The life of Brian


"Damien?" says Brian Sewell, his expression somewhere between a rictus and a moue. "Oh, he's really not entirely without talent, you know. I mean, the dead sharks are all crap, of course, but he did once have some work in an exhibition at the ICA, some boxed pieces, which were really quite intelligent, in the sense of their provoking the sort of emotions they were clearly intended to provoke. I rather fear that fame has gone to his head, though. The first thing I'd do is get him away from that ghastly agent of his and set him to doing some serious work again."

If this in any way spoils your Christmas, Mr Hirst, my apologies. Among contemporary artists, receiving a brisk drubbing from Sewell - art critic of the London Evening Standard and self-appointed scourge of the new - counts as something of a badge of honour. ("He once called my pictures 'shallow playthings for the childish mind'," recalls a delighted Martin Maloney, founding father of New Neurotic Realism and the ICA's latest terrible infant. "It was great.") Having Sewell show concern for your artistic well-being - and on Christian-name terms to boot - is the aesthetic equivalent of having the late Papa Doc Duvalier say kind things about your electoral system.

You might also have thought it was about as likely. Sewell's line on art is famously that, give or take the odd gasp, it is dead. "The trouble with corpses," he says, "is that, half an hour or so after their demise, they have a tendency to evacuate their bladders and bowels. You might say that that's what we've been seeing in art for most of this century." Sewell pauses naughtily. "You might say that that's what we've been showing at the Serpentine Gallery."

You might, of course, but only Sewell does: an exclusivity in which he openly rejoices. It is not just New Art that is the subject of his odium, but New Art History ("A load of absolute crap": B Sewell) and New Museology. While the assembled art press clapped its critical hands at Jonathan Miller's recent National Gallery show, "Reflections", Sewell spent two furious pages attacking the exhibition for its reduction of painting to a subset of neuropsychiatry. "The abject genuflecting to that man" - ie, Miller - "by everyone except me was quite nauseating," says Sewell, beaming happily. "All this nonsense about where Velazquez would have had to have been standing in order to have seen the precise reflection he painted in the mirror in Las Meninas. I mean, it is an iconographic tradition that Miller clearly simply does not understand. I just wanted to get out my penis and flash it at all those mirrors. What would Miller have made of that?"

What indeed? The attentive among you will have noticed something curious about Sewell's critical discourse, namely that he has a bad mouth. In the course of half an hour's conversation, the man who has come to be a byword for Bluntish aestheticism and old-fashioned connoisseurship will typically throw in a couple of craps, a fuck and a bugger or two, these made all the more alarming by their being delivered in the over-locuted tones of a Noel Coward film. Bodily functions and private parts also play a disproportionately vivid part in Sewellspeak. When not cursing the philistinism of modern painters and his fellow critics (particularly, for some unknown reason, the hapless Natalie

Wheen of Radio 3), Sewell indulges a decidedly laddish fondness for motor cars, a subject on which he writes with altogether more tenderness than he does of modern painting. What can it all mean?

Let us consider Brian Sewell as a piece of performance art. Try to call to mind the aesthetic beliefs (let alone the face) of any other current critic and you will find yourself floundering. What does Wheen look like? What sort of casual wear does the Independent on Sunday's Tim Hilton favour? Where do the Financial Times's William Packer's tastes in painting lie? It is difficult to say. By contrast, Sewell's Jan Morris-ish visage, crew-neck jumpers and abiding contempt for abstract expressionism are as familiar to aficionados of the Standard 's art pages as is the Mona Lisa's smile.

This fame is largely the result of a carefully nurtured perversity: the aesthete with the Rabelaisian vocabulary, the critic who has a soft spot for both Masaccios and Maseratis, the connoisseur who effs and blinds in the cut-glass cadences of Dame Edith Evans. Sewell's fame is inseparable from his disagreeableness: he has only to see a sacred cow to appoint himself its personal gadfly - even, when occasion demands, turning his sting on himself. (At least part of the point of Sewell publicly championing Damien Hirst is that it is the very last thing you can imagine him doing.)

When the National Art Collections Fund recently asked a group of four luminaries to choose fantasy collections with which to decorate their homes, three of them obligingly chose house-sized works. Sewell's first choice was the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was a telling selection, and not merely because it encapsulated Sewellian perversity. Deep down, Michelangelo may be to blame for the man. When, last week, Sewell explained to an adoring audience of NACF members just why he had included the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Michelangelo's early Vatican Pieta among his works, various things became obvious.

First were the speaker's brilliance and erudition, two qualities which he does not necessarily share with all of his fellow scribblers. (Sewell's dislike for Hirst's agent is based on an even more unusual first-hand knowledge of the art market, the Standard's critic having dirtied his hands at Christie's in a former life.) Second was a shared passion with Michelangelo for the heroic male nude.

A third Michelangelesque quality in Sewell was less obvious, however. Vasari's biographical sketch of the painter is probably the first extant literary example of the idea of rugged individualism. Michelangelo, as portrayed in Vasari's Lives, is more than merely a bolshie git: he is a bolshie git whose bolshiness is inseparable from his art, whose dislikeableness is palpable proof of his genius.

Thus Brian contra mundum, a man who suffers for his art. Musing over a cup of National Gallery coffee, Sewell remarks, with a certain obvious pride, that he "knows no one". Sewell horror stories abound, many of them, one suspects, put about by Sewell himself. ("The obituaries people at the Independent rang me just after my second heart bypass operation to ask for my help in compiling my own death notice," chortles the famously secretive critic, whose bio-graphy is the source of much ill-natured speculation. "I told them to piss orf.")

There are two worrying things in all this, however. The first is that the kind of people who like Sewell's writing most are the very people he himself would probably like least: lower-middlebrow bigots who don't see the game, and who view his profoundly reasoned and deeply held prejudices as just-ification for their own shallow ones.

More alarming by far, though, is that Brian Sewell is actually rather a nice person: a man who describes himself as a sentimental socialist and who stood by Anthony Blunt (another Michelangelesque sufferer for his art) while much of the rest of the art world cut him dead. You might add that if Damien Hirst were down on his luck, Sewell would probably do the same for him. But let us not spoil his Christmas further.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide