In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art hangs a portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton, painted by the Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. The painting was made in 1969, well after the portraits of members of the Viennese intelligentsia painted in the early 20th Century, for which Kokoshka is best known.
John Berger wrote that Kokoshka was painter concerned with energy; first nervous then historical energy. The painting of the Hamilton’s is full of energy. The figures have a solidity about them, but are constantly shifting. They might break down at any moment, only to reform a moment later. It gives the painting tremendous life (energy!) but I have to admit to standing in front of it and wondering what the Hamilton’s made of it. It certainly doesn’t flatter or make space for vanity.
Jonathon Yeo on the other hand does, i think, exactly that. He has a major show on at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle, that was due to close at the beginning of February but has been continued because of public demand. Why are people so keen to see Yeo’s paintings?
I think it is because they reflect the bland, celebrity culture of our times. On one level this is very obvious. Many of Yoe’s portraits are of celebrities; some from the art world, mostly from theatre and film, others from politics and the media. What all of the paintings have in common is an uncritical gloss. They are the painted equivalent of Photoshop. None of the paintings on show delve any deeper than the surface. And its an approved surface, informed by publicity photographs and magazine photo shoots.
Kokoschka’s Hamilton portrait might have been painted well past his prime, those paintings that reveal the psychological maelstrom early 20th Century Vienna. But they are considerably more revealing than Yeo’s paintings of present day celebs. The tragedy is that Yeo is clearly a talented artist, capable of capturing a likeness and confident with his use of oil paint. Sadly he has been captured by a pointless aesthetic that panders to the expectations of those already lauded by a thin, meretricious culture.
Although some of the paintings on display are accompanied by quotes from the sitters, claiming that Yeo has magical properties of insight and depth, the paintings are ultimately, (and sadly), disappointing. This is not a call for ugliness over beauty, nor the cruelty of the sort Lucien Freud was often erroneously accused of. Its a call for an honesty of vision and technique. Clearly it is difficult to be a painter these days. Painting can seem to be at odds with a culture of photographic and digital excess. However, painting continues to offer a way to re-make the world around us on our own terms. It resists the bland autonomy of the digital world, whether expressed through the media or our Iphones. Painting belongs to us in a way that photography never can. It is the act of individuals directly expressing ourselves without the mediation of digital or photographic technology. It offers a resistance to a cold, neo-liberal culture. The sort of culture Jonathon Yeo gives us.