Thatcher’s Artists

Peter Wollen

  • Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection by Norman Rosenthal
    Thames and Hudson, 222 pp, £29.95, September 1997, ISBN 0 500 23752 2

Art catalogues have drifted away from being simple accessories to exhibitions and become instead strange hybrid forms somewhere between cultural studies primers and coffee-table books. They provide both an intellectual commentary, written by academics, journalists and art-world figures, and a comprehensive set of colour reproductions of the works in a show, taken by specialised photographers. From a practical point of view they are freebies for the press, commodities to be sold in the museum store and in the wider world, promotion tools for the museum and the artists and, perhaps most important of all, they endow exhibitions with a durable after-life in libraries, both private and public. The catalogue for Sensation, the show of works by young British artists from the Saatchi collection, currently on view at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, runs over two hundred pages, with more than a hundred colour plates, as well as a series of black and white portrait photographs of the artists taken by Johnnie Shand Kydd. It has five catalogue essays, several pages of artists’ biographies, a bibliography and, as the very last item in the book, a six-page checklist of the 110 works in the exhibition, with an apparatus of dates and dimensions. The cover design of the book is not drawn from the works on display in the show but was produced for the book by a design company. It is as vivid and arresting as the artworks documented inside, perhaps even more so.

The catalogue essays have been chosen strategically to give a multiple-perspective view of the exhibition. In his own Introduction, the show’s curator, Norman Rosenthal, who is the Royal Academy’s ‘secretary’ in charge of exhibitions, places Sensation in a very broad art historical context, making ambitious claims for the importance of the work and explaining his choice of title. Next, Richard Shone, an associate editor of the Burlington Magazine, perhaps best known for his scholarly work on the Bloomsbury Group, gives a detailed chronicle of the careers of the artists, whom he describes as loosely ‘entwined’ in a single history. He sees them, not so much as a ‘gang’, though that is how they are sometimes thought of, more as contributors to a loose art ‘scene’ with a complex pattern of interaction. Then Martin Maloney gives an insider view, writing as a painter whose own work is represented in the show, as well as a prolific art journalist (Art Forum, Flash Art etc). Brooks Adams is an American an journalist based in New York, who follows up with an outsider’s account, enthusiastically describing the works’ rather patchy reception in the United States. Finally, Lisa Jardine, an academic who doubles as an art journalist, writes in glowing terms about the historical role played by patrons in the formation of public taste, an encomium it would be difficult to read without remembering that all the work in this particular show was purchased or commissioned by Charles Saatchi. No doubt he will be pleased to be compared with Isabella d’Este.

If there is a serious theme running through these essays, it concerns the nature of the ‘modern’ and the ‘new’ as governing principles of 20th-century art. The underlying question is how British art in general, and the work in this show in particular, should be understood, given the imperative need for any art that wishes to reach a hegemonic position in the global art world to be perceived as ‘modern’ and ‘new’. Norman Rosenthal makes no bones about what is at issue here when he asks:

Can London become the unchallenged centre for the practice and presentation of contemporary art? In the past, Paris, New York and even Dusseldorf have been able aggressively to claim this role, by virtue of the density of activity in each city over considerable periods of time, with many artists, as well as collectors and galleries, contributing to the debate with originality and daring. If London could now claim such a position, that would be a first, and surely grounds for celebration.

Rosenthal’s own answer is both grandiosely sketchy and wildly euphoric. First he invokes the names of Géricault, Courbet and Manet, founding figures of Modernism, in order to remind us that their work was both new and shocking in its time – he backs this up by showing illustrations of Géricault’s Severed Limbs, Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (a closeup painting of a woman’s genitals privately commissioned from the artist by a rich connoisseur) and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur I’herbe. He goes on to invoke Goya and Bosch in order to assert that ‘in time even such powerful images as these become assimilated, their impact diluted. Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos.’ In a way, I quite appreciate the stunning shamelessness of Rosenthal’s approach as he tries to fend off angry accusations that the work he is showing is obscene and distasteful by invoking the great shock-and-horror art hits of the past, but it does seem a bit simplistic to dissolve ethics into aesthetics with such peremptory brio.

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