We’re renting an apartment in the grounds of Whoop Hall, Kirkby Lonsdale. On the walls are two pictures: one by the popular Scots artist Jack Vettriano, the other by the Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The former is untitled and shows a woman perched on the crossbar of a bicycle ridden by a man in a straw hat. It’s in Vettriano’s crudely-painted manner and exudes some kind of joi-de-vivre involving men and women – maybe men and women of leisure, as one of Vettriano’s most famous paintings is of a couple dancing on a deserted beach and being sheltered from the sun by flunkeys with umbrellas. The Moholy-Nagy picture is an abstract called Circular Segment 1921 and consists of two flat hemispheres set at rightangles to resemble a formalised sailing boat. The upper one is white and represents the sail and the lower one black and stands for the hull. The boat-like arrangement floats freely in space against a non-descript, purple-beige background.
The two illustrate perfectly why a good abstract painting can be better than a bad figurative one. Vettriano’s pictures repay close examination, but only in negative terms. The nearer one gets to them the more primitive and slapdash his manner appears. This print seems to have been cropped from a larger picture, as the artist’s signature is half-revealed and appears magnified. But the magnification elsewhere serves only to reveal the poor quality of the draughtsmanship: it’s the kind of work attributable to a gross mis-interpretation of impressionistic method. The Impressionists employed a graphic shorthand to indicate what they actually saw – a material reality altered by light – but Vettriano and countless others have reduced it to an ill-mannered sketchiness, believing that Impressionist modus operandi will do for a scene only cursorily interested in its illumination. In pictures depicting human figures and material objects outdoors but only superficially affected by the light (in Vettriano’s case, by stark representations of light and shadow), such shorthand is inappropriate: it’s not the effect of the light that’s important but, as noted above, some kind of romanticised narrative. But what kind? These figures have neither feature nor life and the compositions in which they appear amount to little more than enacted tableaux. But enacted for what purpose?
Circular Segment 1921, however, is a masterpiece of economy, elegance and poise. At least you can say that about it. About the Vettriano picture you can say little.