Last Saturday was a beautifully bright autumnal morning. I strolled from my home in Clerkenwell to Sir John Soane’s Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields to see what turned out to be a delightful little exhibition of engravings, etchings, screen prints and lithographs called Face to Face. It is a collection on the development of portraiture by British printmakers from the mid-20th century to the present.
If you have never been to Sir John Soane’s Museum, it is a wonderful, labyrinthine collection of artefacts curated by Soane during the 19th century. It is packed floor to ceiling with classical casts, models, books, paintings and room settings with furniture for every mood.
Above some of the treasures collected by Sir John Soane
Tracey Emin at the White Cube Galley in front of one of her extreem blow ups
Having absorbed the portraits in the exhibition, I thought about a review that I had read the day before in The Guardian. It was about Tracey Emin’s new show at the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey, where she has an array of work from sculpture and neon to embroidery and drawing. In the glowing, five-star review, art critic Jonathan Jones linked Emin’s understanding of drawing with that of Michelangelo. I had to read that line twice. Why?
Well, this is a drawing by Michelangelo…
And this is a drawing by Emin…
Either Jones should have gone to Specsavers or he needs to be certified – or perhaps both. Emin’s drawing ability is frankly laughable. However, Jones went on and on to say that Emin’s drawing skills are “a master class in how to use traditional artistic skills in the 21st century”. He added that her nudes “have a real sense of observation”.
And three more descriptions I couldn’t resist sharing: “Framed blue meditations on the human body”, “Flowing and pooling lines of gouache define form with real authority” and “The rough, unfinished suggestiveness of her style evokes pain, suffering, and solitude”. I agree with the pain and suffering.
I have loved the skill of artists who draw beautifully ever since I was a small boy. In my professional life, I have had the pleasure of commissioning very many great people. So, it was baffling for me when Emin was appointed ‘Professor’ of Drawing at the Royal Academy a few years back. Emin has said she’d never learnt to draw. But the RA still went ahead with the appointment. In a recent Guardian web chat, she said: “They sacked me.” I wonder why?
Imagine the Royal Academy of Music employing a violin teacher who could barely play the instrument. Or a film school appointing an editor who couldn’t edit or a cinematographer who had never used a camera – you get my drift. It just wouldn’t happen. But, in the world of ‘fine’ art, it’s okay; you can appoint a Professor of Drawing who frankly can’t. But at the time of Emin’s appointment, the RA produced a postcard of one of her drawings to sell in its shop…
Going along to the White Cube Gallery did not change my view. If you have a pristine, white gallery space with perfect frames hung and aligned beautifully and the works printed with great craft onto exquisitely textured watercolour paper, virtually anything will look good. In fact, the metal and skeletal plinths that hold Emin’s dreadfully lumpy bronzes are far more interesting than the works they support. It is often the artist fabricators who are the unsung heroes, whose behind-the-scenes work transforms the ideas of artists into reality.
White Cube. The perfect gallery space.
One of Emin's sculptural works.
The tables were very nice.
The Soane exhibition is an example of a collection of artists who have the ability to draw. Emin gets by with extreme blow-ups of her crude drawings. We all know that enlargements, with their accidental textures and imperfections, help make works look far more interesting than they actually are. Emin has now reached such heightened celebrity that she could even wipe her bottom on a piece of the best Fabriano handmade paper and have it framed and hung in the White Cube and it would be lauded by Jones as “The height of truthful autobiographical artistic expression” or some similar claptrap.
Anyway, here are some of my favourite artists/illustrators in no particular order. They all have one thing in common: they can draw…
Glynn Boyd Harte
I could have gone on and on. My point is all the above are widely different in style and technique, but they all have something the Tracey Emin lacks in drawing, supreme ability.
In the 21st century, an artist’s celebrity is as, if not more, important as the work they produce.