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Vanity of vanities! An exercise in banality.

First published in The Guardian, 9 July, 2014


It ends a bit gruesomely this one. Severed heads and limbs were just some of the studies Gericault painted in preparation for his masterpiece “The Raft of Medusa”. Andy Warhol made pictures of soup cans which also shocked people. I’m not squeamish though. I once opened a can of Campbell’s soup without gagging. You’re either born with the warrior spirit or you’re not. An attentive sub-editor asked me if the name Jenkins referred to a real artist. No. I was just after a common, unflamboyant surname. If I’d said Van Jenkins you could be sure you could be sure there’d be a poncey artist on the end of it.


I’m a little annoyed at myself with this one. I often like a few ideas in my cartoons, and am quite partial to a bit of a narrative, but with this one I changed my mind about some things at the last minute and made it wordier – a cardinal sin. I was so annoyed with myself that for the next couple of months I only drew single or double panel cartoons, which is probably a good thing. Or is it? if you have a strong opinion on the matter I’d love to hear it (and perhaps act on it). Is it an immediate turn-off to see a multi-panelled cartoon? Do you enjoy going a bit more in-depth with an idea or prefer a quick hit? Or do you enjoy leaving me hanging, my hand hovering in the air for a high five as you walk away, sniggering at the publicly embarrassing position you have left me in?



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Alain again – de Botton 2

First published in The Guardian, 25 June 2014.


I know, I know – fart jokes are an incredibly subtle form of humour and this one will have wafted over the heads of less perceptive readers. I have learnt my lesson and will dumb it down in future. I don’t want to spend my life alone in an ivory tower of uber-sophisticated humour. But don’t get me wrong – I love my tower. No matter how high property prices go I refuse to sell. It’s my dream home and to even consider selling it would be a slap in the faces of those 7,463 selfless elephants who gave their trunks. It would get a really good price though – it’s the only ivory tower in the street and I know for a fact that everyone around here is jealous. To give just one example, the postman Mr Wang breaks off a bit every time he delivers the post. I once caught him in the act; he was stuffing my doorknob into his mailbag. When I berated him for his jealousy he wailed that he was not jealous, just sterile. WTF? Maybe I should move – so many nutters around here.


In their book “Art as Therapy”, Alain De Botton and the philosopher John Armstrong ask the question “what is art for?” They suggest that art is a therapeutic medium that can help us with our psychological frailties. I’ve got a couple of those which would inevitably draw jail-time were they discovered but luckily I have had a good hard look at a Corot and am now a functioning member of society. I jest of course. The Corot didn’t work. It is an interesting book and it certainly promotes closer looking at various artworks from unlikely angles which is a great thing, but my hackles are automatically raised by any New Age-y guff. But hey, I’m not everyone and for some people that works. Whether some art can be therapeutic or not is completely beside the point of why I love certain artworks. I certainly never think “how can this help me lead a better life?” when I look at a painting. Actually, it is probably a question of mental habits. I suspect that whatever De Botton looks at, not just art but anything, he is thinking about it in terms of how it could be reframed as a therapeutic tool. I just don’t think like that. When I look at something the questions and observations I make are completely different (potentially jailable). In fact, he either misses or intentionally ignores the central point of why art is sometimes overwhelmingly great – that visual music, with resonances and references tying together in beautiful and unexpected ways. As worthy as de Botton’s way of thinking may be, and he certainly thinks it is THE most worthy way (hence his confidence in wading into so many different areas, e.g. literature, philosophy, class, media, art, etc), I certainly don’t believe it is a more rewarding way of viewing art than my own, which has been the source of great pleasure. I welcome and enjoy his take on things but I suspect it is his belief that this is the best way, the proper way, of thinking about art that grates with some people – especially, it seems, with artists and critics, i.e. those who take profound pleasure in art but with completely different mental processes.


All part of life’s rich blanket I guess.

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David Hockney’s photo album, page 4

The subject matter for these Artoons is the artworld (“What the…? Really?”), and in attempting to create humour I have the problem of gauging how far I can rely on the audience’s knowledge of art to get the joke. It came as a great surprise to me, but studies have proved that people actually have different levels of art knowledge. So apparently it was a mistake to assume that everyone out there reading them is exactly like me. I guess that’s obvious – if they were the planet would be down the tubes in five seconds, with the soon-to-be-extinct human population laughing together in joyous communion over the latest Peter Duggan artoon.


Anyway, it took me quite a long time to get my head around this dilemma. Where to draw the line? Well, I have come to the conclusion there are several lines – each delineating different categories, and here they are… 


(1) You don’t have to know anything about art to get the joke. This category can be divided into:

(1a) The artwork is illustrated in the cartoon and there is nothing else needed to get the joke beyond what you see; and 

(1b)  The artwork is so famous it’s part of the general culture.

(2) The artwork/artist is explained within the cartoon, followed by the punchline.

(3) You need to know the artist/artwork to get the joke. 


The best category, from the point of you of maximum audience, is category 1. The size of the audience (well, appreciative audience) goes down as you go down the list. This doesn’t mean that they are less funny. In fact, most of the ideas I come up with, and a lot of the ones I think are funniest, are in category 3. However as time goes on I veto more and more of them, as the knowledge that I am writing for a newspaper and not an art magazine weighs more heavily on me.


This is all a long-winded introduction to the artoon above. It’s a category 3 artoon which I deliberately threw in to keep the more hardcore art afficionados (and myself) happy. My audience dropped accordingly – oh well. One day I hope to fill up an entire photo album with David Hockney’s visitors. Here are some other pages. For those who may not know, here’s a little explanation of the artists/artworks depicted in the artoon:


The artworks Henri Matisse created in his old age were mainly paper cut-outs.

Andy Warhol – this was a nod to both his serial imagery and to the screenprinting process with its over and under-inking.

Richard Prince is known for his paintings of jokes. When a friend saw this artoon on the web and was trying to figure it out she said to me “The chicken is crossing a road. Why’s that?”

Andres Serrano is infamous for his Piss Christ, a photograph which caused a massive stink with some US senators in 1989. Later he caused an even bigger stink with his Poo Chr………….groan, sometimes I disappoint even myself.

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The Decisive Moment

Here I had fun playing around with the difference between the instantaneousness (fifth time this morning I’ve used that word) of photography and the far less speedy medium of painting (something I also explored in this cartoon). The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was renowned for his freakish skill in capturing “decisive moments” – combinations of fleeting, interesting action with perfect composition. The four artworks I used here are Luncheon on the Grass, 100 Soup Cans, The Birth of Venus and Las Meninas. I felt slightly uncomfortable with my take on the Birth of Venus. Even though I take lots of liberties with art history, I am well aware that Venus was not actually born from a bi-valve mollusc but from white bubbly sea froth. Still, it made me laugh, so I put it in. The blowing zephyrs in Botticelli’s painting fit nicely with this birthing scenario. 
A pleasing side-effect of copying famous paintings  is an increased appreciation of some of their subtleties. In the Velazquez, as always with him,  there are the astonishing excellencies of all the figures’ postures and expressions. But in this instance I was particularly impressed with that slice of wall on the extreme right. He has made a plain slab of wall so interesting with all the tonal changes going on – a blaze of sunlight, a sliver of picture frame casting a shadow. But I was even more taken with the next picture along,  hanging just around the corner. You can actually see the picture in that frame, despite its extreme angle. It is so clear, and so perfectly gauged in terms of darkening tone. Admittedly my copy is slightly better than the original but that shouldn’t take away from Velazquez’ achievement. 
David Hockney believes that old masters like Velazquez must have used a camera lucida to achieve such accuracy painting fleeting facial expressions. When you see things like the open mouthed young blacksmith, painted by Velazquez, in Vulcan’s Forge (which shows Apollo telling Vulcan the jaw-dropping news that his wife Venus is having an affair with Mars – personally I wasn’t surprised) it really is hard to credit that such feats are humanly possible. But I believe Hockney is wrong. There are so many other unbelievable feats of skill in this painting – the perfectly judged scale of light to dark creating a room full of space and light; the loose yet completely accurate brushmarking – that it seems unfair to single out this one thing and say “he couldn’t possibly have done this unaided. ” I think it is telling that the other sublime master of facial and bodily expressions, Rembrandt, was also phenomenally brilliant at every other aspect of painting. Hockney’s theis would hold more water if there were loads of artists in the pre-photographic era who were great at fleeting facial expressions but crap at the other stuff. But there isn’t. It just happens that occasionally someone is born with a once-in-several-generations talent, which combines with the right aptitude, the right training, great ambition and lucky social circumstances. These people are known as wankers.