Having had much cause to mention Charles Saatchi in my Guardian column over the past five years, I was pleased when this most secretive of men finally agreed to meet me around the time of the opening of his new private museum. I found, more to other people’s surprise than my own, that he was a nice enough chap, a Guardian reader no less. Youthful, remarkably shy for a man in his profession, he was clearly in love with his collection in the way that little boys are in love with their train sets. It is the largest and most famous collection of contemporary art in Britain, and he adds to it obsessively, sometimes buying up entire exhibitions. It is so large that he can only hang a section of it at a time. He himself had supervised the hanging and was now clucking around the opening show wondering if perhaps the galvanised iron relief by Donald Judd wouldn’t have looked better over there, where the green lacquered one was. The two things that struck me most forcefully about him were his innocence – he had, after all, agreed to speak to me ‘off the record’ despite all the horrible innuendoes I had made about him, and his ordinariness, in my Guardian column. A boyish 41-year-old, casually smart in a floppy double-breasted suit of indeterminate adman brown, he didn’t look like the devil at all and kept asking me if I minded when he stubbed his cigarettes out in my saucer. Of course I minded. But I wasn’t about to say so, not there, not then.
For I was drunk at the time – on the heady alcohol of modern art, I hasten to add. My head was spinning from the impact of the marvels that I was being shown. For some time now a rumour had been circulating the art world that Charles Saatchi was building himself a museum. There was talk of a converted warehouse in St John’s Wood. The architect was named as Max Gordon. What the rumour had not prepared me for was the size of the place. There are six galleries in the complex, and the two main ones must be the biggest exhibition galleries in Britain. A Donald Judd sculpture 80 feet long sits against the wall in the central room and looks distinctly lonely with so much space around it. Saatchi’s museum is ten times larger than the Serpentine, nearly four times larger than the Whitechapel Gallery. As rich men’s dreams go, it is the nearest thing to a Xanadu of the arts that we have seen in London since the building of Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Victorian plutocrats with their passion for leaving behind museums in their name did so mainly in the provinces. Since their museums were built on the wealth of textile mills and coal mines they tended to be grim and grey buildings, encased in pompous Doric pilasters, decorated in the mock-classicism which Roger Fry used to call pseudo-art. In Victorian museums, most of the ostentation was on the outside. As we all know, Charles Saatchi made his money in advertising. His museum is so discreet it is almost invisible, a giant hiding behind a row of tiny shops in a quiet street in the architectural no-man’s-land between St John’s Wood and Swiss Cottage. Even the security cameras are painted grey to blend in with their surroundings. The museum courtyard is the kind of dull tarmac-laid space you find at the back of hotels, where the bins are kept. Saatchi’s money has gone on the inside not the outside of his building, a large proportion of it on white paint.
Vol. 7 No. 7 · 18 April 1985
SIR: Waldemar Januszczak (LRB, 21 March) is indignant about a ‘disgraceful union of art and commerce’ – a ‘sudden’ development he has detected – and he wonders what manner of ‘moral breakdown’ has made it possible. Perhaps he is so disturbed by the discrete association of United Technologies with Stubbs and the Tate Gallery in a temporary exhibition that he has not noticed that the Elgin Marbles are on permanent display in the Duveen Wing of the BM: but it is odd that he himself refers earlier to the foundation of Victorian municipal museums by coal and textile magnates.
As a consequence of a ‘giant wave of business’ which, according to Januszczak, has recently ‘broken over art’, the dealers now ‘call the shots’. A few years ago, he implies, the state did so. It would be interesting to learn more about the artists whose reputations have been made, or the artistic movements which have been launched, by the British state in this century. The only example of modern state patronage he mentions is Henry Moore’s work as a war artist, which he ludicrously associates with Michelangelo’s employment in the Sistine Chapel. Januszczak also alludes to Titian’s work for the Venetian state. Perhaps he has in mind the first of the few commissions which Titian received from the state – the decoration of part of the façade of the warehouse of the German merchants, a notable ‘union of art and commerce’.
Another consequence of the sudden soaking that the arts have supposedly received is that something called ‘Pragmatism’ has ‘replaced utopian Modernism as the prevailing artistic theory’. However, according to his own sketchy history of modern art, ‘Modernism’ only prevailed in Revolutionary Russia and the Bauhaus. Elsewhere Picasso was already a ‘perfect 20th-century consumer artist’ presiding over a factory conveyor belt (and improving his tan).
Ignorance of history, confusion of thought and trashy metaphors may help Januszczak to persuade his readers, and doubtless himself, that something momentous is happening, and that he is in the know. The tycoon Charles Saatchi, ‘the most secretive of men’, has ‘finally’ agreed to meet him in a ‘gleaming cavern’. The cavern is full of ‘marvels’ which have left the critic’s head ‘spinning’. Eventually we are told that these are the work of artists who have ‘gone into the tit-bit business’. It seems probable that Januszczak disapproves of this. On the other hand, ‘marvels’ may not have been intended ironically. A couple of years ago Januszczak announced that he was ‘finally convinced’ of Julian Schnabel’s ‘importance’ as an artist. Schnabel is one of the more expensive ‘expressionists’ collected and promoted by Saatchi.
Balliol College, Oxford
Vol. 7 No. 8 · 2 May 1985
SIR: For a former art historian, Nicholas Penny suffers from remarkably foggy vision (Letters, 18 April). Had he read what I actually wrote, he might have spared himself all that shrill indignation and spared your readers his misrepresentations of my text. Nowhere in the piece do I declare that art and commerce have never enjoyed a fruitful relationship. Nor do I assume for one moment that they cannot. I merely expressed dismay at the way that certain commercial interests had become the most powerful force in today’s art world, and the way that Commerce itself had returned to a dominant position which I thought, and hoped, it had ‘ceded’. Clearly Penny needs to have things spelled out for him. It is not commerce per se that I rail against: it is the particular form of commercial involvement we are currently witnessing, what we might call the monetarist form, which is only interested in events at the fashionable top of the tree and has no involvement with the roots or the spirit, a commerce detached from ideals.
If Mr Penny spent less time daydreaming among the spires of Oxford and more time finding out what is really happening in the London art world, then even he, with his foggy vision, could not fail to detect a very real and very rapid growth of involvement by big business in the art world. ‘The discreet association’ he dreams of – of the United Technologies Corporation with the Tate’s George Stubbs exhibition – was nothing of the kind, as I pointed out in the original piece. There is nothing discreet about museum officials chasing after art critics to remind them to mention the name of exhibition sponsors in their copy, as has happened to me. There is nothing discreet about the way that the Arts Council handed out printed notices to all critics at the London Renoir show insisting that they name and thank their sponsors. There was nothing discreet about the caviar-and-champagne binge thrown by the sponsors of the Caro retrospective at the Serpentine for the clients they were trying to impress. No one looked at the art. But the boozing and free-loading scenes we witnessed were worthy of a tavern interior by Jan Steen.
Penny may see nothing wrong in making the art world completely reliant on hand-outs from arms manufacturers and credit-card salesmen but, thanks be to Goya, some of us do. Since he seems rather badly informed on the subject I had better advise him that sponsors are, by and large, ignorant, short-sighted and self-serving. They embark upon sponsorship programmes because it is a relatively cheap form of advertising that can usually be written off against tax. It is also a way in which certain dirty reputations can be laundered. To think that they do it out of philanthropy or love of art is to display a naivety that borders on stupidity.
Or perhaps Mr Penny belongs to that wretched modern school of pragmatists who do not mind where the money comes from provided there is lots of it and it ‘helps the art world’. Disillusion yourself again. The money from sponsorship never arrives on the plate gleaming, crisp and free. These people are not fools with big holes at the bottom of their purses, as certain inhabitants of the art world fondly imagine. Sponsors only support what is going to be of use to them. They impose conditions. They orchestrate events. They are not in the business of taking risks. They know damn well that supporting George Stubbs at the Tate will bring more attention to themselves than encouraging six young painters from Hornsey who, unlike Stubbs, might actually need the support. Thus sponsorship becomes a form of censorship. People who know nothing about art, and care less, are being put into positions in which they can determine what the rest of us will see, while the art world, silly as ever, thinks it has them in the palm of its hand.
I wish Nicholas Penny had been present at the Royal Academy on the day that Cimabue’s once-great Crucifixion was being installed. The cross was being toured around the world by Olivetti, who had paid for a ghastly computer-calculated restoration which had frozen it for ever in a lurid pointillist limbo and left it looking like a cheap souvenir of Florence. Watching that once-sacred object being bashed around, levered through doors, scraped, shunted, abused, lugged around the world like a fairground freak, just to sell more typewriters, brought me face to face with the ‘discreet association’ of sponsors. Does Mr Penny know which two great powers have succeeded in removing the Horses of San Marco from Italy? The first was Napoleon, who had them put up on the Arc du Carrousel in Paris, hitched to a golden chariot driven by himself. The second was Olivetti, who again lugged one on a promotional tour of the world which lasted several years.
I mention this because Penny singles out Venice in his letter. I imagine that he believes, as I believe, that Venice is a past example of a successful ‘union of art and commerce’, although it’s hard to know what Mr Penny believes for his letter is so remarkably free of coherent statements. His reference to Titian is, I presume, a reference to the fresco decoration of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi undertaken by Giorgione, helped by Titian, around 1508. What is his point? Does he imagine that the German warehouse was some sort of shed of the kind you find in Wapping? It was a grand, canal-side office. Giorgione and Titian were being used as political ambassadors to improve and strengthen commercial links between Venice and the North. The Venetian state was good to its artists. It valued and used them. It encouraged them. It paid the Bellini family a state pension. It employed Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese to decorate not only its warehouses but also its palaces, churches and government offices. It believed that posterity would remember it for its art rather than its commercial successes, as the Venetians themselves remembered the Greeks. And the Venetians have been proved right. Does Mr Penny really believe that what we are witnessing at the moment is a comparable union of art and commerce? Will we, too, be remembered for the art which our commercial interests are encouraging? Or is the truth that in our times the state can be seen frantically trying to wash its hands of art, leaving the market wide open for speculators, sponsors, dealers, trendy collectors, art ‘consultants’?
Finally, in what I presume to be an attempt at delivering some kind of epistolic coup de grâce, Penny reveals that I had once written favourably about Julian Schnabel, an artist whose work can be found in the Charles Saatchi collection. So what? Just because I question the role of a giant collector like Saatchi doesn’t mean that I think that all the work he collects is worthless. On the contrary, he is clearly a collector of real conviction and enthusiasm whose thoughts on art are worth considerably more than a penny – which is more than I can say for some. I will save Nicholas Penny the trouble of consulting his files any further by admitting here and now that there are many artists in the Charles Saatchi collection whose work I admire.
The Guardian, London EC1
Mr Penny wrote ‘discrete’, but meant discreet.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 7 No. 10 · 6 June 1985
SIR: Nicholas Penny (Letters, 18 April) accuses Waldemar Januszczak of inconsistency in praising Julian Schnabel two years ago while now attacking his kind of art and his Saatchi patrons (LRB, 21 March). But Januszczak is more ‘inconsistent’ than this, to put no finer point on it. In the London Review of Books he attacked the Saatchis and big-business sponsorship of the arts, yet, just over a month before, he published a half-page article in the Guardian (16 February) welcoming the Saatchis’s new art gallery so enthusiastically that the Saatchis enclosed photocopies of it in the press pack they handed to reviewers at the official press view of the gallery. In his Guardian piece Januszczak described the Saatchi collection of paintings by Andy Warhol as ‘hugely impressive’, adding that ‘Saatchi agrees with me that the 13 major Warhols on show reveal a political and moral dimension to his art which is usually overlooked. It is not Warhol’s passive acceptance of these mass-produced images that you sense here, but an implied criticism.’ Yet in the London Review of Books, Januszczak writes of Warhol:
The man is so dangerously pragmatic he even accepts atom bombs. In Warhol’s Disaster series a whole block of mushroom clouds is repeated over and over again like a postage stamp. This is pragmatism on an unbelievable scale. Take away a human being’s urge for self-improvement and you have Andy Warhol.
Has Januszczak now ‘overlooked’ the ‘political and moral dimension to his art’ which five weeks before he and Saatchi were in agreement on? Is this opportunism, hypocrisy, or just cynicism?