Jack Vettriano isn’t popular with the art establishment, particularly the female subset who make vapid noises about the way women are portrayed sexually in his art.
His most famous painting is entitled The Singing Butler, and is the best selling print in Britain.
The National Gallery refuses to display his work, despite its tremendous popularity and his obvious talent.
The press sneers at his ability to make an extraordinary profit from his art.
His paintings are striking examples of romantic realism.
What better recommendation, then, could one have to go and see an exhibition?
I attended the recent showing of his art at the Portland Gallery in London and enjoyed everything I saw immensely, even though it wasn’t the style I was expecting at all. Although I had been familiar with his work previously, I hadn’t realized that it had progressed so much since I saw it last.
There seem to be two Vettrianos: the nice, light, romantic ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ Vettriano and the darkly sexual Vettriano. His early career was marked by outdoor scenes — predominantly beaches — and many subjects, often focusing on one or two people enjoying themselves. His characters had a basic form, however he rarely painted facial detail and instead focused on the graceful actions of walking or dancing.
His latest shift has been towards indoor imagery — in dark, smoke-filled bars, in sumptuous elevators, in luxuriously appointed bedrooms, and dramatically lit lounges. There are fewer people involved and each person is given a far more detailed treatment — the viewer is given more of a sense of character in each person portrayed, and therefore has the distinct sense of intruding on an unfolding story.
I’m quite glad for the shift, as it now seems his breezy beach paintings (well composed though they are) were just a warm-up — that he was getting used to the human form, getting used to space and color, getting used to movement. There is more energy in his newer work, and a more sensual, intimate side of the artist is revealed.
The Portland Gallery was displaying a high ratio of his newer work in the recent exhibition, and the impact was interesting for me as a female because I got to look through the eyes of (and step into the desires of) an unashamedly sexual man. Vettriano is a singularly talented narrative painter; it’s very easy to be transported to his settings, and even easier to become involved in his scenarios.
Don’t look for this movement in these thumbnails. Unfortunately, as anyone who has seen great pieces of art knows, the feeling of movement is rarely found in reprints. As with most oil paintings, the originals are uniquely appealing because of the way that light interacts with the suspended particles in the paint — you have richness and a glow that gives depth.
This is not to say that Vettriano uses the crisp, photographic form of the Renaissance painter. He seems to borrow a little of his style from the early impressionists — many brush strokes are obvious and you are under no illusion that this is oil on canvas — a technique, I believe, that aids in conveying the movement so central to the work.
The evident brushstrokes also serve to give the hint of structure that you must fill in for yourself. The form is there, the detail is occasionally ambiguous, and the intent and emotion behind the pose is all-important.
So what is the intent? The scenes in this exhibition were split between portraits of his favorite models engaged in a solitary activity, such as walking or gazing out a window, and those of sexual tension and sexual encounters.
The encounters capture clandestine, forbidden, passionate sensuality. He openly admits that these couplings are doomed from the start, and that he portrays people who just can’t help themselves when it comes to temptation.
What you see, though, is not the ugly portrayal of sex which is evident in so many contemporary artists. These are not confrontational scenes of rape, the nudity is not incidental. At the same time, each painting is blatantly honest about what it is showing.
Because there is no attempt to hide the sexuality, there is no need for the audience to draw it out from insinuations in the images. It’s all there and it’s definitely unapologetic for its chosen theme — you have the time to focus on the sensuality of the pieces instead.
To put it another way, you get over the fact that you’re seeing a garter belt very quickly, and become far more interested in the positioning of the bodies and the expressions on faces than seeing a peek of something that is traditionally forbidden.
Interestingly enough, unlike the artist that idealizes the virginal, the untouched, the woman before she is sullied with the taint of sex, Vettriano seems to show his women with the familiarity of an established lover. These women have ‘fallen’ into ‘sin’ already — yet don’t seem to be any less desirable for that fact. Rather than wanting to find and pluck something new, he seems to hunger for more of the same and venerate those women he knows can give it to him. This is where, I think, the evident appreciation for his models comes through in the painting and why the art is so sexually charged. It’s not a work of contempt — it’s a work of understanding and appreciation.
There is no contempt for the human form either. Although Vettriano does not sculpt his male or female forms to the fashion magazine ideal of today, there is no mistaking that both are rather attractive and both are distinctly posed and dressed for their gender. As he puts it:
“I’ve always loved women who dress as women, you know, pure femininity.”... “When you know a woman’s wearing stockings there’s no sort of question about it, and I love that world where there’s a strict division between men and women. If you were painting contemporary life now, man and woman, from the back, you can’t tell the difference.”
If the women are ultra feminine, then the men are ultra masculine. Far removed from the pretty-boy Beckhams, DiCaprios and Pitts of popular fascination, these creatures radiate masculinity, poise, and strength.
The power play between the sexes is also clearly shown. We don’t have two sexually androgynous humans coming together for a night of sensitive-to-each-other’s-emotional-needs lovemaking interspersed with tea, basket weaving, and psychotherapy. This isn’t the kind of intimacy we are currently told is the ideal. There is a man who evidently dominates the woman physically — there is no shying away from who will be doing what to whom. The parallels here to Rand’s portrayals of sexuality are evident, especially when considering the relationship and liaisons between Roark and Dominique.
Equally strong (although in a completely different way) is the woman, who is sure of her power over the man and is wielding it unflinchingly.
In fact, in the introduction to Lovers and Other Strangers, an exploration of Vettriano’s work, Anthony Quinn says of the brunette used in most of the paintings:
“..she looked like a woman to whom a pledge of eternal love might provoke her to stab you with a stiletto.”
Vettriano himself says:
“I portray women wielding sexual power.”
Clearly, these are not damsels in distress. There is no legitimate reason for feminists to be alarmed at his portrayal of women in art. Instead, there is reason to hope that they would see how his art celebrates sexuality and the female role in seduction, which is never passive.
What I think I see in equal measure is the man surrendering himself to what he perceives as his basest desires, while at the same time physically dominating the female in the piece. It’s rather a clichéd juxtaposition, and one that relies on considering the longing for sex to be something other than honorable.
Although I can’t agree with this dim view on humans as flawed due to their desire to copulate, I must applaud his mastery at perfectly conveying this idea. There is enough to agree with in his art and enough pleasure to be gained from its execution to overlook this small flaw.
The men he portrays alone are somewhat of a mystery to me. I get a sense of stoic, practiced isolation from them and am not sure if I’m misreading his intentions. Many are self-portraits, which I tend to find difficult to unravel at the best of times.
What I do know is that Vettriano is almost uncannily popular for a modern artist. In a world where it seems the public consistently opts for the worst creative compositions available, the fact that I had to crane around people to see what I considered very good art was somewhat gratifying.
Of course, he comes under fire for this very popularity and ensuing financial success, commenting:
“Well you know, you run the risk of the wrath of the establishment by being popular, but at the same time why shouldn’t people have an image for £10 when they don’t have a lot of money to spend? And anyway, I own the copyright of my work until 75 years after my death and then it’s a free for all and you think - well why shouldn’t I benefit from it now?
“What would Van Gogh have done, what would Monet have done if they had had the opportunity? Instead of that what you get is, the marketplace is flooded with their stuff and they’re not earning a penny from it.”
Happily, he’s earning far more than pennies. Annoying the establishment is a profitable faux pas indeed.
Monica White is an Australian living the life of an entrepreneur in London. A newly avid blogger, she loves to use her cyberjournal, Th'inkwell, as a forum to explore interesting ideas, passionately celebrate all that is enjoyable in life, and occasionally give people a well-deserved bat over the nose.