As part of my A level Art course, I also had to study the history of art. Thanks for your book Mr Gombrich by the way; I still have it and still refer to it now and then. I really liked painting (and might do it now if I could be arsed) and possibly wasn’t too bad at it. I didn’t like drawing or charcoal much as I was always heavy handed and, frankly, just not good enough at it to satisfy myself. History of art, I’m afraid, was really turgid stuff to my 16-18 year old self, who much preferred sloping off to the Butts Tavern of a lunchtime and playing pool with the factory lads.
Our wonderful and much loved art teacher, “Nev”, used to try so hard to get us enthused about Giotto, Fra Angelico, Van Eyck (the Marriage of the Arnolfini has NEVER come up in a bloody pub quiz) and all these other old duffers. He was very fond of saying something along the lines of “you don’t have to like it, but you should know how to appreciate it”. We (well certainly me anyway) were way too full of partying spirit and all the rest of it to be very interested in, or appreciative of what seemed, at the time, like pretty boring art works. Yes, we knew, because Nev taught us, that religion and royalty ruled the day and thus dictated what was produced and favoured. Or not. But did we really understand? I can’t speak for my classmates (apart from Maz, who was usually my pool partner), but I know I just didn’t “get it” back then. Just a few years later though, as a ragged-arsed student in London, standing bang in front of the Arnolfini painting in the National Gallery, I felt really quite privileged to have a clue what it was about. My brain is seemingly like a low energy light bulb, taking an annoying length of time to warm up.
Nev was patient though, or perhaps he had more endurance than we knew; I think he thought he’d reel the likes of me in by the time we got to the Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionists and Pointillists. There were only 6 of us to inculcate I think, so he had the makings of a fair wind behind him. He wasn’t immediately right, but the wily sod had certainly planted the seeds. And later he sprung Lucian Freud on us. At last; something really real. I (again I want to say we) had an inkling that I might not actually be too bad at this art lark and might even understand it too. I think Nev would be chuffed that I discovered Stanley Spencer all on my own.
As a student in London in the mid to late eighties, I did a variety of jobs to top up the woefully inadequate grant. Yes, I know a grant would be considered a luxury now, but don’t blame me! There was Sainsburys, where I learned much about the pride of the elderly in being first to get their morning loaf. I also learned there that some old folk don’t wash. I was all ewww at the time, but of course life has a habit of teaching you stuff if you carry on living; now I know that some folk are truly vulnerable and aren’t being helped by their families, if they have them, by society, or by the state. There was also MacDonalds. I won’t dwell on that, but there was some incentive there to pass exams. And then there was the glamour of attaining a weekend job at the Royal Academy of Art as a gallery attendant for the 20th century British Art exhibition. You fell for that, now didn’t you? The truth of it was that I got work with a security company supplying security guards who would assist at the RAA. This should give a salutory warning about checking the credentials of the staff if you hire security staff for an event. Saw me coming? They must have heard my nasal Black Country twang from streets away and rubbed their hands with glee.
So there I was every weekend for four months in my ever so fetching laydee security guard uniform, taking turns “guarding” the 13 (I think) rooms in the RAA and the treasures therein. It sounded great when they told me about it. An hour and a half on, then half an hour off. What’s not to love? All I can say is go and try just standing for 90 minutes and see how you get on. On the plus side, the sheer pain of standing made us move around. And if you’re moving, why not have a look at the goodies? Percy Wyndham-Lewis, Edward Burra, William Roberts (yes really), Barbara Hepworth, Jacob Epstein and so many more. I learned such a lot in those four months.
I remember one particularly fun moment, when I discovered a hole in one painting (might have been a Sickert, I can’t remember the painting, I just remember it was in the attendants’ favourite room, where it was an hour on then half an hour off!) and alerted one of the “redcoats”, otherwise known as the official RAA staff, all dressed up in a way that doubtless appeals to tourists. There was quite a flurry of officialdom, a call went out for the inventory and finally, to everyone’s relief, it was found that the painting did indeed have said hole when it was delivered for the exhibition. I was flavour of the month for my sharp eyes. Hot damn, I thought, I’m bloody good at this security stuff.
All that’s just fluff and me being a middle-aged person reminiscing of course. Congratulations if you’ve got this far. So, onto the real stuff.
Walsall’s Art Gallery (sue me, I struggle to call it ‘ new’ 12 years on) has really pulled quite a coup in hosting what I understand to be a 12 month exhibition of the works of Damien Hirst. He’s internationally renowned, so hopefully the exhibition will pull in lots of visitors to Walsall. I will go and see the exhibition, but probably with a glass half empty mindset. I’m told he’s fabulous, and he’s certainly made his money, but will I like, or even appreciate his work? I should go in with an open mind, but you know, I just don’t have faith in the guy. This quote from wiki, which may or may not be true, doesn’t change my mind “I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say ‘f off’. But after a while you can get away with things.”
I hope my expectations will be disappointed. I hope I’m blown away. Without the lovely Nev leading me by the nose and encouraging me to appreciate what I don’t like though, I suspect I’ll think it’s ……..[insert your word of choice].
Speaking of our much revered Nev, I last saw him, by chance, about 6 years ago just as he was retiring. I heard a while ago that he was very ill. I do hope he’s OK. He was the best teacher I had, and one of life’s truly lovely people.