Learning, a 1996 artwork by Michael Craig-Martin. Photo: ©2015 MICHAEL CRAIG- MARTIN
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Art rarely floats free of biography - or autobiography, for that matter

Michael Prodger on new books from Julian Barnes and Michael Craig-Martin.

Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art
Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £16.99

On Being an Artist
Michael Craig-Martin
Art/Books, 304pp, £22.50

Gustave Flaubert once stated, “Explaining one artistic form by means of another is a monstrosity. You won’t find a single good painting in all the museums of the world which needs a commentary.” Flaubert is Julian Barnes’s abiding hero, whose words have the writ of law, but despite noting this stricture approvingly, Barnes has always ignored it.

Keeping an Eye Open is a book of monstrosities, a series of 17 essays on art and artists written by Barnes over the years and here collected for the first time. He was, he confesses, a slow starter because he believed: “By being solemn, [art] took the excitement out of life.” He discovered that this wasn’t the case when he spent a year in Paris between school and university and came across the symbolist paintings of Gustave Moreau. He first wrote properly about art in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (its disquisition on Théodore Géricault’s disaster painting Raft of the Medusa is included here) and he has been an occasional critic ever since. His chosen painters are largely 19th- and early-20th-century Frenchmen – the likes of Delacroix and Courbet and petits-maîtres such as Fantin-Latour and Bonnard (with Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin thrown in for good measure). His interest lies in the way that French art “made its way from Romanticism to realism and into modernism”.

The essays, as one would expect, are high-quality affairs – thoughtful, discursive, highly wrought and full of aperçus. In these qualities, they resemble the writings of Anita Brookner, whose Hotel du Lac pipped his Flaubert’s Parrot to the 1984 Booker Prize. Curiously, just as he ignored Flaubert’s instruction, Barnes ignores his own high-mindedness. He insists throughout on his belief that art is all about the paintings and not the painter (“as if you go to an exhibition in order to get to know the artists better, rather than to get to know the art better . . .”), but because he can’t escape being a writer (“Artists are what they are, what they can and must be”) he returns again and again to the “creeping anecdotalism” and biographical stories that he disparages.

So, for every insight (that everything in Bonnard’s paintings “seems to take place a few hours either side of lunchtime”, or that for Cézanne art “had a parallel existence to life rather than an imitative dependence on it”), there is an often fruity fact about the artist’s life. He relates dismissively – but he relates it nonetheless – that a newly discovered bit of 19th-century gossip suggests that Degas’s genitals were underwhelming (a “lack of amorous means”) and that this affected the way he painted women. He notes that Bonnard, who obsessively painted his wife, Marthe, in the bath, had an affair with a younger painter, Renée Monchaty, who committed suicide. He describes Courbet’s horrible death: alcohol caused him to swell to such an extent that he was “tapped” of 20 litres of liquid. And in a piece of autobiography, he confesses, “It would be a very disturbed schoolboy who successfully masturbated to a book of Freud nudes.” That “successfully” seems telling.

Throughout these essays, Barnes uses art as a way of getting to know not just his chosen artists better but himself, too. When discussing Delacroix, the most unromantic of Romantics, he describes how he “faced the world with an exquisite cold courtesy” and that the painter was a “self-defended man”. He quotes Félix Vallotton’s observation: “All my life I shall have been one who sees life through a window.” The subject of these sentences (and there are plenty more) could be Barnes himself. This strand in no way undermines the elegance of the essays or the quality of his observations – if only all art writing were as good as this – but, because of it, when he states that “Art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography,” you want to respond that no, it doesn’t, and it rarely floats free of autobiography, either.

If Barnes is an aficionado, Michael Craig-Martin is a practitioner. He is a sculptor and painter who, as a tutor in the art department of Goldsmiths, was a guru to the Young British Artists. He is also the “co-ordinator” of this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. On Being an Artist is less a unified manifesto than a compilation of “fragmented notes” written over his long career, part autobiography and part pensées. His writing resembles his art: simple, direct and, it must be said, often dealing with the mundane.

There are few hints here to show why he has been such an influential teacher. He admires Duchamp and Warhol and thinks life drawing is a dubious skill (“I oppose the idea that [it] should underlie all art practice”). His marriage gets only one page, as does his subsequent coming out as gay, but then topics such as “controversy” and “taking risks” are allotted only five lines apiece. It is disappointing, though hardly surprising, that there is little here on his motivation, inspiration or what he wants his art to do – the very questions Barnes is so adept at suggesting answers for.

Craig-Martin describes his linear drawing style as being the equivalent of objects such as light bulbs that are “not designed”. It is a description that covers this only intermittently interesting book, too. 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser