A Date with Fate
Corrymella Scott Gallery
These paintings are no longer for sale
This exhibition was opened by Sir Tim Rice
Jack Vettriano has come home. After three years of successful exhibitions in London and Newcastle, two editions of a book of his paintings garnished with gems of Scottish writing, pictures bought for private collections all over the world, the publication of a suite of lithographs- after three years of unremitting industry and media attention he is again showing his work in the city that launched his career in 1991.
He has no idea why he has been blessed by such success. If you had suggested to him five years ago that, by 1995, he would have sold hundreds of paintings, had his work hung in the Royal Academy and regularly at the Royal Scottish Academy, seen himself on television and scattered across the Sunday colour mags, he would have dismissed you as a romancing fool.
Other people try to analyse the appeal of his pictures …”Nostalgia for times we never knew.” ‘”Safe sex from a safe distance.””4711 and Midnight in Paris.” “B-movie glamour.” “Cheap thrills by proxy.” They remind me of the chemists who have isolated every ingredient of Scotch whisky yet still fail to synthesise its magic. Of course that reservation applies, equally, to more serious Vettriano observers who find moral ambiguity in his paintings, challenges to social attitudes, and a confrontation with hypocrisy and humbug. Vettriano paints on – darkens the path of another nubile wench with the shadow of a predatory male, stage-manages small dramas on promenades and beaches, catches people posing in bars and clip-joints, and although we never see him, we are aware of him watching and wondering in a world of enticement, procurement, proposition and threat.
Untaught and uncluttered by influence he responds to the human comedy, the pain of yearning, the emptiness of loneliness. He leaves us to interpret and invent storylines for ourselves and invest his characters with the peradventure of fate. In his Edinburgh studio, with the forty paintings for this exhibition ranged around the walls, we talked about where he had been, where his work had taken him.
GS: A formidable forty, Jack. Have you a favourite?
JV: Several. Some I like for sentimental reasons, others because I’ve maybe achieved a degree of technical accomplishment I thought I’d never possess.
GS: The sexual charade is still being played out. We have three fine self’-portraits. The model is still very dominant – the same female figure in many guises. I’m very impressed with that wistful, classical portrait of her as a lonely girl standing framed in a Georgian window. It could be by Cadell, but not necessarily modern – even eighteenth-century if you half-shut your eyes. Then there’s this window on yourself, a fugitive portrait with your back to us, working on the painting The Singing Butler which four years ago established you in the eyes of the Edinburgh public. I like your cheek. You’re right to celebrate such a high moment in your life. It’s as if we’re looking through a window of time at the painting which caused all that lovely fuss. But there’s great range and variety here. Nobody who hopes to see what they saw of you in the past will be disappointed. They’re going to see a continuation and an expansion of what was there then, but also movement into another territory, which I find exhilarating. You didn’t think you had the ability to do that, to make almost any subject pictorially interesting. You’ve done it, you don’t have to think about it any more. What’s your own view about that style of painting – the girl at the window, again at the fireplace, yourself at the easel – these more restrained, more finely finished studies? Would you want to develop in that direction or are you still hooked on the bolder, more dramatic narrative form?
JV: I never ask myself questions like that. It’s largely to do with being self-taught. Every time I approach the easel my only wish is to create a good painting. I can think of no finer way to explain it than to quote your own words, “he paints in the way that the situation demands.” And you said that about Whistler as well. If I want to paint a portrait of a girl silhouetted against a pale grey wall then it demands a finesse which the group paintings don’t demand. With a single figure your concentration is devoted solely to that figure, whereas in a painting of three or four people your concentration is divided and you develop each one separately – you don’t start one figure and finish it before going on to the next. You work on all the figures and bring them up together.
GS: A bit like a composer interweaving all the strands of a string quartet . . . How do you react to criticism?
JV: Take the beach paintings . . . A lot of people see them as chocolate-box and sentimental. I’m curious to know why people react against activity – moments of happiness – that they themselves enjoy. They would probably like to walk along a beach hand-in-hand. But if you paint it, it’s sugary and sentimental. They seem to be saying, “go and paint me a skeleton hung high in a cupboard.” I know I’m painting something which might seem sentimental, but I try to bring some tension, some dramatic expectation to the situation, to involve the viewer in a story.
GS: To that extent you’re out of tune with the times, and that might be to your advantage. These paintings remind me of the simple beach scenes shot on a Box Brownie by Bert Hardie just after the war. Classics, now. Girls showing their knickers on the prom. Happy “kiss me quick” pictures of people enjoying the sun on their backs . . .
JV: That’s exactly where I got the idea . . . That new painting called Something in the Air, for instance. The two guys are near the girls, but haven’t yet made contact. The girls are already working it out. They know the men will make the first move, any minute now. They’ve probably begun bargaining – “which one do you like?” Whereas the men will be joshing each other – “Don’t like your one” and “From a hundred yards, I want the one in the red.” The theme of men on beaches is wistful. a reminder of how it was when I was growing up. There was a gang mentality. You never went anywhere without your best mate when you were out looking for ladies. And those lads could be me and my friend staking out our territory on the edges of our boundaries. Mapping how far we could go. But, really, just young boys trying to be big boys. Going through growing up. On the make.
GS: What about the obverse of that? The girls play a flirtatious game on the beaches with flouncy dresses and sparky colours. But indoors their sisters flaunt tarty, sex-shop shockers.They look like walking ads for the “cheer up your man” erotica that women mail-order in plain envelopes. Are they just more blatant, more direct, more sexually demanding? Or have women shifted the goalposts? The men are still advancing in deadly earnest. But dalliance has gone. The women are saying – this is us, here we are, come and get it.
JV: This is me scratching the surface of what we’re really all about as people. The merchants behind those lingerie ads know their business, and it’s very big business. Queues for seamed stockings and suspender belts every Christmas. And it’s all a charade. Ask men if they want their women to wear quarter-cup bras and that sort of stuff and most of them will say “Absolutely not!” So, on the one hand we deny our need for that kind of titillation- true love is enough- but privately we would like it if we could get it. I think we all have this darker side, needs we don’t disclose or even understand. I can’t go on painting this, exposing it the way I do, and then deny that it means anything to me. So I’m saying a lot about myself. Perhaps I’m a bit braver, or perhaps more naive than a lot of men, by admitting it in such an open way, but I believe that both sexes have secret sexual desires and recognise something in themselves when they look at my paintings. And I am well aware that they are not all happy people. I try to show this. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my own life. There’s often a sadness.
GS: Billy Connolly exhausted his own nostalgia, said all he could about bare-arsed Glasgow. He had to move on. I wonder how long you can keep drawing upon your own yearnings and yesterdays.
JV: I’ll do it until I feel that I need to do something else. Perhaps it’s also a state of mind. Connolly found a partner who brought him a certain peace, and moved into a world where perhaps he didn’t need his memories of Glasgow any more. Maybe that will happen to me.
GS: How far do you think you’ve moved on in the sheer facility of putting down paint, of actually creating on the canvas what you have in your head?
JV: You always fool yourself into thinking that what you’re doing is good. When I first showed in Edinburgh it was the best I could do. I know that what I’m doing now is far better, it’s far more accomplished, and the satisfying thing is the realisation that those things which you never got quite right, you’re managing to get right now. My work has improved vastly. And you must keep learning. I went to the big James Gunn show recently and came away knowing that I would have to try to paint flesh tones like his. I worked really hard at it, copying one of his portraits, and I would like to think that I learned some of his skills.
GS: You are first of all a pictorialist. That’s an important thing that’s never been said about you. Every painting has to be a picture.
JV: I work hard at creating a picture, creating atmosphere, establishing a balance.
GS: That’s why you’re old-fashioned. You’re an old-fashioned romantic who’s looked at modern painting, taken what you want from it and discarded the rest. There’s nothing wrong with that, because you’re saying that whatever you paint – narrative drama, romance on the beach, girl in a chair- it’s pictorial and has to be the sum of its parts. It has to “hing thegither,” as they would say in Kirkcaldy. You wouldn’t paint that girl against Sanderson wallpaper – that girl set against grey tones. These tones are as important as any other part of that painting. That’s pictorialism. That’s why James Gunn painted himself in a beige raincoat against a black background. That’s his kind of pictorialism, and there’s not a lot of it about. You’ve placed these chaps in On the Border against the kind of boring Scottish background which fills every Scottish gallery, but the background is very relevant to their lives and pictorially relevant to the painting. Then there’s you in your semmit and braces. I think it’s by the seaside. I can’t see any sea. But as far as I’m concerned you’re in Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh’s in the background. You made me bring something to the picture.
JV: Never for a moment did I think that work I did with my hands would be appreciated or in demand the way it is. Of course it’s just a huge trap, and I’m in that trap. You worry endlessly about what people will think, what they will say, will they like my work? Five years ago I didn’t care. When somebody asked if they could come and speak to me I opened the door and welcomed them. Now I find myself on my guard, worrying irrationally about my place in the world, how the next exhibition will go, is somebody going to pan me? Materially I’ve been rewarded very well, but that tends not to matter. It’s a lovely cushion if your world should fall apart. I like to think I’m very Scottish and entirely unaffected by success, but that’s for other people to judge. It’s been a great experience, but it has its price and you have to pay that price. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
© W. Gordon Smith, 1995.