faces of the largest figures that divide the paintings. If these were easel paintings, you would say that they were atrociously framed. Spencer must bear some responsibility. I have read that the scheme was closely based on a drawing of his. Apparently, he was inspired by Giotto’s murals in the Arena Chapel, Padua. But the dividing elements there are covered in geometric patterns, which make them blend in.

Surely, Spencer’s greatest work is the sequence of paintings he produced of the dockyards at Port Glasgow, as an official war artist during the Second World War. They are now in the Imperial War Museum but I was lucky to see them in an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh in 2000. The very long, unusually-shaped panels, each dedicated to a particular shipbuilder's craft, welding, riveting, plumbing etc., form tunnels of activity. Everything is lit by the glow of furnaces and welding torches forming harmonies of pinks, oranges and browns with contrasting notes of metallic blues. The figures are not stultified as they might have been if each was based on posed models yet there is not that wilful distortion that can mar some of Spencer’s other work. The actual paint handling is rather beautiful.

 Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was a contemporary of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp famously said to Leger and Brancusi, after looking at an aeroplane propeller, ‘Painting is dead.’ His masterpiece the Large Glass uses pictorially, engineering technology, the chocolate grinder and the water mill, that would have been known to Leonardo, perhaps even to the Greeks. Spencer, the eccentric English painter, whose main inspiration was early Renaissance masters, completed his greatest work from imagery drawn from the cutting edge technology of his day.




Reviewing the current exhibition of Daumier at the Royal Academy, London, Julian Bell reproduces a cartoon by the artist, which shows a sculpture that has become animated.  It is in an enraged state because it is being totally ignored by the Salon visitors. Bell quotes Baudelaire suggesting that naturalistic sculpture is boring and satisfies only hicks and savages because something that can be viewed from all angles gives no scope to the imagination.

I have been thinking about these matters, because earlier this year, I had occasion to view sculptures from four different periods in galleries in Toulouse. The Musée Des Augustins, housed in an ecclesiastical styled building, boasts large collections of Gothic, Romanesque and 19th century sculpture, while the Musée Saint-Raymond has the best selection of Roman busts that I have ever come across.

I can’t work up much enthusiasm for Gothic carving. Much of it is obviously highly skilled, but it seems to be for the glory of God rather than the appreciation of mere mortals and in its original positions, gets lost in the other elaborations of the architectural style. The earlier Romanesque sculpture, on the other hand can be full of interest. It had a teaching function to tell the stories of the Bible or frighten us into good behaviour by its visions of Hell. Thus the Romanesque tympanum is at viewable height unlike so many high neoclassical pediments copying ancient Greek architecture where the sculpture was for the eyes of the gods not humans: the famous Parthenon frieze couldn’t be seen at all in situ.

The Toulouse gallery had an extensive collection of Romanesque capitols mounted at eye level on steel plinths. Carving a story round a relatively small block of stone seems to have inspired sculptors. It may be something similar to the way in which the restrictions of traditional prosody can lead to inventiveness in poetry and, although the examples at the Augustins were not of the highest quality they were far superior to the collection of eminently ignorable 19th century pieces. I could imagine a seething mass of furious marble figures coming to life Daumier-like.

Baudelaire may be on to something. On several occasions, I have asked groups of well-informed people, including artists, how many sculptors they can name in the period between the end of the Renaissance and the abandonment of naturalism in modern times. Many can’t come up with any names at all. A few have managed, Bernini, Canova and Rodin while I am sure they could name many more painters without difficulty.

As I have noted in an earlier blog, many traditional sculptures make an architectural contribution to our stone built cities, but this is largely due to the fine proportions of their classically inspired plinths. Aesthetically, what is on top of them, is often little more than a finial, which is why the proposal of the authorities in Glasgow to heighten their Wellington monument, to avoid the general being perpetually crowned with a traffic cone, was so misguided. Meanwhile, unless we seek out images of figures of historical interest we wander round our great capitals disregarding whole populations of marble citizens and horses. Think of Hansen’s parliament building in Vienna with no less than four, or is it six, quadrigas on its roof and all these toga-clad people atop buildings in Edinburgh, London, Paris and elsewhere.

If there is a lack of interest in full-sized sculpture in the period I have described, that is even more true if we consider portrait busts. We may look at Houdon to see what Diderot looked like, Nollekens to have some idea of Fox. But unless the subject looks distinctive, we will probably retain nothing. In Frankfurt a few years ago, I was delighted to find a sculpted portrait of Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, a French enlightenment philosophe in whom I am very interested. Today, I haven’t a clue as to what he looks like. Why is it then that I was so entranced by the Roman busts at the Musée Saint-Raymond? It is known who the subjects of these works are, but that did not interest me. The sculptures themselves have a power and a presence that I can’t explain. There is nothing in Western sculpture that comes anywhere near them unless perhaps Bernini’s busts of the dignitaries of the church who were his patrons. We are lucky to have one of these in Edinburgh.



A friend of mine the other day was shocked by my admission, that when I eventually got the opportunity to visit the Museum of Modern Art, New York, I was so familiar with some of the paintings from reproductions, that the actual works bored me. I instanced Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Dali’s melting watches and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He thought that this was ridiculous but I explained that I was only honestly relating an experience, not putting forward any principle.

I mention this because I have just visited the National Gallery of Scotland to see Manet’s Mademoiselle Claus, recently acquired by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Seeing originals is more important for an appreciation of Manet’s genius than practically any other painter: some of his works in reproduction can seem almost academic, even photographic, only revealing their quality and originality when actually confronted. The economy of his brushwork is astounding and seeing how the dabs of paint coalesce to form perfect illusions of reality, is truly magical.

There is no direct analogy between actual paintings versus reproductions and live performances of classical music versus recordings. A particular CD may be superior, as an interpretation of a composer’s intentions, to a given live performance. Colin Wilson’s On Music is the only case that I have come across where an admission of a preference to listening to recorded music over attending concerts, has been made.

Undoubtedly, there is a lot of snobbishness connected with classical music and there are people who live their lives so vicariously that they seem to feel the need to be attached to celebrity, however tenuously, so that there is a thrill in attending a performance by a famous musician even although they are getting very little from it musically. Charles Rosen has written about how audiences in the past would contain a higher proportion of competent pianists who would know the music being played from direct experience. The equivalent of  recorded symphonic music before the modern age was the arrangements for piano duet that composers like Brahms supplied for home consumption.

I have often thought that, having no musical ability myself, I would not have gained the immense pleasure from classical music that I have had, if I had lived before the advent of recorded music. And it may be true that the musically accomplished get more from of it than I do, although I know quite gifted individuals who close their minds to anything composed in the last hundred years. Before a concert I like to do my homework. I am not going to pay for an expensive ticket and get lost so that I dream.

My last live music experience was the concert by the Arditti Quartet at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. The concert began with Janacek’s first quartet, which I have known for a long time but I was attracted to this concert because of two quartets by Conlon Nancarrow. I had read about him and had duly bought a CD to sample his music. (Generally this is my route to musical enjoyment. It began when as a schoolboy in Orkney  I  read about modern jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, sent for a record from Keith Prowse in London and played it until I understood it.) There were two other pieces in the programme both by Xenakis and they gained  from live performance.

My previous experience of the work of Xenaxis was over forty years ago. On holiday in Paris, I attended with my wife an event in the ruins at the Musée de Cluny, where we lay on our backs on matting, watching a lighting display overhead to the accompaniment of electronic music. It was a fun, holiday curiosity and it didn’t make me want to mug up on Xanakis’ music. Watching the Arditti Quartet producing the gratings, slides and textures from conventional instruments was a much more engaging experience. It gave something I don’t think you would get from a recording.

The piece I have taken to most from my Nancarrow recordings is Piece No.2 for Small Orchestra not the two quartets played by the Arditti Quartet, much as I enjoyed them. l may never have the opportunity to hear Piece No.  2 live.


The major art exhibition during last year’s Edinburgh International Festival was entitled Symbolist Landscape. I was apprehensive about the show: there are many ghastly Symbolist paintings. In the event, I was pleasantly surprised. The category was stretched a bit but there were many fine paintings that I had not seen before and several beautifully hung walls. The curator had no axe to grind and he or she (I am in favour of curators having a low profile) had assembled an exhibition of great and interesting paintings.

But ghastly paintings, in every sense do predominate in one of this year’s Festival shows at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. For the exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies, which is advertised as being a first to explore artists’ view of witches, the curator has obviously struggled to come up with many artists of quality. The show relies heavily on Goya who is represented by one small painting based on a long-forgotten play, The Forcibly Bewitched, and several etchings from The Caprichos that can be seen at any time on request, at the Scottish National Gallery. If, as I understood from an interview on Scottish Newsnight, the curator is making any point about the horrific treatment of women during the witch craze in the 16th and 17th centuries, the inclusion of Goya is to say the least problematic.

Goya, as his letters make clear, didn’t believe in witches. Robert Hughes in his scholarly monograph explains how the painter completed a small series of witch paintings for his patron the Duchess of Osuna who was interested in them ‘rather as one might display a faux-naïve or campy taste for horror movies without actually believing in reincarnated mummies or creatures from the black lagoon.’ Without being aware of the context, many of us must have wondered about the great Goya’s Witches Sabbath (1797-98) with its comical billy goat. It’s difficult to take it seriously. And, of course, the witches and hobgoblins of The Caprichos they’re meant to be satirical aren’t they?

Other exhibits too, have a very tenuous connection with the persecution of old women as witches. Fuseli’s Weird Sisters was produced for the dealer Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and the witches in Macbeth are really a dramatisation of the inner monologue of Macbeth’s demented ambition. No artist has been found who deals with the witch craze at a serious level. Even the painters and printmakers contemporary with the grim realities produced fantasies with a carnival spirit that make them appear sophisticated Halloween events.

I’m sure that a search among popular prints of the time would produce images of the atrocities but there is no evidence that any serious artist bore witness as Goya did, of the horrors of war, or recorded with relish the barbarities of the age. Among Rembrandt’s drawings there are two sketches of a woman on a gibbet but there is no suggestion that she was an executed witch. An axe hangs beside her. Perhaps she struck down a brutal husband. Rembrandt doesn’t turn her into a monster. The mood of the drawings seems even compassionate

So what is the point of this exhibition? If one wants to know about the witch craze there are several well know studies. If one expects aesthetic excitement, disappointment is in store. 


I ended my last blog by stating that I didn’t want to know the story behind the Chinese painting entitled, Three Hermits Laughing at Tiger Stream. It has set me thinking about how great visual artworks have to survive the meanings, describable in language, that may have been vital to their creation. I remember wondering a long time ago why there was the decapitated head of an ass in the foreground of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Eventually, I came across the explanation, which I have since forgotten. But it makes no difference whatsoever to my love and appreciation of the work.

I am old enough to remember Edgar Wind’s Reith Lectures Art and Anarchy. In the fourth lecture, entitled The Fear of Knowledge, he claimed that we get a profounder understanding of a work of visual art if we know the background ideas.  ‘The eye,’ he states, ‘focuses differently when it is intellectually guided. At the time, I wanted to believe him.  In the expanded, published version of the lectures, I see I have underlined his sentence ‘Masterpieces are not so secure in their immorality as Croce imagined.’ I would argue now, at least where visual art is concerned, that it is almost the definition of a masterpiece that it is not dependant on its original message.  My favourite work on the Virgin and Child theme is the one by Mantegna in the Ehemals Staatliche Museum, Berlin. It is very obviously a young mother with her baby. I do not need to believe any nonsense about virgin births to appreciate it. The best art on religious themes will survive in a secular age. Two works that I admire greatly, illustrate the lives of two Christian saints, but I have no particular interest in these historical figures. Masaccio’s St. Peter Distributing Alms I regard as one of the best Social Realist paintings ever, Raphael’s tapestry cartoon of St Paul Preaching, as a supreme example of figures composed in an architectural setting. Those works that require allowance for religious belief, counter-reformation propaganda for example (see my blog Theology versus Art) or are there to force us to our knees, do not interest me and indeed bore me. Which is not to say that I cannot ignore a halo or two or some other convention or stipulation of the day in a work of real merit.

What holds for religious work is also true of that other great literary source for Renaissance artists, the Greek myths. Mantegna’s complex composition Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, is a great favourite of mine. It is self-evident that the figures fleeing in terror from the armoured goddess are meant to be evil but I don’t read them like that. I prefer to think of them as unfortunates, perhaps underclass figures, and only need to think of any narrative vaguely. What draws me to this painting is the complexity of the imagery, controlled in a composition of complete clarity, which can lend itself to multiple explanations.

No painting can be rescued by iconographic interpretation, if it does not please in the first place. I have a great love of the work of Poussin and enjoyed Panofsky’s essay where he points out that the master’s title Et in Arcadio Ego, is usually mistranslated: it doesn’t mean ‘I too lived in Arcadia.’ He illustrates by reference to other paintings with the same title (one of them by Poussin himself) showing a death head on the tomb, that it is death who speaks, saying, ‘Even in Arcadia, I am present.’ Not being expert in Latin grammar, and accepting the mis-translation, I admit that the work was a bit of a puzzle.  Yet, despite enlightenment, the painting remains, for me, one of Poussin’s dullest works, with none of his usual compositional inspiration.


I am not a dedicated traveller. The few journeys I have made beyond the cultural centres of Europe have been connected with my children. When my son taught in Beijing about fifteen years ago I visited him on two occasions. I have recently spent a month in Shanghai where he is currently working.

The only other city built relentlessly into the clouds, that I have any familiarity with, is New York, and it is tempting to compare the two. Whereas New York is crowded and dirty, Shanghai is spacious and – apart from the smog – clean. To help with the pollution, trees and shrubs have been planted everywhere, kept in immaculate condition by armies of gardeners. The Chinese city, of course, was developed much later than America’s celebrated intellectual centre, and the difference in modernism and efficiency shows. Where New York scores is in the quality of art on public view. One wouldn’t go to Shanghai to see the best of Chinese art. Beijing is certainly a better bet and I believe a great many of the nation’s treasures were looted to Taiwan.

But Shanghai does have its museums with a selection of bronzes, paintings and ceramics, if not comparable to those in the Palace Museum, Beijing. I came away from the city with a greater understanding and love of Chinese painting thanks largely to a bookshop devoted to Chinese art situated in Fuzhou Road next to the Foreign Language Bookstore.

The difficulty that I have had with Chinese painting hitherto, arose from what are often unsympathetic proportions to the Western eye. Landscapes in the hanging scroll format might be something like 114cm high by 24cm broad. Represented in these dimensions were mountain structures that seemed incredible, appropriate only to fairy stories. Reproduced in normal book size, the detail was barely decipherable. Much more sympathetic were the hand scrolls, akin to the Greek frieze type of composition still being adopted by Picasso, in works like Guernica, and even Jackson Pollock. The Palace Museum in Beijing has three great works in this format. I already had a memento of one of these. Zhang Zaduan’s River Scene on the Eve of the Spring Festival, which makes any Brueghel seem under-populated, and in Shanghai I was able to get an inexpensive book almost in magazine format that gave enlarged details. It is always possible to see some sort of illustrations of Gu Hongzhog’s The Night Revels of Han Xizai and the Five Buffaloes by Han Huang, but to pick up for a few yuan reproductions of both, made up of attached postcards that gave the experience of unrolling a hand scroll, was luck indeed. The Night Revels is the only one of these that I have never actually seen: it wasn’t on show during either of my visits to Beijing. For me, it is the greatest of all Chinese paintings with large figures – large that is in relation to the work’s dimensions. The scroll is only 28.7cm high.

I gorged myself on the magazine-like books mentioned above, each with a particular theme: horses, genre figures, women, social events, monks and Arhats (Buddhist saints). This last category seemed to specialise in extreme characterisation. I have been able to establish that one of the works is by a monk Guan Xiu and another two by Shi Ke, both active in the 10th century. Shi’s work, with its incredibly free and economical brushwork, would look like late Goya if it wasn’t for the obvious Chinese features of his figures.

And I also bought a couple of books on masters of the landscape, one with English text, and overcame my prejudices. There are as many hand scrolls as long upright pieces, and I now know that the improbable-looking mountains are real not fantasies. Among the intricately rendered features, botanical and geological, you find tiny figures that could be overlooked on an initial viewing - a mule train negotiating a treacherous mountain path, people on the terrace of a perilously perched dwelling. There are wonderfully pantheistic moments: a couple of  gowned men lounge on a flat, projecting rock enjoying the view from a height nearer the clouds than any one of Shanghai’s iconic buildings, a single figure staff in hand entranced by a mountain torrent  that seems to fall from the heavens. More often than not, the works connect man and nature.  A painting by an unknown artist is titled, Three Hermits Laughing at Tiger Stream. There is probably some story behind it but I don’t want to know it. It is a splendid title. 


 Since my wife started getting The Daily Telegraph regularly, I have been reading the exhibition reviews by Richard Dorment. The work of some art journalists can be looked forward to whether you agree with them or not. Waldemar Januszczak, for instance can come out with observations that are so sharp that I feel compelled to copy them into my commonplace book eg. ‘Compared with the enormous flesh fest (by Jenny Saville) the art of Rubens is a celebration of anorexia.’ Dorment, on the other hand merely irritates.

On the first day of the year I read about him waiting eagerly to see what two curators will do with the work of LS Lowry who he describes as an old bore. (See my blog Curating versus Creating.) Reviewing the mixed media show Dance around Duchamp, he made a comment about Cage’s prepared piano compositions that showed clearly that he had preconceived ideas about them. (See my blog Duchamp in Capitals.) Now with his piece on the exhibition of the work of Baroccio, Brilliance and Grace at the National Gallery, London, illustrated with a reproduction of the painter's Rest on the Flight into Egypt, he continues to annoy.

His first canard is geographical. Is the Marche, where Baroccio worked, due east of Bologna? It would be truer to say that it is due east of Florence though Urbino and Loreto which he mentions are even further south. To say that it is a region that the British have yet to discover is arrogant in the extreme. I am sure I am not the only art lover who has driven over the Mountains Of the Moon, following the Piero della Francesca trail from Arezzo to Urbino via Monterchi and Sansepolcro. And you don’t have to go there to see works by Borocci. There are works in the Uffizi, Perugia  cathedral, the Vatican and the Louvre.

That Baroccio is a highly skilled painter and that his many drawings are very sensitive is undoubted but the greatest artists transcend their periods in a way that he doesn’t. I suspect that many have seen his work and passed it by, because it takes a very definite interest in religious ecstasy to stomach so much Counter-Reformation art. Dormant asks us to remember that the Virgin’s ‘ineffable sweetness is part of the picture’s meaning, since it is a characteristic assigned to her by theologicians of the Counter-Reformation.’ In Dorment’s aesthetic we have to go along with clerical dogma as well as the authority or curators.

One further nonsense: Dorment asks us to notice ‘the sole of the Madonna’s conspicuously bare foot….. it is a realistic detail that helps make the biblical story believable.’ There is nothing believable about this Rest on the Journey into Egypt. Compare it to the several versions by Rembrandt of the subject, which are eminently plausible. Barocci’s work is all fluttery garments in bright blue, red and yellow with spotless white, hardly desert-journey attire.


 Both London and Edinburgh have mounted exhibitions of the work of Marcel Duchamp surrounded by his heirs. Reviewers are ecstatic. Valdemar Januszczak calls him ‘the most important artist of the modern era,’ Richard Dorment, ‘the most important artist of all.’

From this distance much of the minor Fauve and Cubist work produced at the beginning of the twentieth century has lost its sparkle and can now seem quite scruffy.  Marcel Duchamp’s early work too, was on the scruffy side, but his first mature painting, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, is a highly finished, almost monochrome painting, in a Cubist/Futurist style.  A tiny detail seems significant: among the analytical planes are three small arcs of white dotted lines, perhaps more appropriate to an engineering drawing. Were they a signal of the direction the artist was about to take? In a letter, Léger writes of a visit to the Salon d’Aviation with Duchamp and Brancusi where Duchamp exclaimed, ‘Painting is finished. What can be done better than this propeller?’

Duchamp, as we know, is famous for his ready-mades. If they were a great turning point in the history of art then the break-through work should be the bicycle wheel or the bottle rack, which were selected for presentation three years before the more famous urinal. The original urinal of 1917, called Fountain and signed R. Mutt, was rejected and not actually exhibited. It was really something of a prank. The lavatory fitting thrust under the nose of the bourgeoisie was more likely to achieve the desired notoriety than any other mundane manufactured object. But there is a clue to Duchamp’s thinking in his letter to the Society of Independents complaining about the rejection of Mr Richard Mutt’s Fountain (Mutt wasn’t a made-up name but the name of the manufacturer). Duchamp ended with the statement, ‘the only works of art produced by America are its plumbing fixtures and its bridges. Engineering again!

The ready-mades were lost or flung out. But in 1996 a Milanese dealer spotted an opportunity, had some pieces reconstructed, and persuaded the aging artist to sign them.  Nobody, ironically, goes so far as to describe the urinal as Duchamp’s magnum opus. All seem to agree that it is the Large Glass aka The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors that deserves that title. It is no ready-made but a meticulously constructed piece with its complex imagery, some of it cut from sheet lead and lead wire, held between two sheets of glass. It brings together ideas which Duchamp had worked on for years, the chocolate grinder, the water mill, curious pipette shapes that are present in the painting Mariée. With the cylinders of the grinder, the wheels of the mill and a series of cone shapes there is a plethora of ellipses set at diverse angles to one another, that are peculiarly satisfying in their exactitude. What it all means is anybody’s guess and the artist’s notes only add, perhaps intentionally, more mystery. Duchamp liked to downgrade what he called the retinal in favour of the cerebral, but this is a bit of a red herring. He is, after all, a visual artist and the work is a composition of mechanical engineering imagery. It is his answer to that propeller, his way of representing the modern world.

What of Duchamp’s offspring? AA Gill states that 'his heirs are entirely self-referential, mistrusting of craft.’ We can hardly blame Duchamp for that. He himself was a craftsman of watchmaker-like intricacy. When he made the Boxes, his portable museums consisting of sixty-nine copies of his paintings and a celluloid replica of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, he eschewed reproduction techniques and did everything by hand, several years work. Compare that with the tat at the Edinburgh show, From Death to Death and Other Small Tales at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where a couple of rag dolls are sewn together and there are several examples of that well known modern cliché where a series of pieces with minimum effort and invention are immaculately framed with deep conservation mounts.

I haven’t seen the London exhibition at the Barbican where Duchamp is at the centre of a multimedia show with Rauchenberg, Johns, the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage but from the review by Richard Dorment in The Telegraph, I can tell he is mainly interested in the urinal legacy. Here is what he wrote on Cage’s contribution, ‘piano pieces by Cage float up from instruments mechanically altered to sound as little as possible like music.’ (My shocked underlining)  Dorment wants to reject craft even when it is present. He would be much happier with Cage’s 4’33, more akin to the urinal as a ready-made of four minutes, thirty-three minutes silence with random background noises. Did Dorment ever even listen to Cage’s piano pieces? Alex Ross wrote of them in The Rest is Noise: ‘The prepared piano his (Cage’s), most famous invention, never fails to surprise listeners expecting to be battered by some unholy racket; the preparation process, involving the insertion of bolts, screws, coins, pieces of wood and felt, and objects between the strings, is conceptually violent but the sounds themselves are innately sweet.’ The junk stuff is carefully tuned in and gives the piano a sound something more like the gamelan. Ross thought Cages pieces have some of the supernatural poignancy of Eric Satie. When I heard the cycle Sonatas and Interludes at the Edinburgh Festival, I thought they were not that far from Debussy.


Unfortunately, I will not be going to see the Manet exhibition in London. There is no other painter for whom it is so beneficial to see the actual works: brushwork that can seem almost photographic in reproduction only reveals its magic when inspected on the canvas. But other commitments preclude my making the trip and besides, I have see a great many Manets around Europe and in New York and blockbuster exhibitions don’t provide the best viewing conditions.

I have been reading reviews. Some of these have been surprising. I am tempted to give a prize for the most idiotic statement on the painter that I have ever read, to Sarah Crampton in the Telegraph. ‘An artist often dismissed as only for chocolate boxes or posters,’ she writes, ‘suddenly stands revealed as a great and mysterious modernist.’ Who has ever thought Manet as chocolate-boxy or only poster material? Charles Moore used Manet’s brilliance to down grade the Impressionists. This won’t do either. Monet is sometimes dismissed as a pretty-pretty painter when in fact he was an uncompromising extremist, a much more positive thing to be in the arts than in any other field.

In the exhibition at the Royal Academy there is what one reviewer describes as a small oil sketch for The Luncheon on the Grass but which, according to Julian Bell writing in London Review of Books, is a commissioned copy. The full size painting was un succès de scandale for Manet and much has been written about it. Most will know the work depicting two men rather formally dressed picnicking in a forest glade with a totally nude woman, while a second woman in a white gown, wades in a pond in the background. It is an odd work. The painting Olympia exhibited two years later also shocked contemporaries but it is much more straightforward. The courtesan with her cool gaze wears high-heeled shoes and a black ribbon round her neck, which emphasises her nudity. She is deliberately provocative. A black maid brings a bouquet obviously from an admirer. A black cat stands at the foot of the bed. Manet here is indeed the painter of modern life. Prostitution was a major industry in contemporary Paris. The barmaid in The Bar at The Folies Bergeres was probably a prostitute. Degas’ dancers were little different.

If The Luncheon on the Grass were some sort of orgy, it would be more understandable but it is a singularly unerotic work. Nor is it likely that there is some sort of dream content. It has sometimes been compared to Fette Champetre once attributed to Giorgione but now said to be by Titian, which might have inspired Manet’s work. Yet the nudes with the fully clad musicians work there as muses, whether or not they were meant to titillate Venetian society. There is also some formal awkwardness in the Manet. The woman in the pond looks too big for her distant position and the plausible still life of picnic items are less well integrated into the composition than the seemingly incongruous collection of antique armour in The Luncheon, which is one of the major exhibits in the current show. 

Monet also painted a Luncheon on the Grass. It was a very large painting and has been cut up. There is, however, a detailed sketch for it in the Hermitage. Phoebe Poole in her book on Impressionism, states that Monet painted it as a tribute to Manet. But there is another interpretation, which I think is more likely. There is no doubt that Monet admired the older artist greatly, but there is a criticism implied in his picnic scene: Manet has departed from his calling as a painter of modern life and is pastiching an old master. It doesn’t succeed in updating the theme, unlike Olympia which may also have been inspired by a Titian. Monet in his work is showing what a contemporary luncheon on the grass is really like.

I find it hard to judge that Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass is anything other than a rather silly work. But then such a consummate genius is allowed one failure.


Chatting over a glass of wine with a younger member of Edinburgh Printmakers after a meeting there, I asked if he would make an effort to go to see Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made, the urinal signed R. Mutt 1917. The point I was trying to make was that we all get the idea behind it, understand the concept, so that the actual seeing of the object itself is somewhat redundant. ‘YesI would,’ he replied, ‘it’s iconic.’

Well, my interlocutor will have the chance to go to see one of the edition of fifty, assembled and sold after the original was destroyed, in an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I too will see it, even if my visit will not be specifically to view that exhibit.

The younger member, I am sure, had me pigeon-holed as a reactionary old fart, but I had myself exhibited at least a partial ready-made, at the annual exhibition of the Society of Scottish Artists in 1973. I don’t think I had Duchamp in mind at the time, though the license to do such a thing, and the fact that the selection committee accepted it, depended on his example fifty-six years before. My work, Green Fish Rack, was a partial ready-made because the upper section was made from sewn canvas and buckled to a car roof rack with leather straps. It was very easy to transport to and from the RSA galleries atop my 2CV. I still have the canvas construction but I didn’t have space to store the roof-rack. Sometimes I think I should seek out a similar rack and re-unite the parts.

I very much admire Duchamp’s work, if not particularly the ready-mades metamorphosed by presentation in an art context, the mounted bicycle wheel of 1913, the bottle rack of 1914 and urinal of 1917. Yet it seems that it was the appreciation of the lines of manufactured things that led to the brilliant imagery of the Large Glass, his finest work. When the sheets of glass were accidentally shattered, Duchamp said it improved the work and stabilised the network of cracks. I agree. The lines orchestrate wonderfully with the imagery. It was one of these happy mishaps, which should be seized.

Another inspired idea of Duchamp’s, was to create a box containing his complete works in miniature, making a portable museum. Originally there were twenty copies but the artist promised to produce more on demand. This was made easier for Duchamp because, unlike most artists who produce compulsively, he created very few pieces and devoted most of his time to chess. The only similar enterprise I can think of in the whole of Western art is Claude Lorraine’s Liber Veritatis, in which he made meticulous copies of all his paintings to eliminate the possibility of forgeries.

A version of either of these procedures would have solved my problem with the storage of the roof-rack part of my sculpture. Alternately, like Duchamp, I might have formed a relationship with a couple of millionaire collectors.



A few days ago I attended a lecture at Edinburgh Printmakers advertised thus: At the heart of contemporary printmaking sits a glaring contradiction. Twisting common ubiquity into elitist rarity, practitioners who create limited editions almost universally celebrate print’s democratic availability. John Phillips, director of London Print Studio, will explore how and why this dilemma arose, and ask if, given the changes to production and distribution wrought by new media, it is likely to remain in the future.

The wording of the second sentence of that blurb made me a bit apprehensive. In fact, the presentation by Phillips was excellent. He spoke spontaneously to a wealth of on screen illustration building towards his thesis with a history of printmaking crammed with fascinating detail. In Dr Johnston’s words There is no item of information however insignificant, which I would rather not know, than know, so I was pleased to learn that there is a term, bracelet shading, for the encircling lines used to describe form that derives from Durer and which became the universal technique in engraving. The huge effect of warfare on art was outlined. Transparent watercolour was developed in England to colour maps over engraved line and the first ordnance survey map of Scotland, i.e. military map, was made after the defeat of the ’45 Rebellion. Army and naval officers were taught to draw to familiarise themselves with landscape and coastal features for tactical advantage and they passed these skills to their wives. The explosion of popular prints was linked to the ending of royal collecting with the execution of Charles I and the release from Cromwellian Puritanism. Gillray was mentioned but not the effect that the development of etching, which was so much quicker than engraving, had on the political cartoon. More intriguing information was revealed about the rise of amateur printmaking when traditional presses became commercially redundant and available. Queen Victoria and Van Gogh’s friend Dr Gachet were two of the well-known names that dabbled. 

The etching revival at the end of the beginning of the 20th Century and limited edition prints by Whistler, DY Cameron and the like were blamed for the de-democratisation of printmaking. Gone were the popular print shops of Hogarth’s day. A finite number of images served to make them exclusive and expensive.

Phillips suggests that limited edition prints might become a thing of the past. Work can be put out on the net, Facebook, YouTube. He showed a work he has just produced with a Chinese artist. It is not a limited edition, is on aluminium and can be bought for £300. He gave a little explanation of the work just like these explanatory cards that are de rigeur in modern art galleries. It would be interesting to know how this print will do. I do not believe the case was made for the demise of numbered prints.

What supports the limited edition system is what we might call signature-buying. The Dali scandal where he signed lots of blank sheets of paper that went on sale duly furnished with images made by others, illustrates the point. Dealers and, understandably, printmaking workshops, have always been keen to produce editions, often substantial, of celebrity artists at the peak of their marketable careers. The American composer, Ned Rorem, writes of how he saw Picasso at a bullfight, draw on a baby’s bottom which he signed, leaving the parents with a dilemma. Do they skin the child or never wash it again? For reasons of conceived investment prospects, judgemental insecurity or just to achieve some sort of vicarious attachment to celebrity, for buyers, not excluding public galleries, the signature has become more important than the image.    

The situation is different with artists producing prints in open access workshops up and down the country and abroad. Prices are unlikely to be such that democratic availability is likely to be impaired.  They will sell mainly to private buyers although occasional sales to public collections will help trade. Their edition sizes will be based most probably on a realistic estimate of how many prints they will be likely to clear, with the price of quality paper being a consideration. Of course, it depends to some extent on the print medium used. Etchers, for instance, can mark a few prints with a relatively high edition number and pull more if needed, but I do know of one etcher who changed to the type of relief printing that I do, where the edition has to be decided at the outset as the blocks are destroyed in the printing process. He was tired of going back to images he had hoped to be finished with. I sympathise. If you sell out an edition you can sometimes wish you had made more, but it is creation that is the enjoyable part. Repetitive printing is a chore.

Perhaps there is a parallel with the open workshop users, who may be primarily painters or sculptors and not necessarily unambitious, and the Dutch Little Masters. The latter produced for a domestic market while the celebrity figures did their separate thing. A few of them became great painters in their own right. 



Looking for a paper on New Year’s Day I found the Telegraph and studied the usual round up of the coming year’s cultural events. This from its art critic Richard Dorment caught my attention:

 I can hardly wait for LS Lowry to open at Tate Britain – not because I rate the old bore as anything more than a glorified folk artist, but because the show is being curated by two scholars whose work I emphatically do rate –TJ Clark and Anne Wagner. Tate Director Penelope Curtis’s decision to ask these two heavyweights to look at Lowry as a painter of modern life was inspired. And because of their involvement I’ll go with an open mind and hope to be convinced that there is something in his twee little stick figures I have not seen before.

My first thought was that it has come to a sorry pass when curators are considered more important than artists. My second was what the hell is Dorment doing posing as an art critic when he can’t make up his mind about an artist without a guiding hand.

I know something about one of the ‘heavyweights’ - the high panjandrum of Modernism, according to another critic - from a couple of reviews by him in London Review of Books. Here is an extract from TJ Clark’s piece on the exhibition of Richter’s work at Tate Modern:

The word ‘blur’ has come up. ‘Richter’s blur’, it is called in the literature. Again the term may be insufficient. When one gets to the moment in the show when Richter reinvents his ‘blur’ in the context of abstract painting – the two versions of Abstrakts Bild from 1977 are particularly astonishing, and still hard to look at – it is immediately clear how far from description of what happens in the paintings, and what its effects on the viewer might be, the monosyllable is. Critics have come up with alternatives. In the context of abstraction – that strange episode in art’s endgame – all the suggestions seem charged. Have we to do, for instance, with some kind of deliberate loss of focus or register? Maybe with a form of willed inaccuracy on the artist’s part. Or even vagueness. This last, might seem, is very much not a modern art value; though that might mean Richter was right to make it one. I like the story Richard Rorty told against himself late in life, when he heard that a philosophy departmennt had just hired someone whose speciality was vagueness, and he raised an eyebrow. ‘Dick, you’re really out of it,’ his host said. ‘Vagueness is huge.’

I have a suspicion that Rorty may not have been telling that story completely against himself.

Clark begins the next paragraph with this sentence: Emptiness, by contrast, is a condition that Modernism treasures.

I spent Christmas in Vienna and thoroughly enjoyed return visits to the Kunsthistorisches Museum and to the Albertina where there was an outstanding exhibition, Maximillian 1 and the Age of Durer. But when I reached the contemporary section of the latter institution, an abundance of that Modernist ‘emptiness’ became apparent. I noted some of the dos and don’ts of contemporary art:

  1. Do not confuse with different ideas. A single idea with the slightest variations will serve best.
  2. Produce work of a uniform size. It can be hung neatly.
  3. Framing must be immaculate. This will be the only craft on show.
  4. Representational painting is permissible, but only so long as it is an imitation of photography.