Friday, 13 June 2008

A Tale of Two Artists

I am not especially good on modern art. Though the National Gallery is like a second home, and I feel I know every square inch of it, from the divine Leonardos, to the Dutch Golden Age, Velazquez and Constable, I never once visited Tate Modern, but a short walk away down to the river. In Sydney it was the New South Wales Art Gallery, with its big Arthur Streetons, and the lyrical bush paintings of Tom Roberts, that tugged at my heart. After Turner, and the English landscape painters, my little store of knowledge runs dry.

I am told that here in Spitalfields we are stuffed to the gills with celebrity-artists. They buy up Huguenot silk-weavers’ houses and make artists’ studios of the disused Victorian sweatshop buildings behind. Out on the street, they lap up gritty East End ambience.

As for me, I don’t know them. I don’t have a telly, or read the papers much, so I wouldn’t know Dinos Chapman if I bumped into him on a street corner, with or without an not-yet-defaced Goya print under his arm. But I recognise Gilbert and George in their perambulations around our super self-conscious quartier, ostentatious and eccentric as ever in loud check tweeds, though never, as yet, naked, as I once saw them, larger than life, photographed in black-and-white in the National Portrait Gallery.

There was huge excitement in our neighbourhood recently. Rumours were fanned like a brushfire in summer that our most celebrated celebrity-artist, rich beyond the dreams of ordinary mortals, for the price of maybe just one deathless conceptual artwork, had spent several millions on a cherished range of Victorian warehouse buildings nearby.

Such splendid news! “All hail the great celebrity-artist,” the public swooned. The PR machine duly cranked and heaved into action with a co-ordinated assault on the media. “Celebrity-artist rescues listed building from developers,” the papers scream. “Celebrity-artist pays off tenants.” We all gasp, boggling at the vast sums changing hands, and the world in general finds itself well-pleased with the wisdom and generosity of the enterprise.

In due course a planning application is made, and fashionable opinion declares it to be a very good thing indeed. Eventually, one or two brave souls actually check the plans. It transpires that the celebrity-artist intends after all to demolish, not rescue, the cherished range of buildings (save for the front and side), and that no money has been handed to the tenants, only a (fairly lengthy) notice to quit, which is a shame, though not unreasonable.

As the reality sinks in, the fashionable world begins to think it may have been duped, and slowly turns against the scheme. Local people, it seems, bundled hugger-mugger on the adjoining estate, Bengalis in the main, had not been consulted by the planning authorities, who wished to save themselves the bother. Most were opposed when they knew.

The application is rejected, the celebrity-artist is furious, and the architect vows to appeal. All talk of East End roots suddenly and unexpectedly evaporates, as the celebrity-artist expresses a new-found fondness for Chelsea. The tenants, in their scruffy workshops, get a temporary, but welcome, stay of execution. Our neighbourhood settles back into its semi-slumberous state, relieved in its way to be spared too much stimulation.

One hot day I pass by the warehouse buildings and look up through the open loading-bay doors of an artist’s studio. A man is painting a fabulous, action-filled canvas in the boisterous, extravagant style of the Italian baroque, his paint-flecked tee-shirt and jeans not exactly Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy, but you get the idea. “What are you painting?” I call from the street. “Just painting,” he replies, with enviable understatement.

There is a smile, an indifferent shrug, and the young man turns back to his work. He has the space through the unselfish kindness of its owner, and is profiting hugely from its use. He seems the very picture of contentment. Can many of us claim to have known it?