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.