Sanctions and sanctimony

A gallery of Russian oligarchs. Wikimedia Commons
LAURA GASCOIGNE casts an eye on oligarchs and their arts

The Art Newspaper has published its annual museum attendance figures for 2021. The Louvre is top, 5% up on the year before, followed by the State Russian Museum at + 88%. Really? There are four Russian museums in the top ten: the Multimedia Art Museum at no 3 (+42%), the State Hermitage Museum at no 6 (+70%) and the State Tretyakov Gallery at no 9 (+77%). By comparison Tate Modern lags at no 16 (-19), the V&A at no 24 (-2) and the National Gallery at no 30 (-41).

There was a time when British visitor figures needed boosting to attract government funding. No longer. Now galleries hope desperation will loosen the purse strings: the message being sent out is HELP. So are we really supposed to believe that during a pandemic, with the international tourist industry in meltdown, Russian museums beat the British Museum (+4%) into 11th place?

No. No one is actually meant to believe these figures. Like the Ukrainian Nazi regime with its Jewish President and the Special Military Operation to remove it, they’re a pack of obvious lies. For the Kremlin, lying is official government policy. As our own government is discovering, lying works: if it doesn’t convince, it sows alarm and despondency. In fact, the less it convinces, the more alarm and despondency it sows, by loosening the population’s grip on reality.

However much we now gasp and stretch our eyes at the dreadful lies being told by Putin, we were happy to ignore the truth when it suited us. Western liberal democracies accepted arts sponsorship from Russian oligarchs without ever stopping to ask where the money came from. It’s not as if we didn’t know; we knew all along. It’s only now that we’re faced with the brutal reality of what an authoritarian kleptocracy means in practice that our cultural institutions are responding to Russia’s Special Military Operation with a Special Reverse Ferret Operation.

Western museums have rushed to ‘freeze’ relations with their Russian counterparts, at some cost to their exhibition programmes. It’s more than a case of the National Gallery’s being short of the odd Holy Family from the Hermitage for its Raphael show; the Ashmolean has had to put its summer exhibition ‘Russia! Icons and the Avant-Garde’ on indefinite hold and the National Railway and Science Museums have been forced to cancel their joint Trans-Siberian exhibition. The V&A has brazened it out and hung onto all the eggs in its Fabergé exhibition basket, two of which are on loan from the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg funded by sanctioned oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Still, no British museum has so much egg on its face as the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, which commissioned Putin to pen the foreword to its recent Morozov Collection show.

Now the art market is feeling the pinch. On 15 March, four days after Arts Council England introduced a moratorium on loans, the government banned exports to Russia of all high-end luxury goods including art and antiques. Russian collectors have been sent to Coventry where they can brush up on their knowledge of another English cathedral, hopefully without poisoning any of its parishioners. Like rats leaving a sinking superyacht, Sotheby’s announced that they were shutting up shop to Russian buyers. A spike in sales of high-end art to Russians was apparently recorded in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February as oligarchs rushed to put money into non-seizable assets they could squirrel away in secretive freeports of the sort our tax-paying chancellor is so keen to open on these shores. Fortunately for Sotheby’s, thanks to the use of intermediaries it’s almost impossible to find out whether buyers are Russian, unless they pay in roubles.

The big hit will be to museum sponsorship. Of the big four oligarchs sanctioned by our government, three have been heavily involved in cultural philanthropy and their beneficiaries are scrambling to dump them. On 1 March it was announced that Petr Aven, a long-term trustee of the Royal Academy and a leading donor to its Bacon exhibition, had ‘stepped down’ before being pushed down the Potemkin steps; with some sense of honour, the RA returned the money before painting out his credit at the exhibition entrance. Roman Abramovich’s name has also vanished, without recompense, from the supporters’ list outside the Holocaust Galleries he helped to fund at the Imperial War Museum and Viktor Vekselberg has forfeited his honorary membership of the Tate Foundation. His contribution to Tate Modern’s extension now consigned to history, it was out with the chisels to chip his name off the donors’ plaque.

It’s harder to write Russian money out of museum history when it’s sunk into bricks and mortar. Vekselberg’s 2016 support of Tate Modern’s extension, then called the Switch House, was not as generous as that of his mate from Moscow college days, Len Blavatnik, whose record-breaking £50m donation to the Tate turned the Switch House into the Blavatnik Building. Though not a Russian citizen – he holds US and UK citizenship (bought for a song in 2010) – Blavatnik is a person of interest. A Ukrainian Jew born in Odessa, he emigrated to America with his family in 1978 aged 21 but that didn’t stop him joining the feeding frenzy that followed the ‘opening up’ of the Russian economy in the 1990s. With Vekselberg as a partner, he laid the foundations of his global business empire by buying up state aluminium and oil companies. Last year he topped the Sunday Times Rich List for the second time with an estimated fortune of £23bn; he raked in an extra £7.2bn during the pandemic.

Blavatnik likes to splash the cash on cultural causes. He has donated to the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the RA, funded a new Blavatnik Hall at the V&A, financed the Courtauld’s refurbished Blavatnik Fine Rooms and in February – just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine – underwritten new Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries at the IWM due to open late next year. He was knighted for services to philanthropy in 2017 and in 2020 the Times described him as ‘Britain’s art philanthropist-in-chief’. But in the current mood of sanctimony, with sanctioned friends like Vekselberg and Oleg Deripaska, his position is borderline. How long before the Blavatnik Building is switched back to the Switch House? Watch this space.

When our museums took money from the previous philanthropists-in-chief, the Sacklers, they could at least plead innocence of Oxycontin. It’s not so easy to plead innocence of the crimes perpetrated by Russia’s oligarchs on the Russian people. We all know where the kleptocrats’ money came from; in accepting funding from them, Western museums have been knowingly in receipt of stolen goods. Cabbage soup has been taken from the mouths of ordinary Russians so that museumgoers in rich democracies can enjoy blockbuster exhibitions and swan about in overextended galleries. For years our museum sector has been living beyond its means. Who will we turn to for subsidies next? The Saudis? The music changes, but it’s the same old dance with the devil. We can be sanctimonious after the event, but at some point our museums must face the fact that, in the matter of so-called cultural philanthropy, sanctimoney is the exception, dirty money the rule.

This review first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts edited by David Lee, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.

How time flies – British Art Show 9

DAVID LEE attempts to take an interest in a forty-year old artistic institution

Not that it’s much fun remembering, but can it really have been more than 40 years ago that, like a new comet, the British Art Show (Arts Council prop.) first swam into our ken? It’s been coming back to haunt us every five years since, and now here it is again, ninth time round and laden as ever with empty promises and disappointment. Do we mind? No, not that much, for minding even mildly requires the taking of at least a little serious interest in the first place, which no one really does these days, and small wonder. I most certainly don’t – as the blank space in the index to Moping On – the Collected Works (rejection slip pending) amply testifies. I did see BAS8, or was it number 7, but, whichever, only out of convenient and idle curiosity. Remembering the faintest of anything in it is quite another matter: blur doesn’t come near it.

The pity is that it did seem quite a good idea, back in that Golden Age of Wislon, Sunny Jim and Dolly Scargill, oh, so long ago. It was the brainchild of one Frank Constantine, benign and enterprising director of the Sheffield City Art Galleries at the time – and in his youth, a seriously fast opening bowler, I believe, and a stylish middle-order batsman too: though I may be thinking of someone else – who, feeling that too little of the best and brightest of contemporary British art was ever to be seen north of Hampstead, persuaded the Arts Council to commission a major touring show, every so often, of just such stuff but one which – and this is the nub and very heart of the matter – would never, as it were, be seen in Town.

The guiding premise, as I remember, was that it should offer a generous if idiosyncratic overview of whatever of interest or merit, preferably both, had been produced within the previous two or three years, sought across the full field of current engagement in painting and sculpture and allied trades. Furthermore, there were two defining conditions attached: first, that the selection should be entrusted to a single selector; and second, that practical or logistical constraints apart, the choice was to remain a personally accountable judgement quite free of any policy or pressure on the Council’s part. Independence was the rubric, and, mirabile dictu, so it was: Amen to that, I hear you cry.

In the event, work by just over 100 artists was shown, from unabashed representation to abstraction at its most minimal and austere, with a leavening of conceptualism for good measure. There was of course the usual hullabaloo. ‘My child could do better than that, or would be severely punished if he didn’t’, of course, and ‘what a waste of good wood and canvas’. Sheffield’s steel mills closing down on a daily basis hardly helped. Even the Arts Council’s own General Secretary at the time –  a worthy Yorkshireman from Sheffield called Shaw, which explains a lot – after giving it the honour of a single sentence in his annual report, with due emphasis laid upon how much it had cost, a little later condemned out of hand an exhibition he had never seen.

And so of course the Arts Council lost its nerve. A single selector? Goodness no, far too risky. From BAS2 it has always been a committee job, if only one of two or three. And since no self-respecting committee meets without an agenda, so by grandmother’s footsteps themes and policies, the more correct the better, crept in and for many years now the Arts Council’s cold hand has been firmly on the tiller. Which dire conclusion brings me back to how boring and correct in its self-congratulatory diversity it all now is.

BAS9, selected by Irene Aristizaval and Hammad Nasar, began its tour in Aberdeen last autumn, and, having lately closed at Wolverhampton, is now inflicting itself on Manchester before moving on to Plymouth for the coup de grâce. A brief account of its sojourn amongst the Wolverhamptonians may offer the ever-patient denizens of Manchester some idea of what they’re in for.

Irene, now Head of Curatorial and Public Practice at the BALTIC, Gateshead, was until lately Head of Exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary; while Hammad is Lead Curator at the Herbert Gallery, Coventry, Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Foundation, and Principal Research Fellow at the University of the Arts (Central St Martin’s as was), London. You have been warned.

Notable amongst Irene’s recent group shows have been ‘Still I Rise – Feminism, Gender Resistance, and Photography from the Civil Rights Movement to the Reagan Era’. And Hammad is known, you may be intrigued to learn, ‘for collaborative, research-driven and exhibition-led inquiry’ so quite the Renaissance Man. His recent successes include ‘Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition and Structures of Meaning / Architectures of Perception’. There was also ‘Excessive Enthusiasm: Ha Bik Chuen and the Archives of Practice’. And I’m sorry I missed his ‘Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space’. You get the picture, or perhaps not as the case may be.

Getting down to brass tacks – for which I believe the town was once renowned – Irene and Hammad said with one voice ‘how thrilled they were to present the second iteration (and how we love that ‘iteration’) of BAS9 in Wolverhampton’, where the focus was to be ‘on an intersectional approach to living with difference’. Their approach would ‘foreground (and here I find myself reaching by reflex for the red pen – Old Beaky would have reached for something else) the contemporary resonance of the Black Lives Matter protests with the historic context of Enoch Powell infamous (notorious?) and divisive “rivers of blood speech”.’ Oh dear: but on we go.

Taken over all, BAS9 ‘explores [of course it does] themes of healing, care and reparative history; tactics for togetherness; and imagining new futures,’ and I can’t wait for the mug of cocoa and a digestive biscuit afterwards, for which I’ve already chipped in my two and six. It ‘showcases [I shall run out of red ink soon] the multidisciplinary work of 47 artists, reflecting a precarious moment in British history, which has brought politics of identity and nation, concerns of social, racial and environmental justice, and questions of agency (??) to the centre of public consciousness.’ Yes, My Dears, so it does, and calm down, as the great Sir Michael might have said: for my part I would remind you this was once, and perhaps still is, supposed to be an art exhibition, not a public meeting in the Islington Oddfellows Hall. Where’s that cocoa, for goodness sake? But there’s no stopping yet.

In Wolverhampton, it seems, the focus was on ‘how we live with and give voice to difference, showcasing [Damn and blast: I’ve now stubbed the nib] only those 34 of the 47 whose work, steely eyed, forensically investigates identity from an intersectional perspective (ouch). By exploring, map and compass at the ready, coexisting identities such as class, [count to ten] ethnicity [slowly] gender [up to 20] and sexuality [now 30], works will be presented in critical dialogue with Wolverhampton’s cultural history shaped by the diverse populations that have arrived since the War.’ Of course they will: but I’m too old for all this. I it is who really must calm down.

This article first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.

The sharpness of Ruskin Spear

Ruskin Spear (1911-1990), Patients waiting outside a first aid post in a factory. Wikimedia Commons

Humankind: Ruskin Spear

Tanya Harrod, Studies in Art, The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing and Thames & Hudson, 2022, £35

PHILIP WARD-JACKSON remembers an unpretentious but greatly gifted artist

‘This is not a full-scale biography’ apologizes Harrod, lamenting the dearth of diaries and letters left by her subject, but it is the closest approximation to one that you are likely to get for some time. A huge array of oral and other forms of testimony is deployed to formidable effect and a man who was derided in his final years by some of the movers and shakers of the art-world as a populist and a tabloid pet, stands revealed as a brilliant painterly recorder of the London scene. As a portraitist he was ready to accept sedate formal commissions, but was perhaps happiest capturing his subjects in action, as in his Poet Laureate Afloat of 1974, depicting John Betjeman as a boater-wearing oarsman, or his Brightly Shone the Moon that Night, in which Ted Heath conducting Christmas Carols becomes a cosmic event.

Some of us had known that this book was impending. Its appearance was finally announced by the author herself in a puff which appeared in the Spectator of 22 January under the amusing title ‘Bring me my Spear.’ Like the apology already quoted, this puff seemed to hint at an unwarranted diffidence. Only the baffled response to requests for it from some major London bookshops, happy to fill their windows with the latest products of the inexhaustible Francis Bacon industry, testified to the need for such self-promotion.

It was the Spectator editors who came up with that snippet from Jerusalem. After initially thinking it clever, on further thought it began to look like a misnomer. There is a distinct lack of ‘pleasant pastures’ and ‘mountains green’ in Spear’s world, and none of that mystic pantheism which drew contemporary neo-romantics to William Blake and Samuel Palmer. His world is resolutely urban, including seaside breaks.

Spear was born in Hammersmith in 1911, son of a coach painter and a one-time domestic servant. He was affected by polio in early life, which left him with a weakened left leg, but didn’t deter him from painting at the easel without the mahlstick, an article of faith where he was concerned. Only action painters and chimpanzees mucked about on the floor. He studied at Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts and at the Royal College. In fact Hammersmith and the Royal College, where he was later to teach, are the backdrop to the greater part of his creative activity. 

Spear achieved a degree of public recognition during the 1950s, mainly through his exhibits at the R.A. Summer Show. His son Roger Ruskin Spear, who played in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, was one of the people who made London swing. The musical talent was passed down, Spear having been a skilled jazz pianist, but the father’s view of London has a distinctly post-war look. In some details representing London buses, posters, pub brasswork and flowers, and most appositely in the case of one small pub canary who makes multiple appearances, the colours sing out from an overall tonality which is sombre to the point of despondency. The beauty resides in the ways in which the paint is put on, and the variety of Spear’s brush marks is staggering. When it comes to the draughtsmanship, or, as was increasingly the case, drawing in paint, Spear alternates between a strict perspectival rendering of his subjects reminiscent of contemporary Euston Road painters, and a freer, illustrational, at times caricatural style. The latter is much in evidence in the portrayal of his signature cast of seasoned bar-flies of both sexes, street hucksters and assorted Hammersmith denizens.

Harrod gives us more of a look at the pre-War period than an earlier biographer, the painter and writer Mervyn Levy, whose small monograph on Spear appeared in 1986, four years before the subject’s death in 1990. Work as a war artist, carried out in defiance of his own pacifism, seems to have brought Spear out of a domestic shell, most of his earlier work having been centred on the family home. These early figure subjects indicate an awareness of the work of the French intimistes, Bonnard and Vuillard. Not a much travelled man (foreign jaunts seem to have been limited to a Mediterranean stag cruise before marriage, and a trip to Russia in 1957, accompanying the exhibition ‘Looking at People’ to the Pushkin Museum), Spear’s knowledge of the impressionist and post-impressionist scene would have benefited from his apprenticeship at the Royal College with William Rothenstein, who had rubbed shoulders with Degas and Lautrec. All of this rather calls in question the assumption of early commentators that Spear epitomised the Englishness of English art.

Another of the book’s strengths is its situating of Spear in the various social and artistic circles, with which he interacted over the course of a lifetime. Some of these are new and unfamiliar. There is fascinating documentation, for example, concerning early patronage by the well-connected Essex dilettante, Jack Brunner Gold, who organised an exhibition of Spear’s flower paintings in his home, Little Codham Hall in 1935. The combination of Spear’s portrait of the man in country-gentleman pose, and the teasingly de haut en bas quotes from Gold’s letters vividly summon up an all too familiar picture of the connoisseur attempting to shape a young protégé. Then there is the colourful network of relationships, sometimes friendly and symbiotic, at others thorny, with fellow-teachers and students at the Royal College of Art between 1948 and 1975. Spear taught such luminaries of the next generation as Peter Blake, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach and Ron Kitaj. Alongside the happy memories of some, are those of students who remembered Spear as a bullying bastard. A painting by Spear entitled Young Contemporary, which caricaturally represented one of his students sitting looking confused in front of one of his own action paintings, does seem to infringe pedagogical proprieties. On the other hand Spear’s debunking of art-world pretensions must have come as a relief to many outsiders who felt bamboozled by colour field abstracts and piles of bricks.

The panjandrums of the art world do not take kindly to seeing their hot air balloons deflated. Spear had in 1952 and 1954 depicted public bemusement when confronted by works of modern sculpture by Henry Moore and Reg Butler. Other pictures made plain his sentiments with regard to minimalist and painterly forms of abstraction, leading the future director of the Tate, Sir Alan Bowness, to classify his work as ‘vulgar’. In 1984 came what looked like a particularly brutal act of critical cancellation, when Spear was omitted by Richard Morphet, self-appointed high-priest of post-modern figuration, from his Tate exhibition, ‘The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art’. Tanya Harrod suggests that Spear’s work was excluded because it gave so little indication of struggle. A lifetime of painting and observation had enabled him to achieve a rare degree of articulacy and pleasurable virtuosity, in which he could express his likes and dislikes with regard to the world around him. There is perhaps one thing that needs clearing up here. Was Spear in fact excluded, or, alive and kicking as he then was, did he decline to have his works shown with that rag-bag of figure painters, even though it included some of his own closest friends and ex-pupils?

This is a most attractive book, whose illustrations and text both call for and repay the closest attention.

This review first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts edited by David Lee, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.