One of the art world’s great rivalries came to a head at London’s Royal Academy in 1832. JMW Turner visited the galleries on its annual Varnishing Day, when exhibiting artists put finishing touches to their work. After seeing how the vivid hues of one of John Constable’s paintings overshadowed Turner’s Helvoetsluys hanging adjacent, the latter picked up a brush and, in full view of the gathered artists, placed a daub of red paint in his own work, animating his maritime scene to such an extent that Constable’s painting suddenly paled in comparison. In so doing, he brought the professional antagonism between the two painters into the public sphere, setting the stage for ensuing artists who now air their rivalries via global media.
Turner ‘fired a gun’ in the form of a daub of paint. Contemporary artists have done so through words uttered to the press. In a remarkable series of new paintings, the Scottish artist Mackie revisits both the words and images related to some of the more infamous art world squabbles that have followed in Turner and Constable’s wake, including those between David Hockney and Damien Hirst, and Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Indeed, the title of two of the new paintings, as well as that of the exhibition itself – You Were Shit in the ‘80s – derives from Freud’s description of Bacon’s work of that decade as ‘ghastly,’ a sentiment Bacon in turn shared for Freud’s later work.
Mackie’s latest paintings restage the trivial rivalries and immense cultural status of these artists and others, including James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who publicly argued with not one, but three of his contemporaries: John Ruskin, John Everett Millais, and Oscar Wilde. However, they do so in arenas far removed from the pages of the tabloid newspapers, compelling us to look anew at the representation and effect of friction. Mackie relocates a renowned work by each artist – and thus, symbolically, their attendant feuds – to secluded and desolate buildings, continuing the ‘Abandoned Dollhouse’ theme he began in 2013. In You Were Shit in the ‘80s, Part 1 (Lucian Freud), he removes a panel from the back of a dilapidated Victorian building in Toxteth to reveal one of Freud’s largest paintings of a female nude, Standing by the Rags (1988-9), which normally resides in London’s Tate Britain. Surrounded by broken-paned windows and soot-stained bricks, Freud’s nude peers out of the meticulously delineated structure onto a field of overgrown weeds. Yet while a sense of isolation pervades the scene, the museum-like display and illumination of Freud’s painting implies the presence of another: the artist’s rival, the viewer of Mackie’s painting, or both.
In fact, …Part 1’s companion piece, You Were Shit in the ‘80s, Part 2 (Francis Bacon) suggests a dialogue between the two works. In …Part 2, Mackie plucks Francis Bacon’s Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988) from the Tate collection and re-houses it in a disused asylum for men near Glasgow. The artist, who began drawing at an early age and sketched incessantly throughout his childhood to achieve perfect scale, demonstrates superb draughtsmanship in his depiction of a bleak, uninhabited building with boarded-up windows. A missing panel unveils Bacon’s triptych, each section spot-lit as if formally exhibited. Although the locations represented within You Were Shit in the ‘80s parts 1 and 2 are over 200 miles apart, Mackie suggests congruence between the two paintings through his palette, his rendering of the buildings, and the similarity of the fields they overlook. We may even imagine the two paintings within the paintings facing each other from across the field. Mackie accentuates the conflict inherent in such a scenario by not only highlighting the friction between the two artists, but also the discord between the foreboding structures and the land they inhabit, and between their deteriorated state and the prized artworks they contain.
In contrast, the artworks that animate All by My Own Hand, Part 1 (David Hockney) and All by My Own Hand, Part 2 (Damien Hirst) occupy very different spaces. Moreover, they seem destined never to meet, as if in recognition of the one-sided nature of the spat to which they allude. In 2012, David Hockney advertised his solo exhibition at the Royal Academy with the claim, ‘All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally,’ a dig at Damien HIrst and his extensive use of assistants. Hirst, however, never responded publicly to Hockney’s criticism.
All by My Own Hand, Part 1 recreates Hockney’s Portrait of Nick Wilder (1966) on the upper floor of Lancaster Services’ Grade II-listed Pennine Tower, its image of a sun-drenched Californian swimming pool echoed by the sunlight hitting the side of Mackie’s tower. The area around the service station is deserted, yet the lawn is well manicured, denoting care rather than abandonment. Hirst’s celebrated The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), on the other hand, stands forgotten in an anonymous country barn. Unlike the Bacon and Freud paintings in You Were Shit in the ‘80s, neither of the works in All by My Own Hand receive special lighting or display; neither seems to presume an audience. Nevertheless, Mackie’s imaginative use of architecture, exquisite handling of paint, and re-staging of canonical works of art throughout You Were Shit in the ‘80s entice viewers to look again at the sparks that fire artists at their best and, perhaps, at their worst.
What are the greatest artistic feuds in history?
An exhibition by painter Mackie at James Freeman Gallery looks back at some recent rows between famous artists. It is called You Were Shit in the 80s, which Mackie imagines was an insult exchanged between Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. The great painters fell out, he claims. If this is true, then it was a blip on a beautiful relationship. They painted each other with great intensity, and the evidence of their portraits of one another suggests that Bacon and Freud were much more friends than enemies. After Bacon died and Freud’s portrait of him was stolen in Germany, Freud made a Wanted poster for it that felt like an act of mourning. So I don’t buy the idea of them hurling banal insults at one another.
Nor is the feud between David Hockney and Damien Hirst that Mackie also chronicles in his paintings really much of a clash. Hockney does not like Hirst’swork, but why would he? One is a painter, the other a conceptualist. They are chalk and cheese.
To have a real feud, artists need to have something in common – they need to be rivals, in the same space and moment, for the same prize. That’s why the greatest artistic feud ever is that between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Leonardo and Michelangelo were enemies because they were so similar. Both were trained in Florence, and both were gifted in a way contemporaries considered “divine”. It was when they were challenged to paint the same hall in competition with each other that their relationship went pear-shaped.
Michelangelo insulted Leonardo in the street, shocking bystanders when he sneered at the older genius for never finishing his statue of a horse in Milan. Leonardo said at a meeting about where to site Michelangelo’s David that the nude statue needed its penis covering up – a symbolic castration of his rival.
Picasso and Matisse were similarly rivalrous. As with the two Renaissance titans, it seems incredible that two geniuses such as Matisse and Picasso both emerged in early 20th-century France. They respected one another but also eyed each other up in a tense, cynical way. The most bizarre example of their lifelong tensions came when Picasso introduced his new lover Francois Gilot to the elderly Matisse. The sensual artist of colour charmed Gilot so much so that Picasso became sexually jealous. He was threatened by Matisse as a man as well as an artist.
There have been worse feuds. Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists even resorted to violence. The 16th-century craftsman Cellini, for example, murdered a rival goldsmith and – he confesses in his autobiography – contemplated killing a sculptor who got on his nerves.
Yet the saddest artistic falling out was surely between Van Gogh and Gauguin. The passionate, idealistic Van Gogh hoped to create an art colony in the south of France and got his hero Gauguin to come and join him. As their friendship deteriorated, Van Gogh cut off his ear and Gauguin fled, leaving Van Gogh to be institutionalised. So much for artists working together.
Art is messy and people get hurt. Sometimes it is fellow artists who get insulted or worse. And strangely enough, the greatest artists have the biggest fights. VIEW ARTICLE
Scottish artist Mackie, featured previously, paints ethereal landscapes populated by isolated ageing buildings. But inside these structures, delicately and minutely reproduced, are some of the most iconic works from modern and contemporary art. Each relates to an artist argument; each is the fruit of friction. For example, one pair of paintings references the long-standing friendship between Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon that deteriorated into a spiteful tit-for-tat. Freud’s 1989 “Standing by the Rags” appears in a crumbling Victorian building in Toxteth; Bacon’s “Second Version of Triptych 1944” occupies an abandoned asylum near Glasgow.
Similarly with the press spat ahead of David Hockney’s 2012 Royal Academy show, when he referred to Damien Hirst’s work as “insulting to skilful craftsmen”. Hockney’s “Portrait of Nick Wilder” hangs in the upper floors of the deserted Pennine Tower at Lancaster Service Station, while Hirst’s shark sits screaming inside a padded room within an isolated country barn.
Each Master holds his own court, but the audience is curiously absent. This, in combination with Mackie’s settings, lends a Gothic curiosity to the work. His decaying architectural behemoths and empty landscapes have an after-the-deluge feel, as if these masterpieces were nostalgic documents of a time when cultural creativity was abundant. Mackie’s trick of revealing them by removing a panel from the face of the building also prompts a host of questions: what kind of collector uses these oversized doll’s houses for their art? Who is the intended audience in this post-creative world? And quite how far away might we be from this creative dystopia right now? VIEW ARTICLE
Miniature reproductions from both 20th-century masters are secreted within isolated derelict houses. The buildings stand alone, seemingly abandoned, until you notice the cutaway wall revealing a masterpiece.
Freud’s Standing by the Rags, 1989, appears in a decaying Victorian building in Toxteth; Bacon’s Second Version of Triptych, 1944, hangs in an abandoned asylum near Glasgow. These two great artists had a famously spiky and competitive friendship and it’s a smart move from Mackie to separate the two, remove an obvious audience and place them in isolation.
“Initially, his idea was to paint dolls’ houses but it was getting too heavy so he started taking out the more explicit elements,” said gallerist James Freeman. “The artworks are collected within a cherished dolls’ house, the place for your imagination.”
Hockney’s Portrait of Nick Wilder overlooks an eerily empty motorway from the Lancaster service station, referring to his cutting remarks in 2012 of Damien Hirst’s lack of “hands-on” craftsmanship. Hirst’s shark responds, floating mouth agape within an isolated country barn.
Another humorous work, Who Invented the Hole, pitches those two giants of sculpture, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, in an argument over who was the first to put a hole in it; Moore’s Oval with Points (1968-1970) stands tall in an abandoned farmhouse on a suitably frosty morning.
Beyond the homage to soap opera-style art world rivalries, there appears to be an overt comment on the nature of collecting, these great pieces are revealed as if caught trapped by a dusty host. There’s an almost gothic dereliction to these buildings that could allude to private collections or to the claustrophobia of art institutions where lauded pieces of work can stand unquestioned in the same room for decades. VIEW ARTICLE