Sunday, 27 May 2012

Jack Vettriano

Some thoughts on the work of Britain's most successful contemporary artist 


Dark, brooding, sensual figures - Jack Vettriano has carved a very special niche for himself in British art. Born in Fife in 1951 and self-taught, Jack has become Britain's most successful artist whose paintings demand high prices and whose prints sell in their hundreds of thousands. Last year it is said he made £500,000 for his prints alone.

The period he encapsulates in much of his work is that of the late 1950s to early 1960's - the dark, often sleazy world of Mandy Rice Davies, Stephan Ward, Christine Keeler and Peter Rachman.
 It is a world inhabited by London gangsters, expensive call-girls and their pimps. The settings are dubious nightclubs, dance halls or the homes of wealthy men and their sexual partners -  but never their wives.

The men and women that inhabit this fantasy world are lonely, obsessive but always with money to spare with which to indulge their sexual whims.

There are working women - prostitutes mostly or dancers struggling to make a career for themselves but who teeter on the edge of prostitution - if only to make ends meet.

Then there are the hangers on - wealthy women drawn into this sleazy world by the attraction of men of power and influence - just as Christeen Keeler was drawn to John Profumo.

Vettriano has featured this model (see above) many times. She represents the woman of independent means rendered vulnerable by love or her own sexual needs.

These are women who may be sexually confident but who are still victims and subject to male dominance. It is a world of wine and roses - yet doomed to unhappiness and inevitable rejection.

While I enjoy Vettriano's quasi-historical eroticism (a kind of chauvinistic nostalgia for the swinging sixties) these paintings are essentially staged and entirely voyeuristic. The emotion is fabricated - a notion that is enhanced by his use of titles derived from popular songs, as if that type of music could add to his art its own shabby glamor.

I'm thinking here of Heartbreak Hotel; Diana Ross' Mirror, Mirror; Leonard Cohen's classic Dance me to the end of love or Tina Turner's Private Dancer. There are many others in Jack Vettriano's oeuvre and from which he often draws inspiration.

Much more interesting are his sensitive portraits of women, mostly situated in his studio - as if waiting for the painter to arrive.

Although Vettriano has been accused in his genre paintings of exploiting women, these portraits demonstrate a real sensitivity and respect for women. 

They are also extremely well painted with a wonderful eye for the fall of light. Note the beautifully rendered shadows on the polished floor in the painting above.

Portraits of women lost in their own thoughts goes back to Renaissance art and yet Vettriano has given this genre a new awareness and sensitivity.

His most original contribution to contemporary art I suspect is neither his sleazy genre paintings nor his tender portraits of women but his images of Americana - the sun-drenched beaches and  urban activity of California.

True, these too have an element of period nostalgia but they are on a par with recent work by Peter Blake. The Bluebird Club series Vettriano did for Terence Conran, for example, are very fine indeed and recently sold for well over a £million. Deservedly so for they are exquisitely painted and capture the life and times of Sir Malcolm Campbell with considerable panache.

The above painting - part of the Bluebird series - sold at auction at Sotheby's in 2007 for £468,000

Unlike the mid-period Californian 'pool-side paintings' of Hockney (which I have always found somewhat vacuous), Vettriano's 'seaside' paintings crackle with understated sexuality and hidden emotion - despite the apparent holiday atmosphere.

In short, Jack Vettriano is an important British artist, hugely successful and very popular - a popularity that is now beginning to attract buyers in America and beyond. Jack Nicholson, for example, has several paintings by Vettriano in his collection. Composer Tim Rice is another collector.

The refusal by the British art establishment  to acknowledge Vettriano's influence and achievements is a national scandal - but not one I suspect that troubles Jack too much!

Mike Healey

For more information, visit Vettriano's own website


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