Pulp Art

Pulp Art?

Jack Vettriano,

The Councillor

and the Art Gallery

You will have seen Jack Vettriano’s work – it is frequently represented on greetings cards, posters and mugs.  The self taught artist attracts a great deal of attention and a great deal of criticism from the art world so when an Aberdeen City Councillor took it upon herself to determine Aberdeen Art Gallery’s acquisition  policy by insisting it acquire a work by the Scottish artist she caused a sharp intake of breath in some circles in the city.

It has to be said that in the main Vettriano’s critics come from people with a background in fine art – the sort who know their Ingres from their El Greco.

As for Vettriano himself he points to Caravaggio and Monet as his main inspiration.

Italian painter, Caravaggio, who has a look of Kirsty Allsop about him in Ottavioi Leoni’s portrait, was a giant of late Italian renaissance art.  His pictures are heavily theatrical partly due to his liberal deployment of chiaroscuro: the use of strong light and deep shadows.             carravagio

Despite leading a disreputable life Caravaggio’s paintings were intended to inspire religious devotion in the viewer, as emotional vehicles in which familiar biblical themes and symbolism were strikingly depicted through dramatic diagonals which energised  scenes, suggested movement  and directed the eye around the action punctuated by bold  luminosity set tight against gloomy blackness.  As a figurative painter, Caravaggio’s mastery of investing his subjects with character is instantly apparent – real people, flesh and blood, warts and all with complex emotions written into their faces and actions.



By contrast, Vettriano’s other influence, the French Impressionist Monet, is associated with what is known as the en plein-air movement meaning the artist painted swiftly outdoors, capturing the transience of natural light on the landscape.   Monet’s art appears tame by today’s standards, chocolate boxy and easily acceptable to most tastes.  However there were ructions in the art world when Monet’s lyrical picture, Impression, Sunrise was exhibited in Paris and earned the movement its name.

Many of Monet’s works have the brilliant light of Caravaggio’s but not his depth of shadow. There is none of the melodrama of Caravaggio although he employs staged settings nonetheless.   By the time Monet was painting, photography was increasing in popularity and some of its influences can be seen in his compositions however they are scenes from D’Oyle Carte rather than Wagner.

Jack Vettriano’s paintings share the studied compositions of both Caravaggio and Monet.  He shares Caravaggio’s love of theatricality but it is a stilted version and lacks the innovation of the Italian.  Vettriano’s The Singing Butler work, butlersurely his most famous, may be set on a beach but this is no real beach but the artist’s studio, they may be populated by figures but they are comic-book characters lacking depth or insight.  We can imagine what they are thinking only from the accoutrements that accompany them.

Vettriano has applied extremes of light and dark, the  murky and portentous sky is a backdrop for his translucent foreground with its sun high overhead reminiscent of Monet yet this is no neo-neo-Impressionist

or neo-Baroque work – more Greco Roman with its frieze-like foreground of activity.

There is no doubting Vettriano’s popularity but in the snooty world of fine art popularity can be a hindrance to reputation.   So was the Councillor right to push for having this Fife artist’s work in her local gallery?  Why Vettriano?  Because he is Scottish?  There are hundreds of highly talented Scottish artists who would love exposure in Aberdeen’s gem of a gallery.  Because he is particularly talented?  Well he has a talent, no doubt about that, and is very popular – is that the criterion for including his work in the Aberdeen gallery?

So what are the factors which determine a local gallery’s collection policy?  How much influence should a Councillor have in the day-to-day running of any museum or gallery?   Is this a role for a Council committee?  Is there any need for expertise or just what appeals to whoever is there at any time?   Should such decisions be trusted to the fine art professional in the gallery?  These are real questions.  Who should the casting vote lie with?  The gallery is, after all, a public body, paid for by the public and so should be sensitive to public taste but does the logic of this lead us to suppose that its collections should be determined by the citizens of a town or city? Where then does the value of professional status of the gallery curator start and finish?

The person so keen to influence what hangs on the walls of Aberdeen Art Gallery is Councillor Jennifer Stewart who has a BA Hon Social Science (Public Policy) Politics and Economics . But while Ms Stewart has no formal qualifications she is recorded as a ‘passionate supporter of the arts; her personal vision would be to increase arts, culture and museum participation in the hard to reach group and remove the myth about snobbery within the arts culture in order to show that galleries and museums are there for everyone to enjoy.’

Councillor Jennifer Stewart  is the Lib Dem  Member for Hazlehead .  On the Register of Members’  Interests her commitment to the arts is clear:

  • Treasurer of Aberdeen Liberal Democrats (Central)
  • Director of Aberdeen Exhibition & Conference Centre – membership ceased-effective October 2010
  • Director of Aberdeen Performing Arts
  • Trustee of Aberdeen International Youth Festival
  • Member of the Board of Museums & Galleries Scotland
  • Aberdeen City Heritage Trust
  • Occasional voluntary work for Cancer Research (commenced March 2010)

In  May this year C. Stewart introduced a motion to:

“Instruct Council officers to explore all potential sources of external funding, including the McDonald Trust, which would allow Aberdeen City Council to acquire an original Jack Vettriano painting to be hung in Aberdeen Art Gallery.”

And so it was referred to Education, Culture and Sport Committee.

On 18th November a meeting of Aberdeen Council  Education, Culture and Sport Committee discussed a report from the Art Gallery which included –

‘Jack Vettriano was born in Methil, Fife in 1951. He left school at sixteen tobecome a mining engineer, however after he received a set of watercolour paints for his twenty-first birthday he taught himself to paint. His earliest paintings, under the name “Jack Hoggan”, were copies or pastiches of impressionist paintings – his first painting was a copy of Monet’s Poppy Fields. Much of his early influence came from studying paintings at the Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery…’

As is generally known, Vettriano’s work sells for relatively big money.

‘ …The Singing Butler was sold at Sotheby’s for close to £750,000. More recently prices have levelled. The highest seller at a Sotheby’s auction sale of Scottish Art in April 2010 was a 15 inch by 12 inch painting entitled Game On, which fetched £49,250.

…Currently he is not represented in any of Scotland’s national collections. Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery owns two paintings and is the only local authority funded public collection to include his work. One painting was donated in 1997 and the other, a self portrait, was a gift of the artist in 2002. Vettriano’s known collectors range from lyricist Sir Tim Rice and businessman Sir Tom Farmer to the former motor-racing champion Sir Jackie Stewart, who commissioned a triptych of himself and his wife. 

…Purchase prices for Jack Vettriano’s work have fluctuated over the years,ranging from the record price reached at auction for The Singing Butler (£744,500 in 2004) to an auction sale at Sotheby’s in 2010 where seven out of ten paintings failed to find a buyer. The highest seller was Game On which sold for £49,250. A selection of images and their purchase prices is attached for information.

The Museums and Galleries purchase budget is £26,376 to cover works of art and artefacts from all disciplines, dating from earliest times to contemporary work. The budget for the year 2010-11 is already committed. If the acquisition  of a Jack Vettriano painting was considered in future years external match-funding would be required. Many grant-giving organisations require a percentage of local funding to match the grant given. Museums Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland or the National Library of Scotland. Advisers will base their recommendations on evidence given in the application under the following headings:

significance of the proposed acquisition

relevance of the acquisition to the applicant’s collecting policy

whether the price quoted for the acquisition is a fair one

evidence of public benefit demonstrated by proposals for display,

learning/public programmes, study or research, or loan to other


objects of great local interest judged to be of good museum quality objects which will aesthetically enrich collections and support the expansion and development of new areas of collecting…’

I find it interesting that the report mainly sets out the cost of acquiring a Vettriano rather than a critique of him as an artist but then if this Councillor gets her way she blows the entire annual budget of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums for how many years?  Is Vettriano worth it?  Is this kind of intervention in the running of art galleries likely to reduce collections to the lowest common denominator?  Will galleries run the risk of being flooded with exotic green ladies


or the ubiquitous cute tennis player scratching her arse (as a fellow tweeter suggested) or any of the anodyne prints designed to co-ordinate with your sittingroom décor on sale in furniture stores for far more than a good original piece of art?  It cannot be denied that this type of print is very popular with the public so why shouldn’t they be hung in public art galleries?

For images of Jack Vettriano paintings try:

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One Comment to “Pulp Art”

  1. I think art galleries should decide what is shown and not councillors. Certainly not that libdem one. Sounds like she has no taste but doesn’t mind spending the public’s money.

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