Penny Post is delighted to present once again an occasional series of articles in which our resident expert is invited to reappraise a well-known painting. The expert is none other than Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist, Curator-at-Large of the Royal Kohnmann Gallery in Stoke Poges.
Few will have forgotten Sir Courtney’s iconoclastic 1999 BBC7 series, Titian and Rubens: What a Pair of Bloody Idiots, nor the media storm caused a few years later when he attempted to prove and publicise a long-held theory that the The Entombment of Christ was painted not by Caravaggio but by Andy Warhol. Many will also remember his recent contributions to Penny Post in which he discussed I’ve Just Learned How to Paint Turbans by Frescobalidi di Ponti, Six Men Disturbed Reading a Limerick by Jack Rembrandt and What the Hell is Going on Here? by Edouard Manet and his publisher’s apprentice.
In this article, Sir Courtney – described by the Daily Mail as “the rudest man on television” – considers Eighteen People at a Meeting by Evevine.
As all of you should know, I’m a famous art historian. What I don’t know about composition and symbolism, frankly, isn’t worth knowing. I also know that there’s been nothing that could even be called half-decent that’s been painted since about 1860. A lot of the stuff before that was a lot of rubbish as well, particularly if it was by those old frauds Titian or Rubens. If you want modern art reviewed then talk to someone else. Shapeless, formless drivel, most of it.
So, imagine my surprise when I was asked by some little man from The Guardian whom I met at a ghastly party in St Ives earlier this year if I could provide some thoughts on a new work, Eighteen People at a Meeting. He paid fifty pounds up front and slipped me a bottle of gin so I thought, why not?
Then he sent me the picture. My God, what a disaster on every level.
Where to start? First off, what are those two grey bits doing on either side? Perhaps it’s a pathetic attempt to portray this as a triptych. We don’t know what led to this event and we don’t know to what it will lead, blah blah. Bit of grey paint either side and that’s it? Pathetic.
Right – let’s look at the so-called composition. There’s no balance, no structure at all. It’s almost as if the artist let the people position themselves wherever they wanted to. The vanishing point seems to be something at the far end of the lawn and looks like a cross between a sundial, a bird feeder and one of the diesels from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories. This is the point to which the eye is drawn. The object could be anything. Ah ha, you might say, the artist is striving for ambiguity. Bollocks, They couldn’t paint, end of. In fact, it looks as if it might have been stencilled on afterwards, like those women in that awful Manet painting were.
And that’s another thing – who is the artist, anyway? The credit is shared between The Guardian and someone called Evevine. (God, how I hate these one-word names, like Titian, Rubens and Banksy.) This suggests to me that the newspaper had commissioned it and claimed half the copyright in exchange for paying for the “artist’s” paper and paint. Well, they were ripped off.
“A meeting” they want it to be. Well, let me tell you, this is not like any meeting I’ve ever seen. What do you have at meetings? Come on, come on…that’s right – papers, folders, documents. Pencils and pens. These days, those lap-tablet things. Well, there aren’t any of those here. I can see wine glasses, though. What we’re looking at is a rather odd party.
You don’t believe me? Fine. I don’t really care what you think. But since I’m being paid, I’ll tell you. Let’s work up from the foreground.
At the first table we have two couples, both pairs oblivious of the other. Already, it doesn’t look like a meeting, or not a very productive one. The two on the right seem as if they might be newly loved-up and are discussing some sordid domestic detail like the name of their next child or where they’re going to jet off to for their holidays. As for the two men opposite them, this looks more like a “spot the drone” competition. The one on the right has just launched something into the air which, probably due to incompetence, the artist didn’t paint. Or perhaps he’s demonstrating the size of a fish he recently landed on the river Test. Who cares?
Meanwhile, the man opposite him is locked in a position of languor which, you might say, is designed expertly to complement the exuberance of his colleague. Bollocks. They’re part of two separate paintings, one probably added in at the last minute to add a bit of so-called “interest”. And I’ll tell you something else for free – whatever these four people are doing, they’re not having a business meeting.
We then have a dreary, pointless and empty gap in the centre of the composition. If there’s a meaning to be found here – though I rather doubt there is – it’s that whatever gathering this is has no heart; no soul; no centre; a message that whoever instigated it is lacking perception or empathy. On the other hand, it could be because the “artist” didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t have the guts to tell the models to move to where he wanted them, if he even knew. Take your pick.
Next there’s a group of four people round a table. Again, no papers or that other stuff. Meeting, my arse. Look at the outstretched arms of the man top left. What we’re looking at here is a game of poker.
Moving to the final group, we have nine people standing in a rough circle around something that might be an executioner’s block. God alone knows what this is meant to symbolise. The five closest to it seem more involved in the discussion while the other four look like hangers on, neophytes waiting their turn to be summoned for some ghastly initiation ceremony. Really, this could be taken from the “mag” of one of our older public schools or universities. What hideous rite is being enacted here? The artist refuses to do anything other than fudge the issue. You might say it’s tantalising and ambiguous. I say it’s rubbish.
All of this ghastliness is, however, partly vindicated by the crouched figure we see to on the lawn to their right. He is the most interesting character – indeed, the only interesting character – in the whole charade. He is, unlike the others, on his own and so is clearly the observer (no, I don’t mean the newspaper), or everyman, called upon to give his verdict on what is being portrayed. The fact that he’s on his knees – surely further proof that this is not a meeting – admits of only two possibilities. The first is that he’s desperately praying that whatever is about to happen here won’t, and wishes he were somewhere else; the other is that, having drunk too much warm and indifferent Chablis, he’s about to vomit all over the grass.
Behind this figure is something that looks like a tombstone. Tombstones often symbolise death – come on, it’s not that hard to work out – and I’d guess that, if there had been any intention in adding this feature, that this was the aim here. Bad things are going to come from this event, as demonstrated by bad stuff in the background. My word, the “artist” is laying it on with a trowel, isn’t he?
Indeed, Nausea, Desperation and Death seems a better title than Eighteen People at a Meeting. That’s what I’d call it. Or call it what you like. Who cares?
Anyway, that’s the thousand words I promised, more or less. If you want anything else you’re going to have to pay me some more. And send me some more gin.
Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist
The Royal Kohnmann Gallery