To enter a room full of the paintings of Jack Vettriano is to enter a world of intrigue – a world peopled with glamorously dressed, available women and de-mob suited, attentive men. A world often discerned through a haze of cigarette smoke, through the lamp-lightened darkness of a bar or through the sun-drenched breeziness of an umbrella on a beach promenade. Each painting invites the viewer into a world of which drama forms the very heart.
There can be no doubting the nature of the themes depicted – sex and gambling – but there is much to challenge our reading of them. With only two or three characters playing the central role in each drama it might seem at first that the relationships are obvious, the outcome certain. Such an interpretation, however, would miss much of the message of these works.
Vettriano is not afraid to confront the viewer with seedy situations and often suspicious looking characters. He wants the viewer to question just exactly what is happening, to read the telling use of detail – empty glasses (how many?), lip gloss, nail varnish, earrings, buckles, hat bands, umbrellas – and the suggestiveness of pose and body language – a way of holding a cigarette, a provocative hand on the hips. These may be assignations or meetings by chance, for one night or forever, for sex or for love, but deep down he is saying to the viewer, look, this happens in life – go and sit in any bar, any restaurant, stroll along any beach or promenade and do not ignore what you are seeing. Vettriano challenges the viewer to recognise that change happens in life, that fate has a role to play and that there are aggressive and potentially harmful elements in human nature. In works such as The Administration of Justice he is not frightened of quite deliberately, quite knowingly creating an uneasy, an unsure feeling in the view. Vettriano determinedly proclaims that, in his opinion, the world is not a simple place.
The essence of Vettriano’s power to attract and hold the attention of the viewer is his ability to create atmosphere. His paintings are marvellously evocative – not least because of the nostalgia he evinces by costuming his figures in fashions redolent of the 40s and 50s. His fascination with this period stems from childhood experiences, remembering knowing that his parents were ‘going out’ because his mother had on seamed stockings and his father a hat. It is a period that he wishes would return but one which he now recreates with the help of black and white American movies and women’s fashion magazines. His compositions are inspired by his own observations of intimate human relationships being conducted in public places but despite the realism of his treatment of this subject matter the actual scenes are entirely imaginary and completely posed.
Out of his own childhood and adolescence came his interest in fairs and fairgrounds, for the beach and promenade. When exploring these places he had loved the fact that there was always something happening – and admits that as an adolescent he was convinced that it was all sexually motivated – a subject that totally preoccupied him. Certainly these paintings have a strong sense of place – or rather type of place – bars, bedrooms, the beach or the racecourse. With marvellous economy of means Vettriano suggests a time, a place, and a mood – for example the familiar County Council green of the painted woodwork on a seaside promenade. It could be any beach, any bar, any racecourse. Another aspect of Vettriano’s sense of place is that, as a viewer, we are only ever allowed to see a small part of any setting, there are no panoramic views. The sense of intrigue is thereby heightened, concentrating the viewer’s attention and intensifying their expectations.
The psychological power of Vettriano’s paintings owes much to his ability to enclose his figures in strong compositions – a framework of verticals and horizontals where architectural features provide a structure within which the drama can unfold, while yet being contained by it. The real power and intensity, however, emanates from the invisible web of unspoken words, gesture and innuendo that holds his figures together. His obvious delight in using chiaroscuro, playing deep shadows against bright light, similarly adds to the sense of intrigue.
Despite the tenuous nature of the relationships depicted Vettriano’s men and women seem ever confident. The women might ostensibly be being hunted – but in Vettriano’s paintings they seem to want it that way. They stand challengingly, waiting, often seeming calculating and devious, not pensive, vulnerable or uncertain. These women are shown in smart suits or glamorous dresses – dressed to kill.
It would be wrong, however, to read all the works in this way. Since Vettriano’s last major exhibition his work has undergone a change. It is now much richer in paint handling and more subtle in its reading of human relationships. There is an evident sureness, with form and depth suggested with little means. Vettriano has a marvellous facility for understanding and depicting the draped human form, suggesting texture and colour through a careful gradation of tones. The brushstrokes themselves have become more vibrant, brave and free.
There is something now more joyous, more healthy even in the relationships depicted, not something so obviously seedy, so one-night standish, but something of more depth. His women are more glamorous, still sometimes aggressively sexual, but no longer necessarily so. The glamour no longer seems superficial for thee is a definite character beneath it – a personality, a love, a warmth.
For anyone familiar with the Vettriano of old a work like The Innocents will come as something of a surprise – not least that the artist should be interested in such a subject, far less be able to depict it. A young couple sit together outside a seaside café which has closed. Their faces look up, unshaded by hats or umbrellas – their faces easily read. A calm and casual happiness seems to pervade the picture – an atmosphere created by the prevalent tones of pinks and greens, and the soft lines of the figures. But a closer inspection reveals a potential threat – a figure looking out from behind the closed window. Vettriano, as ever, is confronting life as he sees it and by working on small canvases or a domestic scale, allows us, the viewer, to be party to his thoughts on the nature of human relationships, challenging though they may be.
© Vivien Hamilton