Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective

by Chris Park, Features Editor

I was in a shopping centre not so long ago wandering about listlessly as I often tend to do.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, an image caught my eye.  I paused, looked back and stared.  The scene (a painting, the midst of a gallery) presented a couple dancing, a gentleman in a dinner suit and a lady in a red dress, on a beach.  There are two people at either side who appear to be a butler and maid.  The background is dominated by a murky blue overcast sky, beginning to break at the top in white puffs of cloud.  This is contrasted with the golden beach: shining in a glaze of water from a recent tide.  The sea, a blue strip, somewhere on the horizon.

It’s a painting of detail.  Detail which culminates in a captivating story.  I want to know who this couple are and why they’re on a beach in such formal attire.  Maybe they’ve left the party seeking an intimate moment to themselves.  The butler and the maid are at their sides: both with umbrellas high in the air – I feel their frustration.  I also feel the wind on my back every time I look at the maid clutch on to her hat with her other hand to stop it blowing away.  They try to look as resolute as they can under the circumstances – they’ve been put there for a reason.  The couple need shelter.  Indeed, they seem completely unfazed as they waltz on the sands.  The foreboding, blustery setting is imperceptible against their elegance.  I could depict more of the detail: the lady has no shoes on; we can’t see any of the figures’ faces.  But realistically, upon first glance, you see the poise of the dancing couple; you feel their passion, their desire to love.  It’s romantic – and it’s worth nearly one million pounds.

I walked by the gallery in the shopping centre several times to glimpse at the painting.  I went home but I couldn’t get the image out of my head.  I was left almost in agony because I had no clue as to the name of the painting or even the name of the artist.  Time passes.  Often when I feel moved or sentimental I’m reminded of the blissful couple.  Eventually, I meet them again.  This time on the cover of a lavish hard-back book with the words “Jack Vettriano” printed on the front.

Putting the pieces together now and my new-found love of art is taking shape.  So in true dilettante style I take to the internet to find out more.

What follows is a celebratory air punch when I discover Jack Vettriano is Scottish – he’s from St Andrews.  His career as an artist is almost a fluke.  Vettriano’s girlfriend got him a set of water colour paints for his 21st birthday.  Since then he’s been busy.  In 1989 Vettriano sold one if his paintings for £180 and gave up his career as a mining engineer to paint full time.

As I’m looking round his Retrospective exhibition at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum I wonder which one it is.  When over 100 paintings from the same artist are showcased together it’s easy to see common themes.  Most paintings portray a lifestyle of glamour, money and hedonism.  There is often a feel of classic Hollywood and many paintings are inspired by the Riviera.

Bluebird at Bonneville

One such painting that evokes the Hollywood era is “Bluebird at Bonneville”.  The painting is of the famous car Bluebird which was driven by Sir Malcolm Campbell in 1935 when he broke the world record for speed on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.  This painting uses two colours: white and blue.  This is another outstanding use of contrast.  A quotation on the wall beside the painting from Vettraino explains: “I loved the pure blue of the car against the bright white of the Utah Salt


Flats – it gives the sense of an almost dream-like quality.”  In 2007 the painting sold at an auction in Gleneagles for £468 000.

The bygone Hollywood era and the paintings of girls in beach cafés evoke a warm nostalgia.  But at the other end of the spectrum Vettriano is notorious for his collection of erotic paintings.  There are connotations of prostitution with men in suits and women in lingerie.  Most of the paintings you would include in the “erotic collection” allude to sex – never love.  One painting that caught my eye at the exhibition was of a woman draped in a white dress sprawled on a couch: she has her arm hanging down, cigarette in hand; she’s facing away as if exasperated.  The painting is called “After the Thrill is Gone” and like many other erotic paintings there is a subtext of despair.

Evocative or vulgar?  It’s a big problem for Jack Vettriano.  Critics have called his work “badly conceived soft porn” while another said he “doesn’t paint, he colours in.”  Vettriano hit back and said he focuses on the “power of sex” and the way it manipulates people.

I have all this in my mind when leaving Vettriano’s Retrospective exhibition.  But before I go I want to have one last look at my favourite painting of the dancing couple – which I now know to be called “The Singing Butler” and was painted in 1992 selling for roughly £750 000 in 2004.  It’s easy to see its appeal and why the artist makes a lot of money in royalties each year from print replicas.  Perhaps the art critics don’t like it for this reason: maybe it’s too “mainstream”; maybe art isn’t meant to be liked.  Technically, Vettriano isn’t the best artist that ever lived and he admits this.  But I don’t see the logic behind devaluing something simply because it’s popular.

I buy some postcards on my way out for my wall and I make sure to leave a comment in the visitor book: “captures the hopes and fears of a decadent era both then and now.” 

Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective is an exhibition of the artist’s paintings from 1992 to 2013 and will be at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum until the 23rd of February 2014.  Student tickets are £3.


Please visit http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/kelvingrove/current-exhibition/Jack-Vettriano-A-Retrospective/Pages/default.aspx


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