The Reign of Mediocrity

Jack Vettriano. You’ve seen prints of his paintings everywhere, and they outsell reproductions of artworks by Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso. I first saw reproductions of Vettriano’s paintings when I visited a popular store here in Los Angeles that sells home decor items, and my immediate response was a disapproving one. The artworks are saccharine and “romantic” renditions of handsome couples frolicking on the beach, or otherwise engaged in flirtatious behavior in dreamy wistful settings. Vettriano’s “fine art” images have appeared on umbrellas, posters, cards and t-shirts, bringing in huge annual royalties. Jack Nicholson, Madonna and a gaggle of other celebrities own original paintings by him, and last year Sotheby’s in Scotland sold 40 of his paintings for £2.5m ($4,435,693.) Yet museums and major galleries will have nothing to do with him and critics shun him - for good reason.

It’s been revealed in a story published by the U.K. Daily Record, that the millionaire artist took inspiration for his cloying paintings from an inexpensive off-the-shelf art reference book, The Illustrator’s Figure Reference Manual. The now out of print 1987 reference manual provided hundreds of black and white images of models photographed in a variety of poses. Vettriano clearly copied photos from the guidebook to create the characters for his famous paintings. Individual models from various sections of the instruction book were also recombined and brought together in a number of Vettriano’s canvases. The central figures in his most famous painting, Singing Butler (which sold for £750,000 - $1,334,860 at Sotheby’s in 2004) were plainly lifted from the “waltz section” of the manual.

banal, mechanical and hackneyed
[ A page from the reference manual, and Vettriano's "Singing Butler." ]

Long before knowing about Vettriano’s pathetic use of models from a common reference manual, I was disparaging of his work - but for reasons that had little to do with technical matters. What still irks me more than anything else about Vettriano’s paintings is the social stratification depicted in his carefully constructed tableaus. They are hailed by admirers as the ultimate fantasy paintings where glamorous couples in love dance with each other without a care in the world, all against the backdrop of some posh or enchanting setting. However, the viewer is always expected to relate to the well-dressed affluent couples in the paintings, and never the ever present servants who wait on them hand and foot.

Call it “Socialist Realism” in reverse - or “Capitalist Realism” if you want. The attendants in Vettriano’s works are mere set dressing, superfluous to the painting’s narrative except to indicate the wealth of the central figures. My father worked hard as a maître d’ in L.A.’s exclusive restaurants, toiling at double shifts and coming home exhausted each and every day. So when I look at the subservient and docile servants in Vettriano’s paintings - it’s not an escapist fantasy that I see.

Defenders of Vettriano note that artists have always worked from a variety of reference materials, including photographs taken by others. What makes this situation different is that a single source of soulless commercially available photos were consistently plagiarized to produce what has now become a rather expensive and world renown set of artworks - banal, mechanical and hackneyed as they might be. Practical observation coupled with real life experience forms the necessary basis for realism in art, and nothing else will do. Those who champion realism in painting must dismiss Vettriano’s works if the reign of mediocrity in art is ever to be overthrown.

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