14 DECEMBER 1991, Page 48



Modern artist

After a brief excursion to the other end of the paper, I return to more familiar haunts with this corollary to last week's article. One thing I hope to achieve by this two-pronged assault is for proper and over- due attention to be paid to the meanings we attach to the word 'modern'. I have demonstrated already that simply by manipulating meaning for its own ends, the modernist lobby in art has managed to impose an effective tyranny of taste of extraordinary proportions, affecting much of the Western world.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves here of simple definitions of 'modern' given by a standard dictionary — the Con- cise Oxford version, in this case. The word

`modern' has two basic meanings: either `01 the present and recent times' or 'new fash- ioned, not antiquated'. I contend that the first is the only meaning we can give to `modern' legitimately when in such contexts as national collections of modern art. To do otherwise is to show unjustified bias to novelty. Indeed, the purely temporal way is how I define modern in such a context myself and is precisely how I would do so if I were administering a national or regional museum of modern art. But this fact alone would exclude me automatically from any possibility of doing so, for all who adminis- ter such institutions interpret 'modern' as referring largely to attitude and style. Thus in deciding between comparable artefacts Refit, Devonport 1990, 8 ft x 8 ft, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum

they opt for the more ostensibly 'modern'. By effectively making novelty — or mod- ernism — an index of quality, modernists Infuse strong bias into the forming of national collections of modern art. The sig- nals which dealers and artists derive from such actions are clear and unambiguous. But what if an artist decides, after due consideration of the history of art and the nature of his personal beliefs, that he wish- es to continue rather than secede from ear- lier European traditions of artistic practice? There is nothing to stop him physically from such a course but he should be prepared to suffer much obstruction and withholding of professional opportunity as a consequence of his stand. Indeed anyone who imagines modernism to be liberal or liberalising in its effects has clearly never experienced the application of modernist dogma to the running of the art world, wherein the least hint of apostasy against the prevailing orthodoxy brings rapid retri- bution. As members of a cult which is. basi- cally mystical in nature, modernists are not susceptible to reason. Indeed, so certain are they of moral superiority that they pun- ish dissent severely.

John Wonnacott was born in London in 1940 and studied at the Slade School from 1958 to 1963, where he won the Steer Medal. His generation was one of the last to receive a thoroughly traditional training. On finishing his studies he was invited by Claud Rogers to teach life drawing in the art department of Reading University. Stu- dents wishing to study in this traditional manner were subjected, at that intensely self-conscious time, not only to the scorn of their more `modern' peers but also to that of other members of staff, who referred to life studies as 'death studies'. When Rogers retired from his post as professor of paint- ing in 1970, Wonnacott was obliged to go, too, and traditional life drawing did not long outlive his departure. If possible, attempts to teach traditional skills were frowned on even more fiercely in the years that followed. Conceptualism was the mod- ish rage of that particular era and Wonna- eOtt, along with two other excellent traditional teachers, fell foul next of the Progressivist zeal of the management of EPs0m School of Art. All three were dis- missed from their part-time teaching posts basically for failing to keep up with the imperatives of modernistic advance. Curl- °uslY, I escaped a similar fate from the same hands at the same art school just a few years later by following the advice of an old hand: 'Avoid talking to senior man- agement at all costs,' was his excellent counsel, 'because if they aren't sure who You are they can hardly get rid of you.' This

four worked successfully for the next

tour years.

Part-time lecturing provided an invalu- able, life-line for artists, but Wonnacott was ultimately no more successful with his next employers, Norwich Art School, although he helped run a successful life room there

which was hailed throughout the country. `Progress' had to have its way once again, the needs of enthusiastic students notwith- standing. Understandably, after the termi- nation of this last appointment, one of the more able traditional teachers in the coun- try has had enough.

Who, then, could have been counted on to uphold the causes of more traditional artists during those decades of fashionable frenzy? The Royal Academy might have seemed a suitable candidate to many, but the Royal Academy was behaving in rela- tion to modernism rather like a grand- mother in the grip of a gigolo. Utter infatuation and an urge to don youthful fashions and pour tokens of affection on the beloved make the comparison an apt one. The Royal Academy has become so supine subsequently in the face of the `Self-portrait with blue easel, 1991, 7ft x 4ft assumed moral superiority of modernism that a doormat might appear positively upright by comparison. Far from providing the least encouragement to artists such as Wonnacott, who belongs squarely to the best traditions of British perceptual paint- ing, the Royal Academy has consistently cold-shouldered talent while throwing its portals wide to the latest trend-setters.

Such direct encouragement as the artist has received has come principally from commissions from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Imperial War Museum, who have thus acquired works of genuine importance at moderate outlay. In the former case, Wonnacott's portrait of Sir Adam Thomson posed in an aircraft hangar excites a degree of interest seldom matched by other paintings in the collec- tion. The intelligence, inventiveness and sheer hard work which have gone into the Imperial War Museum's new painting, 'Refit, Devonport 1990', are no less remarkable: few living artists could fulfil such a project so successfully. In his knowl- edge and ability to present complex ideas lucidly, Wonnacott is a rare figure in the art world of today. Far from being prosaic, the artist is pictorially inventive and highly original; a series of new works confirms this view as never before. As one who brings an individual vision to his time, albeit through established language, Wonnacott is as unavoidably modern — in my use of the term — as any of his contemporaries.

How does his reputation stand with the modernists? Norman Rosenthal, the influ- ential and vocal exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy, has described Wonna- cott's works in public (at a forum held at the ICA) as some of the worst he has seen. But a rather more credible view of his tal- ents is expressed, tacitly at least, by the invariable presence of Lucian Freud at the, artist's recent exhibitions. I have often seen Britain's pre-eminent artist studying Won- nacott's paintings with fierce concentration. Here is yet further ammunition for the overdue setting up of national museums of an altogether different kind to house living art. What would their openly stated criteria be? Simply, period and excellence.