Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective

“A worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result stripped of dignity and respect.”
The author Alain de Botton’s definition of what constitutes status anxiety, discussed in the book of the same name, is a reasonably accurate précis of a complicated subject.
Class division exists, as it always has done, and therefore, as a society, we build defensive barriers by way of protection. The cement that binds these bricks holds our ideas about life, an infusion that is quite robust.
But walls do crumble and that can be a very good thing, as was seen in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was smashed to bits with liberating vigour. Mobility can happen and we can all improve our lot.
What develops out of hierarchical structures is a pretentious attitude, manifest in what we wear, where we live and what we do. Equally, our tastes, what we consider good and bad, from fine wine to literature, can affect our standing with certain groups of people.
In the world of art, this can currently be observed with the inevitable conversations resulting out of the first major retrospective of the work of Jack Vettriano, the Scottish-born painter whose stylish art has found widespread renown across the social divide while attracting a fair amount of criticism from the establishment.
A case in point in the judgement of Alastair Smart, the Sunday Telegraph’s arts editor and chief art critic. In the review of the show, which is at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow, he describes Vettriano’s style as “drab and inert”, adding, as fuel for fire, that critics refer to him as the Jeffrey Archer and Andrew Lloyd Webber of painting.
While Mr Smart is conciliatory at times, he brings up the perplexing and enduring argument against quality: popularity. To be held in high regard during your lifetime and loved by the masses is perpetually seen as an indictment, a wrong, and a marker of the ordinary.
It is a reasonable argument to say his paintings do not offer anything profoundly intellectual, have little to say about the zeitgeist and serve no other purpose but to glamorise anunattainable Hollywood movie lifestyle.
Yet that is all telling. Some of his works are very autobiographical in the sense that while his most famous painting The Singing Butler (1992) does not capture a real moment, the sentiment is full of truth. There is a longing for such a ridiculously beautiful moment, a hunger for what the twentieth century writer Anais Nin described as the lyrical and musical life.Vettriano has known heartbreak.
“There’s a funny thing. Because some people absolutely abhor my work, and there are some people who absolutely love it. I have this terrible fear – I think it’s a working class thing – of having to defend myself at a dinner table,” he recently said in an interview with the Herald.
“I don’t buy into the view that anything popular has anything to do with bad taste or cheapness. If something is popular, it’s popular for a reason. And to have sold ten million copies of The Singing Butler worldwide is no mean feat. I think that regardless of what the critics say, the way that I composed that picture, I deserve some credit.”
Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow runs until February 23rd 2014.
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