Sunday, 20 September 2015

Brian Sewell † R.I.P. †

Brian Sewell, a friend whom I greatly appreciated, has sadly died of cancer at the age of eighty-four.

"Cancer has turned me into an old dog in a vivisection laboratory. I let the oncologists do what they feel they must, and then curl up in a dark corner waiting for them to do it again." - Brian Sewell

Television brought us together in the previous century and we instantly enjoyed each other's company. I concurred with much of what he had to say about art and artists, always finding him fascinating, fearless, informative, enlightening, refreshing and invariably highly amusing.

He was known as the UK's "most controversial art critic," and would openly criticise those who he deemed worthy of it, once calling Damian Hirst "f-----g dreadful" and stating that Banksy "should have been put down at birth." We agreed on much besides art and traditional Christianity (he told me he had considered becoming an Anglo-Catholic priest when he was young). " If I could change one law, it would be the one that permits halal slaughter, if such exists. I’ve seen it done and it ain’t pretty," he said. He was not especially PC and neither am I. We certainly had that much in common.

Brian Sewell and I shared the same birthday. He was born on 15 July 1931 in Market Bosworth, Leicestershire and raised in Kensington, West London by his single mother after his father, the composer known as Peter Warlock, committed suicide before his birth. He said: "It may be ending wretchedly, but mine has been a most enjoyable and instructive life. From extreme poverty as a child, to the Second World War in London, to the subsequent austerity and sheer blossoming of life in the 1950s."

He became the art critic for London's Evening Standard in 1984, winning a slew of awards for his journalism. He wrote for the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s and expanded into radio, eventually becoming a household name, known for his biting wit and speaking his mind. Controversy inevitably followed. In 1994, thirty-five figures from the art world, including Bridget Riley, George Melly and Maureen Paley, signed a letter to the Evening Standard attacking Sewell for "homophobia", "misogyny", "demagogy", "hypocrisy", "artistic prejudice", "formulaic insults" and "predictable scurrility." This was followed up by a counter-letter in support of Brian Sewell, signed by twenty other art figures. I am sure there were many more, myself included, who would have signed that letter.

A master of the eloquent insult: Brian Sewell was one of a kind. He died yesterday, and I am confident he will be missed by many both inside and outside the art world. Here are some quotes:

On David Hockney:

“Hockney is not another Turner expressing, in high seriousness, his debt to the old master; Hockney is not another Picasso teasing Velázquez and Delacroix with not quite enough wit; here Hockney is a vulgar prankster, trivialising not only a painting that he is incapable of understanding and could never execute, but in involving him in the various parodies, demeaning Picasso too.”

On Damien Hirst:

“Were Hirst’s canvases the work of a late teenager, we might take the random lines around the skulls as a clever allusion to the measuring-points of a sculptor of Canova’s generation, or as an illusion of cracked glass, and forgive the ugly clumsiness of inexperienced execution; but Hirst is nearing his half-century and should have a far higher level of skill than this rough daubing, with which he degrades his master, Bacon.”

On Banksy:

“Any fool who can put paint on canvas or turn a cardboard box into a sculpture is lauded. Banksy should have been put down at birth. It’s no good as art, drawing or painting. His work has no virtue. It’s merely the sheer scale of his impudence that has given him so much publicity.”

On Banksy and Bristol:

“The public doesn’t know good from bad. For this city to be guided by the opinion of people who don’t know anything about art is lunacy. It doesn’t matter if they [the public] like it.”

On Tracey Emin

“The sane man must ask whether he should give any of this pretentious stuff the time of day in aesthetic terms when it seems that this self-regarding exhibitionist is ignorant, inarticulate, talentless, loutish and now very rich.”

Brian Sewell took pleasure in his writing, using baroque language and sentences of spellbinding length, rich in scatological terminology, to attack those contemporary practitioners of art whom he saw as derivative. He complained that most contemporary art – with the notable exception of the Chapman Brothers – was of “scatterbrained triviality” and even at its best “merely a puzzle to be solved, of no aesthetic value.” What was needed, he thundered, was a united opposition to all this rubbish.

It would appear that the only eloquent opposition has now passed away. Brian Sewell R.I.P.