A love of art comes with a love of exhibitions, in their many forms. However, I have a terrible tendency to leave going to art exhibitions to the very last minute. So, in traditional fashion, a couple of weeks ago, one week before it closed, I visited the exhibition Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective at Kelvingrove Art Gallery on a very, very busy Saturday afternoon.
I went in with an open mind, having never been exposed to much of Vettriano’s work. Nonetheless, the first bay of paintings proved to be very familiar, most depicting scenes of windswept couples or groups on the beach in 1940’s/50’s clothing. Moving quickly on, having been fairly un-enthralled, the next bay seemed to focus more on portraiture, in claustrophobic, dimly lit settings. I would say the paintings were sultry, sometimes verging on the seedy. However, as I came to realise on moving into the next room, the ‘red room’, this was merely meant as preparation for Vettriano’s most controversial and erotic work.
I felt like I was entering some kind of brothel, an experience which provoked some excitement, an excitement which certainly didn’t fade on deeper observation of the paintings which surrounded me. All of the works within this room consisted of either couples involved in sexual play, or nude females prior to or after such action. One of the most controversial paintings, entitled ‘Game On’, pictures a female pressed up against a wall by a man, whose has one hand holding her wrists while the other strokes her inner thigh.
Suddenly, from being fairly un-enthralled, I was exhilarated. What a fantastic and very real display of the heterosexual relationship today. For me the paintings exhibited the reality of male domination in sexual pleasure, and of the female role as supplement. So, I left the ‘red room’ and I continued wandering round the exhibition, still feeling extremely excited but also satisfied with the effect of Vettriano’s work and what I saw in it.
You can imagine then how disappointed I was when I came to watch a video interview, a few rooms later, in which A.L Kennedy insisted that Vettriano was in fact not a sexist, despite what his critics say, because the women in these paintings are sexy and want to feel sexy. How is it possible for Kennedy to see sexual empowerment in these paintings, when all I see is the reality of ingrained societal misogyny?
Now I wouldn’t go as far to say that Vettriano was a misogynist or a sexist. He very evidently doesn’t hate women, or hold any contempt for women kind; on the contrary, he idolises them. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that, more often than not, his erotic paintings depict scenes of male domination in terms of sexuality and sexual pleasure. In my opinion, to label these depictions empowering for both the women in them and the women observing them, is to simply veil a harsh reality.
And it is for this reason exactly that I believe the critics are wrong in dismissing his work. Indeed, Vettriano’s most provocative paintings are an example of the necessity of art in societal discourse. He has painted scenes which have provoked his male counterparts into calling him a sexist, and his female contemporaries into denying the sexist nature of his work. The art itself reveals so much about the reality in which we live, but so does the peoples’ reaction…