When it comes to oil paintings, I am something of a novice. I have no idea what the ‘depth’ of a painting means, and I couldn’t tell you a single difference between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. I suspect that this is precisely the reason why I enjoyed Jack Vettriano’s exhibition ‘A Retrospective’ as much as I did. I didn’t give the technical aspects too much thought, and instead I allowed myself to be thoroughly entertained by the paintings. I feel like art critics should try to do the same.
Even if you know nothing about art, you are probably familiar with a few of Jack Vettriano’s paintings. His most famous works have been reproduced on mugs, notepads, jigsaw puzzles, calendars and greeting cards, available in just about every gift shop in Scotland. In the UK, his prints outsell those of Van Gogh, Dali and Monet. This achievement seems even more impressive when you realize that Vettriano has received no formal training.
Vettriano’s work may be considered permanently embedded in the public conscious now, but in the past he has been the target of his share of scathing criticism. The Daily Telegraph once described him as the Jeffrey Archer of the art world, a purveyor of “badly conceived soft porn”, and more than one critic has succinctly described his work as “brainless”. This seems unfair. To describe something as “brainless” is to imply that not much thought has gone into it. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to this exceptional collection of paintings.
The first thing you notice is that his paintings are extraordinarily vivid. People are drawn to them exactly because of the forceful aesthetic impact. This effect is achieved through Vettriano’s bold use of colour; he is clearly not a painter that favours subtle tones. However, to reduce his success merely to a combination of pretty colours on a canvas would be doing the painter injustice. There is much more to it than that.
Vettriano’s paintings capture a series of intimate moments, some more erotic than others. Paintings like ‘Game On’ or ‘Fetish’ have an overtly sexual theme, which some prudish critics seemed to have a problem with. But this intimacy goes beyond Vettriano’s more sexualised paintings. In ‘Cocktails and Broken Hearts’ and ‘Playing the Party Game’, the intimacy is made more subtle and thus more intriguing.
Sunglasses, back views and profiles are recurring features in Vettriano’s work. This makes his paintings seem enigmatic. The viewer puzzles over the snapshots, constructs their own private narrative and draws their own conclusions. These paintings do not operate like conventional oil paintings do. They are unpretentious, unabashed, and genuinely meaningful.
Whilst there is no shortage of glamour in Vettriano’s work, it is obvious that this allure conceals a number of insecurities. There are glimpses of vulnerability and flashes of frailty, beneath a surface of cool and collected grandeur. It is a subtle reminder that people tend to construct images of themselves by hiding behind illusions. It also reminds us that, despite our differences, all people have the same basic preoccupations, concerns and fears.
His self-portraits are even more impressive. Vettriano abandons the glamour, and paints himself in flashes of extreme despair, channeling an eerie sense of honesty and vulnerability.
Vettriano is a painter who strives to do as many different things as possible. Some paintings, such as ‘The Singing Butler’ are intended to be humorous; others, like ‘In Thoughts of You’, are meant to be touching. Art connoisseur or not, this exhibition is an experience that should not be missed – and it offers so much in exchange for so little.
Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective, Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, runs until 23 February 2014. Tickets cost £3 for students.