Dead bodies, sexy bodies and a dubious body of evidence

Milly Getachew reports on the $50m music collection on eBay, the Rolling Stones on the dangers of dr


It has been a great week for different sorts of exposure. Some of the art stolen in last week’s £84m Zurich heist has been found in a car-park, in what looks to have been the getaway car, around 500m from scene of crime. Meanwhile, closer to home a cheeky poster of a nude Venus advertising the Royal Academy’s new show Cranach was banned by London Transport because it skirted too close to their guidelines on sexually suggestive adverts on the Tube. After protest, the medieval painting was eventually allowed to be shown to commuters. The BBC migration to HD TV is taking its toll: the set of EastEnders’ Albert Square is being movedfrom Elstree studios to 007’s Pinewood studios. With HD TV, a BBC source is reported to have said, “you can see every crack, chipboard flake and Blu-Tack solution.” Walford is meant to look a little scruffy but not, apparently, that scruffy.

Some of this week’s conflicts are carry-overs that, like cheese, are ripening (for better or for worse). The Chinese government has vetoed filming in China for the Hollywood movie 'Shanghai' over concerns of the depiction of opium-usage. Meanwhile “cadaver artist” Dr Gunther von Hagens, of Bodyworlds repute, has stopped using bodies from China through fear they may have been victims of execution. Some conflicts this week, also like some cheese, just have a bad taste: BBC chief Lesley Douglas has claimed that men’s musical tastes are more intellectual than women’s; and 104-year-old Dutch singer Johannes Heesters made a rare and controversial appearance to perform some old German hits. Mr Heesters is notorious in the Netherlands for having performed for Hitler and coterie at Dachau in 1941. He subsequently tried to appear in 'The Sound Of Music' as heroic Nazi-defying Captain Von Trapp, but was an unpopular choice with audiences for this role.

Trading Places

This week has seen some new arrivals and some welcome returns. Charles Saatchi is to open a new free gallery to rival Tate Modern, and 21-year-old playwright Polly Stenham is to see her award-winning debut work 'That Face' transferred to the West End. Also trading up is Greg Dyke who now replaces Anthony Minghella as BFI chair. Greg Dyke left the BBC as Director-General in 2004 after the Hutton Inquiry found, against the BBC, that the government had not “sexed up” the notorious “Iraq dossier”. It would be interesting to see what Lord Hutton makes of the revelations these last few days of some of the background work that went into – and out of – the dossier. As Colin MacCabe writes in this week’s NS, the BFI and New Labour have had an uneasy relationship: it will be exciting to see what Greg does next.

This week in the arts there has also been lots to buy: for example, the world’s greatest music collection is being hawked on eBay (valued at $50m, starting price $3m), and as-yet-unseen work by Banksy is also up for grabs. And if you can’t go to the art, art can now come to you: a new mobile “caravan art gallery” will be touring Glasgow, the V&A has made some of its leading images available for downloading by mobile phone through Museum On The Go, and the BBC has reported great success with its trial of making popular TV shows available for mobile download.

Just ain't rock n' roll

It has been a week of mixed delights in the music industry. At the Brits awards, the Arctic Monkeys took the prizes for Best British Album and Best British Group. This achievement may seem impressive but is not a patch on Westlife’s scoop, also this week, of Best Irish Pop Act at the Meteor Irish Music Awards – for the 8th time running (and 6 years after the release of their “Greatest Hits” album). Sadly for drum&bass fans, groundbreaking DJ Grooverider has been arrested and jailed in Dubai for cannabis possession. In these circumstances a warning from music industry leaders about the use of drugs is both welcome and timely. But it is perhaps difficult to know what to think when this warning comes, as it did this week, from the Rolling Stones. And in just what one would hope for from a rock and roll band, Dave Twohill, the former drummer of popular Australian group Mental As Anything, has won a legal action against his former bandmates for unfair dismissal. Twohill was sacked from the band without warning at Sydney Airport. In court his colleagues complained about his drunk and aggressive behaviour, his refusal to carry his own luggage when travelling, and accused him of playing out of time and “like a chimpanzee on speed”. The judge berated the band for not giving Twohill the required 6 months’ notice. You can read more about the case and listen to Twohill’s work here.

Fond Farewells

Finally, we close with news of some sad departures. Alain Robbe-Grillet, novelist, film-maker, and master of the nouveau roman, has passed away in France aged 85; Natalia Bessmertnova, leading Bolshoi ballerina, has died in Moscow aged 66; and a memorial service has been held in London for the late Ned Sherrin, producer, comedian and the world’s first memorial service reviewer. Sherrin’s memorial service, much of which he designed himself, was hailed by critics as ”a glittering all-star production”. Did we say it had been a good week for exposure? For some exposures, it has also been the beginning of the end. Polaroid have announced that they are to discontinue their world-famous camera and film. Invented in the 1930s, the Polaroid has been an integral part of late 20th century culture, from the famous Moorman Polaroid of the JFK assassination, to OutKast’s popular admonition, in 2003 hit Hey Ya, to ”shake it like a Polaroid picture”. In recent years, however, the Polaroid camera has seen sales decline as digital photography has grown. A future without the iconic instant snap? Picture that.

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Provocations from a modern master: Andrew Marr on David Hockney

A History of Pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford gleefully punctures the pretentiousness of the art world.

We live in a picture-drunk world. A medieval artisan would have been aware, at best, of only a few representations of the three-dimensional world – church paintings, perhaps crude carvings in a churchyard, graffiti on walls. For us, pictures are everywhere, on
screens of all shapes and sizes, on hoardings, in books, on the sides of buildings. They move, they pulsate with digital complexity and they sprawl and glare until they tire our eyeballs and bore us senseless.

This is a book that aspires to be nothing less than a history of pictures, taking drawing, photography, film-making, digital art and painting in parallel and tracking the interrelationships and the borrowing that each involves. That is a huge ambition, far too large for any single volume, yet ­David Hockney and Martin Gayford respond with lively expeditions in many directions and a staccato half-conversation that will keep any intelligent person amused and intrigued for its 350 or so pages.

No practitioner of “fine art” has placed himself at the centre of our culture quite as Hockney has. What he says about smoking or porn makes news. His exhibitions attract vast crowds. He is followed by reverential film-makers, avid biographers and snaking queues of ordinary folk who simply love his bright and life-enhancing images. He also intervenes to ask big questions about the nature of picture-making and the relationship between painters and photography, in a way that no other contemporary artist seems to do.

In all this – and in his tireless enthusiasm for new technologies in picture-making, as well as his curiosity about the rich and powerful – he is surely the Walter Sickert of our times. Sickert’s opinions, as well as his readiness to use photographic images to expand his art, allowed him to bestride British public life in the first half of the 20th century, very much as Hockney does today. Sickert, whose early work the public preferred, produced shockingly modern images of Baron Beaverbrook, Churchill and the celebrities of the interwar years. And so, this year, Hockney had his quickly painted acrylic portraits of the art world’s rich and Botoxed powerful, skewered to their chairs, glaring down at us in the “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life” exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Both men were gifted with an almost divine facility; both struggled to overcome it, to produce pictures that could be regarded as properly “modern”.

Here, Hockney is paired with Martin Gayford, the author of excellent books on Hockney, Lucian Freud and many other artists, and a reliable, hugely knowledgeable Tonto on this journey. As they take off to discuss a wide range of subjects – shadows, pre-photography use of cameras and lenses, perspective, cubism, abstraction, film-making, digital art – the differences between them become increasingly sharp.

Hockney, with his strong and now familiar views, brings the perspective of a mark-maker to every subject: “If you’re told to do a drawing using ten lines or a hundred, you’ve got to be a lot more inventive with ten. If you can only use three colours, you have got to make them look whatever colour you want.” Gayford, who sometimes picks up on a Hockney challenge and sometimes ignores it, brings a seemingly bottomless knowledge of the history of art and is always a great looker, whether his subject is a Velázquez or Dada.

There is a certain degree of unintentional comedy here, Hockney repeatedly cantering off with an anecdote or salty personal view and Gayford gamely wrenching us back to the high road, but it’s all enormously good-humoured and entertaining. There is so much pretentious cack talked nowadays about art theory that it’s a relief to find an artist ready to use his experience as a film buff, or his thoughts on the manipulation of photographs in the press, to speak about “high art”.

“Walt Disney was a great American artist,” Hockney writes. “He might be a bit sentimental but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 1940s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” And, a page later: “Look at the camels in Adoration of the Magi by Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, painted in the early 14th century. There’s Walt Disney.”

These are the kinds of stuff that would get laughed out of court in the pompous art world. The same goes for this (­Hockney again): “Art doesn’t progress. Some of the best pictures were the first ones. An indiv­idual artist might develop because life does. But art itself doesn’t.” Most academic writers would hedge such starkness but Hockney doesn’t. Again, very Walt Sickert.

So, where do these conversations take us when it comes to the biggest question for contemporary painting: what should a picture look like in 2016? There are so many derivative, unnecessary and tedious pictures all around us, and so much has been done so well for so long, that this is a real poser.

Hockney’s lifelong struggle with being an artist in a photography-dominated culture has rarely lured him away from the duty of representation or, to put it more crudely, drawing. He experimented with Picasso-influenced, semi-abstract pictures but not for long. He used photographic collages to investigate space but, again, not for long. His love of Chinese art and his inquisitive enthusiasm for graphic artists such as Joe Sacco
have allowed him to find ways to put chemical photography firmly back in its box:

People like Mondrian appear heroic, but in the end his pure abstraction was not the future of painting. Neither Matisse nor Picasso ever left the visible world. It was Europeans who needed abstraction, because of photography. The Chinese would have always understood it. But they did not need it . . . Photography came suddenly and late to China.

On almost every page, there is an interesting provocation. I suppose, for Hockney, his answers are what he makes, not what he writes. However, I would hate to end this review without making clear that Gayford brings perspectives and shape here that are hugely useful. This is not David Hockney Bangs On (a book that I would rush out to buy). There is apparently a far bigger book coming shortly, a kind of printed permanent exhibition of Hockney’s art, a book so big that it requires – literally – an easel, and a mortgage. Sickert would have found that very funny. Meanwhile, start here.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Drawing” (Quadrille)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood