Asked in ever more incredulous tones, the question is warm with sympathy on the lips of friends and cold as Damask steel in the mouths of enemies. “Why Palermo?” One frivolous reply is that, back in Venice, the crab season is now over; the white-sneaker hydra of package tourism is about to hot-millipede it over the bridges; and our cook, having just won $3,000 after translating her dream of a school of fish into lottery numbers, has gone on holiday. Another is that our new apartment in S. Stae, which had been found at the 11th hour just as the proprietor at Palazzo Mocenigo was threatening to call in the law, has a sitting tenant who will not leave before autumn. He is Paolo Costa, and I can’t very well call in the law to throw him out because he is the mayor of Venice.
Still another explanation is that once every two years, in high summer, my beloved Venice loses face and becomes a kind of cultural sewer. This is the season of the Biennale, the witches’ sabbat that brings all the world’s scum to our canals by way of the art galleries, the charitable foundations, and (for all I know) the real estate agencies and the massage parlors of New York and London. I was there for the opening dinner, held on a converted tugboat belonging to the director of the Guggenheim, and was so repulsed by what I saw—not that I am easily repulsed, mind you, least of all by massage parlors—that I took the next flight to London, figuring that everybody I loathe there was already busy networking in Venice. Fate was swift to reward me for my good judgment with a new insight.
Some months ago, at the country house of a mutual friend in England, I had met a young painter by the name of Sophie de S—; now, as soon as I arrived in London, it transpired that she wanted me and my Russian friend Gusov to sit for a double portrait. We are still unsure about the title. Two Losers? Last Bets? Russian Roulette? Neighbors by a Hundred? But anyway, the idea is clear. Sophie, who has been painting since she was 17, began her life in art as a model for Lucian Freud, an inveterate gambler, and was well acquainted with Francis Bacon, whose profligacy at the tables was legendary. For us, it was the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be immortalized, in attitudes so long cherished, by someone who understood. Hence Gusov, who cannot stay still for a minute unless he is playing (we once sat side by side in the gaming room of Aspinalls for 14 hours without eating, drinking, or using the toilet), turned up as scheduled at Sophie’s studio, his picturesque hair dutifully on end.
The studio itself, where the painter sleeps, wakes, and works from dawn to dusk, can be described as a kind of modern-art installation entitled Insult to Modernism, or Far From the Venice Biennale. The floor is a recrudescence of paint that brings to mind the term impasto, and every surface of the attic rooms bears witness to the daily, exhausting, and deeply physical struggle between pigment and temperament. My conversation with Sophie began when I threw a cigarette butt on her floor and she, with the polite sarcasm of a croupier asked to accept a bet after the ball had dropped, said that her floor was not dirty, it was just covered in paint.
“Painting in art schools is more or less out now,” writes the English critic Matthew Collings in his intentionally irreverent, and often unintentionally revealing, encyclopedia of contemporary art. “You could easily go through your art school years today without doing one. But it’s not true that you would actually be encouraged to never [sic] do one, or punished if you secretly did one.” Every hour that Gusov and I sat for Sophie, I had the growing sense that the iconic silhouette of the inside of that bent elbow, just below the roll of the work-shirt sleeve, set in a luminous outline against the window frame, the sprawling black tree branches, and the streaming dark clouds of a foul London afternoon, belonged to the spiritual musculature of the last artist in Europe. Remember The Last Man in Europe, Orwell’s original title of Nineteen Eighty-Four? Well, in that ultimate, desperate sense.
She let me look at some of her family papers, kept in what I remember as a paint-splattered biscuit tin, or maybe it was a paint-splattered velvet box. Baron de S—, her grandfather, fled Russia after 1917, and as the connection established itself in the snaking copperplate of Winter Palace invitations and the old orthography of yellowed deeds and long-broken covenants, my already seething brain grew all the more inflamed. She was the Last Artist in Europe, and of course I was desperately curious to know what she thought of the mafia of her contemporaries, most of whom I had left behind in Venice the week before. Her hesitant replies reminded me of my first meeting with the English poet Charles Causley, when, as a young angry contributor to the various books pages, I had tried to goad him into agreeing with the thousand nasty things I had to say, in print and in private, about the literary figures then relevant. Well, Causley kept saying, you know, it’s difficult, writing.
But now, as my eloquent loathing and my stammering fury broke in their turn on the granite detachment of Sophie’s mildest ellipses, slowly I began to catch on to what it was that I always believed was so banal, and so evil, about contemporary artists. One day, after leaving her studio, I bought a copy of the Collings encyclopedia. Blimey!, and was gratified to find that my recent intuition was wholly supported by fact. Blimey indeed, I said to myself. The truth is so simple. What is banal and evil about contemporary artists is that they don’t paint. Just as contemporary architects don’t build buildings, contemporary musicians don’t play instruments, contemporary generals don’t win wars, contemporary lawyers don’t defend the innocent, and contemporary doctors don’t kill their patients only because contemporary lawyers would take them to the cleaners if they did:
Art wasn’t about being in a studio creating. It was about being in a studio creating and then being in a smart white gallery and having a catalogue and reviews in art magazines and flying to different international art spots and having curators and professional uptight zombies of the art world suck up to you briefly.
Perhaps Causley was not entirely justified in his quietist, elastic, almost oriental forbearance with respect to the monsters I was hoping to slay with my pen, but the fact remains that the writers whom I took turns describing as banal and evil were at least writing books. Here, by contrast, it is as though some wicked and slothful gardener raised on Thoreau—whom Western civilization, like a dowager empress breathing her dying wish, has at last permitted to let a thousand flowers bloom—has gleefully turned, instead of to rakes, trellises, and pesticides, to the stack of penny dreadfuls in the potting shed. The analogy is not haphazard, because the Walden that the artists in question have been exploiting, ever since the mustache was stuck on the Mona Lisa, is literature. In short, their mafia is actually on my turf, and for this I have all the more reason to hate them.
Literature enters the picture with the title. That Francis Bacon, for instance, is to my mind among the finest painters the world has ever produced is neither here nor there; what is objectively true is that he painted, and every existing photograph of the interior of his studio bears witness to the fact that he painted often; so it is par for the course that the work that eventually won him recognition was entitled Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1945). Now, where is the literature in that? Conversely, it hardly matters that, in my view, an art mafioso like Damien Hirst has the soul of a crooked accountant trapped in the heart of a talentless clown; what is objectively true is that he never spent any time painting, and hence it is not surprising that the work that made him famous, a tank of formaldehyde containing a shark, was entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living(1991).
The shameless separation of modern art from painting, drawing, and sculpture, and their concomitant substitution with literature, philosophy, and politics, has produced a kind of Hollywood of artistic expression, where the intellectual cliches of the past hundred years arc collected, regurgitated, produced, directed, acted, made into pictures, and launched globally. Like Hollywood, this cinema of banal ideas is entirely in the hands of a ruthless mafia, concerned solely with the perpetuation of its prestige and the augmentation of its influence. Hence, an artist like Sophie, with bills to pay for her turpentine and her chrome yellow, is as alien to the whole business as Chekhov would be to Paramount.
So, perhaps, we had better not think of the attic in Ladbroke Grove as an art installation entitled Far From the Venice Biennale. And perhaps Gusov and I should back off and stop pestering Sophie about giving our portrait a provocative, entertaining, literary title like Russian Roulette. And next time I sit for her, if there is a next time, perhaps I should entertain the last painter in Europe with some rough tales from Palermo, instead of explaining to her how the mafia works in her hometown.