The Purvis Society was delighted to welcome back Professor Anthony Slinn last Friday to deliver another of his thought-provoking and challenging lectures. This year he chose ‘20th Century Masterpieces’, whilst admitting in his opening statement that the talk has been tough to prepare and that, despite what his audience might believe, was not based on personal preferences (at least not entirely!) Ascertaining that his youthful audience had at least been born in the 20th Century, he explained that the only way he could tackle such a vast topic was to take an image from each decade, and so he began with Claude Monet and ‘Impressionism’, which, he informed us, was utterly detested by early art critics. Leaping on to Picasso (“How much did the car company pay the estate to use his name?”) and the development of Cubism via a series of sketches showing how Picasso worked up to the famous image of ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,’ it was not long before we were challenged by Marcel Duchamp’s extension of Cubism and, within that, his interest in movement. Duchamp was interested in everything and his ‘Bicycle Wheel” was now demonstrated, along, of course, with his famous men’s urinal.
Moving on, we were introduced to Monet (the richest man in France at the time) who created vast galleries to house the biggest, single theme canvasses in the world. Sir Stanley Spencer surfaced next (here Professor Slinn let slip that this giant of the art world had taught him whilst at the Slade), and his war work and the Sandham Chapel (four years in its execution) were clearly explained. Henry Moore (another war artist) then Graham Sutherland were introduced, although, in the opinion of the Professor, there was no masterpiece because of the war. “The critics hated the 1950s,” Slinn declared, but then came Basil Spencer and and the extraordinary Coventry Cathedral. Not only does this house the biggest tapestry in the world, but “anyone who was anyone in the art world had a hand in this building”, ranging from the tapestry ‘Christ in Glory’ through Jacob Epstein (figures by the main doors) to John Piper and his designs for the glass.
The 1960s, Professor Slinn assured us, “exploded with youth culture” and here he became delightfully controversial over his choices. Optical Art – Bridet Riley (“Well, she didn’t even paint it so it’s not a masterpiece”); Andy Warhol (“the factory churning out silk screens that he never even touched; need I say more?”); Sir Peter Blake and the birth of ‘pop art’, the example being the cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (later lampooned by Cranleigh School as a cover for a ‘Cranleighan’ magazine) and the collection of 78 heads all chosen by John, Paul, George and Ringo; no, not masterpieces. Roy Lichtenstein, now, that’s another matter. ‘Wham’ is the most popular print from this genre (Cubitt has a copy) and Lichtenstein did at least paint them himself, so these works are admissible.
The 1970s brought us 120 bricks: “dull” (even if they did sell for £500,000). Francis Bacon (“the Americans don’t acknowledge any other British artist”); Lucien Freud (“strange fellow, taught me…”). In Slinn’s opinion, Freud’s portrait of the Queen was dreadful and not as good as that created by Rolf Harris (“but perhaps the less said about him, the better”). A portrait of a large lady (‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’) eventually netted Freud £12.7M; the model was paid a mere £200, but went on a diet when the painting went on display.
The 1980s bring us to the use of real body parts in glass jars (“you can’t do that”); Gunter von Hagens and his ‘Body Worlds’ exhibitions and
Gina Pane (“razor cuts on her own body, photographed – “horrible”). Damien (“well he had to be there, didn’t he?”) Hirst and his sea shells arranged by someone else on shelves built by a technician and purchased mail order – no masterpiece. The diamond skull, cost a mint, was not created by Hirst and eventually sold to… Hirst.
Diverting us towards a survey asking 500 people whose opinion ‘matters’ which was the most influential art work of the century, we were appalled to find it was the urinal!
At this stage Professor Slinn treated us to some discussion of his own work, whilst extolling the virtue of “work out the idea: then, do I make it or don’t I?” His giant chair (inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s empty chair but enlarged to be 16 feet square and painted over two months from enlarged photographs) was amazing and certainly challenging. A series of small paintings (‘Figures in a Landscape’) rendered unsaleable due to the closure of a gallery led to the construction of a house made of 164 framed pictures. The photo of this work was shown in the Professor’s garden and despite strenuous effort to sell it to Tate Modern (amongst others), one day it was gone… Masterpieces?
I am not at all sure that I have caught the passion behind the Professor’s presentation, but if I have given at least a glimpse of this extraordinary hour and you go away to ‘Google’ Anthony Slinn then I shall be happy. Certainly there was plenty to discuss over dinner afterwards and I am sure our younger artists took a lot from this event.
Dr Christopher Mann