September news

Reflections on art school education in 2019

I am often called a reactionary. This seems to be because I believe that figurative painting and sculpture are the two truly authentic artistic expressions requiring skill, thought and the valediction of effort. That is why I was profoundly upset when I recently visited the Slade School of Fine Art’s 2019 Postgraduate Show. Only about four paintings were exhibited and even these appeared to be embellished prints. The enemies of figurative painting who, although present when I was there as a student, have finally got their way and dismantled the life-drawing studios in favour of found object, video and installation art spaces.


Collective arrogance of the art world


The galleries that thrive on high-turnover installation art, the artists who supply them and their supporting critics are riding high. They are the capitalist system par excellence: artists such as Hirst and Emin and the body-moulder Gormley, together with the art critics who exalt their work, are dedicated to feeding consumerist galleries such as the White Cube with high output, generating high turnover.

Their collective arrogance is astounding; they dismiss traditional approaches to art education whilst never having mastered them themselves. They seem not to appreciate that, before you can reject the validity of a methodology, you really need to have put in the effort to understand and master it yourself.

Regarding the idea of radical transformation, which is often adopted by these non-artists as a mask for their intellectual and technical incompetence, let’s look at an example. No doubt Tracey Emin thinks she is being truly avant-garde by installing her repulsive bed in a gallery setting. The truth is that, to make a painting of that bed would be a far more radical transformation of the bed than simply placing it in a gallery!


The greatest artists ignored


As a student at the Slade in the late 1970s, it seemed strange to me that the prevailing artistic figurative movement of the time – the ‘Euston Road School’ – completely ignored the work of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. I believe it was a minor British art movement born out of a despondency and lack of imagination regarding avant-garde figurative art, which was prevalent during the 50s and 60s.

The Surrealists, Picasso and Braque and the Cubists, Bacon et al all seemed to have left successive generations of figurative painters so awestruck that rather than be inspired by any of these, they appear to have decided to ‘leave well alone’ rather than be seen as second-rate imitators.

Also, I believe the general opinion amongst figurative painters was that they were such prolific giants that to be influenced by them in any way meant almost automatic annihilation of the later artist’s reputation! They assumed that these artists were so advanced that they had ‘covered all the bases’ in art development and that there was nothing else to be discovered.

I believe that this rupture, which resulted in a stultifying despondency amongst young or figurative painters, was a major mistake. It resulted in the last refuge of so-called avant-garde painting – the nihilism of Abstract Art – which cannot be developed any further.



Inspired by Picasso


To digress for a moment, I was myself inspired by Picasso who explored the notion of forward-looking eyes and mouth coupled with a sideways profile (probably not developed from his Egyptian influences but more likely the early cartoonists) thus developing and exploiting a unique way of depicting the human face.

I also wanted to depict the head and face in a unique way, so I decided to exploit the notion of the ‘double nose’, thereby creating the impression of movement. Bacon’s art, which was fundamentally about capturing motion, had an influence here. It also struck me that the influences of both Bacon and Picasso might be fused to create a new form of expression, alongside precise technique.


A contemporary confidence trick


The contemporary fashion for installation and video art, all of which harks back to Dada and the Surrealists and Duchamp, is nothing more than an intellectual confidence trick, imitating the early ready-mades. Witness the unmade bed, the signed tent and the sharks, skulls, tanks and cabinets of Emin and Hirst and the expressionless figures of Gormley. His ‘Angel of the North’ is a thoroughly bad work of art; it looks like something Stalin would have erected in the 1930s with its overblown proportions and emotionless, non-facial head. It has an awful Orwellian, 1984, feel about it!

In conclusion, I’d like to issue a ‘call to action’. Let me know if this article has made you want to contact the head of your local school’s art department or the director of your local art college to demand that more time should be spent investigating the techniques and inspiration of the great artists who blazed their art trails in previous centuries. Perhaps, between us, we can remind the art educators, the art critics and the art galleries that art is more than the exercise of self-expression and experimentation with new media, as though they were ends in themselves. You’ve got to find something new to say!