Monday, October 3, 2011

Painting and repainting

I have always had mixed feelings about the art of visual artists Iakovos "Jake" Chapman (born 1966) and Konstantinos "Dinos" Chapman (born 1962), often known as the Chapman Brothers.
I also have a low consideration of those artists who purposely try to be vulgar and offensive in order to gain recognition. Though some works of art may be considered sublime because of the feelings of awe or anguish these are capable of transpiring, few are those artists who are able to strike the right balance and simultaneously retain the dignity and moral stance required along the feeling of repulsiveness which their work tries to convey. Being excessively different from the norm is not equivalent to being outstandingly original or creative. A case in point is the work by Jake and Dinos Chapman. For those familiar with their works, their subject matter tends to concentrate on whatever is generally deemed to be appalling and offensive.The brothers have also gained international recognition for their taste in altering works of other artists.
In May 2008 the White Cube gallery exhibited 13 apparently authenticated watercolours painted by Adolf Hitler, to which the brothers had added hippie motifs. Jake Chapman described most of the dictator's works as 'awful landscapes' which they had 'prettified'.
In 2010, the artists took an Old Master crucifixion scene and embellished it, apparently with the intention of asking the viewer to consider which works might be by Jake, by Dinos or the Flemish master. Their “Brueghel” also appears to have been, like most of the Chapmans’ works, a collaboration. By coincidence, a version of The Crucifixion accepted as by Pieter Brueghel the Younger sold at an auction in Zurich a few months earlier. This was catalogued as a joint work by Brueghel and Joos de Momper, the Flemish landscape artist who painted the backdrop.
And then there is the price. The Zurich auction picture sold for £673,000. The Chapmans’ “Brueghel” was priced, allowing for a 10 per cent reduction to a good client, at the same level as an authentic Brueghel of the same subject. Thus, a minor Old Master painting accrued in value just because it has been doctored by the Chapmans. The White Cube would like us to believe that the Chapmans are on the same pedestal as Brueghel.
Now let’s consider the moral issue behind this story. It often occurs that art practitioners revisit their past works and decide to intervene with some alterations (pentimenti). In some extreme cases, such alterations may be devastating, to such an extent that a whole body of work could disappear. The denial or erasure of one's past efforts could be explained as a portrayal of failure in creating something significant back in time. There could be other motives behind such drastic actions. It often occurs that unsuccessful art practitioners or beginners come to a point when they desperately need to repaint unsold works in order to make a living. For instance, Francis Bacon once confessed that due to financial problems he repainted most of the works that characterised the initial phase of his artistic career. In fact we do not have a significant documentation related to the period of his formation.
Intervening on one’s own work is one thing but messing with the works of others is logically and morally unacceptable, as long as there is consent from the original creators. Duchamp notoriously drew a pair of moustache on the image of the Mona Lisa . At least, and thanks God, the image was a reproduction.
But painting over an original work of an old Master, no matter whether it is a Brueghel or a minor artist, is deplorable. In my opinion, such an offensive action is a shameful attack on Art and the values of dignity and respect required for appreciating it.