August 4th, 2004

Take that Kant, You Bastard!

Odd Nerdrum? It's got to be a wind-up, right? Well, no. It's a Norwegian name. The guy's for real- and here are his paintings to prove it-

Nerdrum paints dream images in a seventeenth century style. It's as if Rembrandt had seen Un Chien Andalou. He's been called kitsch so often that he's adopted it as a badge of pride.

He has a theory that art took a wrong turning back in the 18th century - and it's all Kant's fault. Kant wanted art to be a spiritual thing- nothing to do with all that nasty, sloppy paint. Art was what remained when you subtracted mere craftsmanship from the act of painting or sculpting. Odd points out (with barely concealed glee) that Kant died a virgin.

But Odd's quarrel isn't really with Kant; it's with the current art establishment and an orthodoxy which has turned the artist into a spiritual aristocrat who thinks beautiful thoughts and gets other people- workmen- to turn them into objects. Odd insists on the sensuousness of art, on the primacy of craft. It is by struggling with his materials that the artist pushes himself to greater and greater heights. Look at Titian. Look at Rembrandt. Also (hee, hee, hee) women prefer a man who's prepared to get his hands dirty.

Well, it's an interesting theory, but it's full of holes. Odd overlooks too much, makes too many dubious claims. Picasso wasn't interested in craft?- come off it, Odd! But the man's an eccentric and he's been sidelined and wounded and he's justified in fighting back.

Art or Kitsch? In the end who cares how these images are labelled? I love them. They are straaange. Desert landscapes, in Caravaggio light- with naked and half naked figures lolling about. Many thanks to amritarosa for drawing my attention to them.

90 Years On

This is the 90th anniversary of Britain's entry into the First World War. It's amazing, but there are still living veterans. Four of them were at the Cenotaph this morning. We heard their voices on the radio. One said he'd forgotten most of it, but people kept asking questions which brought things back. Another just simply said he'd forgotten. They were all over 100 of course.

Soon there will be no-one who remembers anything.

I was at the death-bed of a veteran who died in the 1970s. I'm afraid I can't remember his name. Like most old soldiers he didn't really want to talk about all that. One thing he did tell me was this. He'd been a dispatch rider and he had a memory of lying flat along the horse's back, riding hell for leather, while the machine gun bullets cut through the air above him. Zip. Zip. Zip.

In the late 1960s The BBC ran a documentary series called The Great War. That's how I got my education. It was the first time that much of the now all-too-familiar footage had been widely shown; the boys going over the top and one of them falling (probably faked) the big explosions, the swollen bodies in captured trenches. It affected me deeply. It made me angry and proud. And it inoculated me forever against militarism.

It is one of the things I have always been profoundly grateful for, that I never had to wear a uniform.