Kitsch in Sync: Tate Britain’s Pre-Raph Rads

What the hell is Tate Britain on?

We’re currently ‘enjoying’ Picasso and Modern British Art, a cobbled-together show that, unsurprisingly, serves only to emphasise the inferiority of the home-grown, and now we’re about to be treated to a major exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites, sold to us as the work of ‘revolutionaries’, of ‘radicals who did nothing less than change the world’.
Now I’ve nothing (much) against the PRBs – the work is nice to look at (mostly) – but to cast it in this light really is Utter Bollocks.

Rossetti’s Wrestler

The ‘medievalist’ reaction against rationalist neo-classicism and rapid industrialisation began long before 1848, and was already embedded in the post-Romantic mid-Victorian sensiblity: the popularity of the Gothic novel, the great medieval epics and romances, Scott’s Waverley novels; the Pugin-led Gothic Revival in architecture and the rise of Tractarianism which sought to re-introduce pre-Reformation ritual and liturgy within Anglicanism; etc, etc. If one should doubt the essentially conservative nature of this ‘taste’, one should remember that in 1844 Pugin won the competition to design the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, the very heart of the British establishment.

Holman Hunt’s Gah!

Meanwhile in Vienna, as early as 1809, a group of artists, the Nazarenes, had already proposed a return to the values and practices of the Quattrocento:
“The principle motivation of the Nazarenes was a reaction against neo-classicism and the routine art education of the academy system. They hoped to return to art which embodied spiritual values, and sought inspiration in artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, rejecting what they saw as the superficial virtuosity of later art.” (Wiki.)
Sound familiar?

Far from being the Che Guevaras of Victorian England, the PRBs were band-wagon-jumpers, late-comers to a party that had been swinging for decades. Tellingly, the Tate sees them as “the equivalent…of Damien Hirst today”; I do, too: essentially opportunists who squandered whatever talents they had in the creation of kitsch. Kitsch is not about the imagination or allusion, it’s about fantasy where everything is acted out; it’s sentimental, falsely nostalgic; it’s “the trappings of belief rather than the thing believed in”, (Roger Scruton).

Burne-Jones’ Wallpaper

As I said, I like some of the work, Rossetti’s in particular: gorgeous to look at, even if his women are built like all-in wrestlers. Holman Hunt I loathe with a passion: lurid, moralising, literal to the point of banality. Burne-Jones is nothing more than decoration, finely-worked wall-paper. But like them or not, noone can seriously consider them artists of the first rank, much less as ‘avant-garde’. Oh, the exhibition will do well; as the Tate cheerfully admits, it will be full of ‘crowd-pleasers’, and this is the point: people will go in their droves, however the show is sold to them – the sine qua non of kitsch is its mass appeal; so to sell it, the show, as something it’s not strikes me as at best disingenuous, at worst downright cynical.

Get a grip, Tate Britain, you’re beginning to tick me off.


Where I first saw the ‘news’:

Kinkade and Corrie: the Ugly Truth

The demise of Thomas Kinkade at the stupidly young age of 54 has forced me, screaming, to grit my teeth, brace myself, and have another look at his stuff. (I say ‘stuff’ ‘cos I can’t quite manage to make my digits type the ‘a’-word in this context.)

Ghastly, isn’t it, this Disneyfication of nostalgia, this cynical selling of a dream that never was, of ‘home’ and ‘family’ (complete with faithful spotty dog), to, especially, evangelical, conservative ‘God-bothering’ folk who we (I) feel should really know better and get a grip. And all the more contemptible to an art snob (me) because, as my pal reminded me, Kinkade actually could paint:

Yes, they’re both by that same, now sadly stilled, fair hand.

But then, as we say Up North, I caught myself on.
The painting at the top of the post is called Home Is Where the Heart Is. Coincidentally (not really), that is also the title, pretty much, of a recent(ish) Sunday evening schlock-fest on UK telly – you know the type: vets, doctors, posh folk, midwives, village policemen, all set in a lazy-hazy version of long-gone ‘good old days’ and designed to make us forget for an hour the fact that in 12 hours we’ll be grumpily going off to a job we loathe.  Both painting and TV series are operating from exactly the same basis (note the central church tower in each) : as a palliative against present, here-and-now dissatisfaction and discontent. (This is very much a political issue, but if I go down that route now I’ll bore myself to death, so I won’t.)

But more disturbing for me, a rabid fan, is the gruesome admission that Coronation Street, that very finest of soaps, operates from, gulp, this basis too. (Eastenders sucks: not enough jokes, and where else, other than in Corrie, would you get actors like Ian McKellen and Nigel Havers ripping the piss out of themselves?) Corrie offers us a vision of a tight-knit northern community (it’s always about ‘community’), centred around a ‘real’ pub, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where, eventually, everything comes right in the end. It’s a place which I, born amongst the cobbles, think I know, but it’s no more ‘true’ than Kinkade’s ‘cottage fantasies’.
I love it.

So where does that leave me? Admittedly I’m not one of those who conflate the actor with the character and shout abuse in Asda at ‘Richard Evil Twat Hillman’ and ‘Sally Daft Cow Webster’, but I do buy wholeheartedly into Corrie (ask my husband) and its premise; like Kinkade’s paintings are for some, for me Corrie is comfort food, a place to escape to, somewhere (unless Ken’s having one of his perennial, kimono-akimbo, stomach-turning affairs) better.

So there you have it. If I diss Kinkade I’m not only an art snob, I’m a hypocrite. And that, my friends, would never do.
My Dalmatians would hate me.

Bad art is good for you…

My God, this cheered me up!

Sad Baby

Introduced yesterday to the Museum of Bad Art (how did I not know about this? It’s a trove of hideous delights), I pissed away most of the afternoon looking at stuff that makes the teeth curl.

But is Sad Baby ‘bad’? Can something that affords me so much pleasure (I can’t stop looking at it) really be classed as worthless? We are, after all, very much accustomed to work presented as ‘bad’, in order to subvert notions of artistic ‘standards’, by ‘good’ artists – Dubuffet’s ‘low art’, Hockney’s early faux-naïveté, Combas’ figuration libre, and so on and so forth – and also to the surprising joys of work we are very happy to class as ‘Naive’, ‘Folk’, ‘Outsider’, i.e. academically untrained, but not ‘bad‘.

I can only think that ‘badness’ (let’s cut the crap: Sad Baby sucks, big-time) arises from a yawning mile-wide chasm between intent and execution. (Admittedly, having no details of its provenance and having only the title to go on, I have to take the painting at face value, unironically; if irony is at play here, the work’s a masterpiece.) Firstly, that is no ‘sad baby’: it’s a 40 year-old bloke having a quiet half down his local inexplicably decked out as Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. The proportions are utterly wrong: babies and toddlers have relatively big heads; the legs and the torso bear no anatomical relation to each other; the background is what?? Either she’s monstrously, chimerically, tall for a ‘baby’ or the mantlepiece/shelf is about a foot off the ground. And what’s that brown splodge? The contents of her nappy? A ‘dirty protest’? Any expectations of the charm that we usually associate with ‘baby’ portraits are totally confounded.

But what really kills me, and makes me believe that this was an honest, unironic attempt to capture a beloved child is the care taken: look at the impasto used to render the smocking on the dress, the painstaking shading and highlighting of the face and figure. This is the work of someone who earnestly draws what she/he (I’m unjustifiably convinced it’s by a man) thinks she/he sees, not what’s there: of someone who has not learned to look. Someone like me.

And that, in the end, is what makes Sad Baby hilariously, gloriously, ‘bad’ yet appealing in my eyes: my laughter is mixed with empathy. Someone really tried, then failed, epically. Bad? Hell, yes. Worthless? I’d hang it on my wall tomorrow.

(Thanks to Chris at Galerie Pierre who brought MoBA to my attention, and to M.K. Hajdin who confirmed me in my ‘taste’.)

Museum of Bad Art: