I’ll be the first to admit that I am a massive geek for all things art historical. So I jumped at the chance to write about Exhibitionist, which despite the racy-sounding title, is a really great collection of essays by one of the best art critics around. Importantly to any art nerd, there are loads of full-colour, full-page reproductions and illustrations throughout.
Richard Dorment was the art critic for the Daily Telegraph from 1985 until his retirement last year. Over these 30 years, he was to become one of Britain’s most influential art critics, assessing and documenting the contemporary art and exhibition scenes in a time of remarkable change. The book opens with a fascinating introduction where Dorment recounts his impressive career. His first brush with art history came as a classics student at Princeton University, when he sat in on a lecture about Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. Overcome with enthusiasm, he swapped majors straight away. This passion for his subject shines through all the reviews in this collection and is what makes them such engaging reads. Dorment then worked as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for ten years before moving to London and taking up his position at the Telegraph. Writing almost every week, it was his job to introduce, explain and criticise the most significant current art exhibitions for a popular newspaper audience.
For this collection of essays Dorment has selected 106 reviews from over 1,000 he published during this time. While it obviously has a focus on contemporary art, there is a wonderful breadth of subjects covered, with the essays divided into sections by era. Starting with a review of Ice Age Art at the British Museum, the book takes in nearly all the significant art up to the present day, making for an astonishingly readable and accessible introduction to the work of the world’s finest artists.
Rather than a standard retrospective, the essays form a collection of contemporary informed reaction to the major exhibitions of the time, ranging across London, the rest of the UK, Paris, Amsterdam, New York and Washington. Big names like Miró, Magritte and Lichenstein are included alongside more obscure artists – Belgian video artist Francis Alÿs, nineteenth-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and Danish Romantic Christian Købke. What’s interesting is not just his appraisals of the artworks themselves, but also how museums and galleries have displayed them throughout the years.
During his career, Dorment became one of the driving forces of increased acceptance of modern art by the British public. While the Young British Artists (YBAs) – including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin – were ripped to shreds by the mainstream press, Dorment took their art seriously. Despite seeing himself as quite conservative in his tastes, he was often controversial. In his early days at the Telegraph, his opinions would sometimes provoke the editors to run leaders the next day distancing the paper from his latest review. But it was his fellow critics in the popular press who Dorment saw as the real enemy of contemporary art. Often they too refused to accept the new and reached for lazy clichés before analysis. He once wrote that “had the same critics been writing about film, sport, or the stock market they’d have been rumbled in a week.”
While to many his reviews were seen as just another example of art-world elitism, they are in fact completely accessible and never condescending. The writing throughout this collection is a refreshing antidote to so much art criticism today, where art-babble is regurgitated from press releases without any serious analysis or reflection. Dorment is thankfully light on both purple prose and dense theoretical digressions. He is careful to approach each artwork, whether an Impressionist canvas or brash neon lettering, on its own terms. One of my favourite essays in Exhibitionism is the beautiful review of Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 installation in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, The Weather Project, which demonstrates his gift for assessing art on an emotional level:
“When I first saw The Weather Project, I thought of the sun rising through vapour in one of J M W Turner’s landscapes. But, late on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, when hundreds of people stand mesmerised in the face of the glowing disc, the work becomes truly frightening, a modern interpretation of one of John Martin’s or Francis Danby’s apocalyptic visions of the end of the world. A close encounter of the third kind.”
Dorment was never afraid to say when he disliked an exhibition. High-spirited and hard-hitting, at one point he calls a David Hockney painting “repellently slick and superficial”, while a Renoir is “so slapdash in its execution that the surface looks like a bar of soap that’s melted in the bath” (an early follower of #RenoirSucksAtPainting, maybe). It’s almost a shame that he hasn’t included some of his famously acerbic one-star reviews, such as 2015’s Sculpture Victorious at the Tate Britain, which he called “so cack-handed it’s depressing”. However, as he explains, he always preferred to write about what he did like. And what he did like, luckily for us, encompasses some of the finest and most memorable cultural events of the last three decades. Provocative and open minded, but always essentially explanatory and helpful in its approach, the book is compulsively readable – highly recommended for enthusiasts and art newbies alike.
Exhibitionist is published 19 May by Wilmington Square Books
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Post by Clara