Saturday, 27 March 2010

Jack, the crumpet's smashing

"Show me a man who doesn’t like his shoulder blade pierced by a stiletto heel, and I’ll show you a liar,” chuckles Jack Vettriano. He looks up from a copy of his painting, Night Calls, a kind of still life with dominatrix. “It may never have happened – but you’ve thought about it.”

The artist is sitting in the Vettriano Suite, part of a brash hotel in Glasgow’s West End, where the name on the door honours this famously self-taught Scottish painter. An exhibition that travels to London and Milan opens this morning in Kirkcaldy museum, his home-town gallery, featuring many of his sexually-charged images, along with the trams and boats that set his brush a-twitching when he’s not gazing at women.

Already the Vettriano publicity machine has been cranked into overdrive, embarrassing the ‘official’ art world into near silence. The public may love him – he is said to make more money from reproductions of his work than any other artist – but the snobs at the national galleries in England and Scotland just won’t hang him. “Painting by numbers” are the three little words that durst not be uttered.

Fortunately for Vettriano, these days he occupies some weird artistic otherworld, where critical opinion has no meaning. At 58, he has homes in Knightsbridge, Nice and Fife, and is noticeably more at ease with the world than he was a decade ago. Who cares what the critics write? “People like my work,” he says. “ They don’t have to scratch their heads and say, ‘Is that the side of a cow?’ They look at it and know what it is. Accessible – that’s the whole bloody point.”

The Vettriano industry is a marketing masterpiece. When he broke through in the early 1990s, the press latched on to his anti-establishment pose, while the public devoured his cards and prints, a combination that pushed the price of his originals towards the stratosphere.

The process reached a zenith when, with uncanny timing, his best known work, The Singing Butler (then owned by his friend, Alex Cruickshank) appeared at auction precisely one month after a stunningly sycophantic edition of the South Bank Show had given Vettriano maximum publicity. It fetched £750,000. “I was staggered,” says Vettriano. Did he manipulate the market? “How could I?”

Afterwards, he broke with his agents, the Portland Gallery, and his publishers, the Art Group, went into liquidation. Vettriano now runs his own publishing company, Heartbreak, which he set up with Nathalie Martin, formerly a director at Portland.

So are Jack and Nathalie ...? Vettriano’s right eye bulges. “No comment on that,” snaps his publicist. Yes, these days, the man christened plain Jack Hoggan, a miner’s son from Fife, travels with a PR minder.

The truth is that life and art have always been about sex for Vettriano. He was never a man’s man, and in his 20s and 30s, he’d hang out in Bentley’s disco, down by Kirkcaldy’s drab Esplanade, nursing a half pint of lager and lime and eyeing up the talent on the dance floor.

“It was all about strutting your stuff and picking up the women. I always thought that sex was more interesting than alcohol, and I still do,” say Vettriano. “What was fortuitous was, I knew I could paint, but I didn’t know what to paint. Then it just dawned on me: Why don’t you paint the thing you love most of all? Women. And glamorous women at that. I make no apologies for using the term glamorous – I don’t particularly like to see women in jeans or trainers, I don’t think it does anything for them. I like to see them dressed to kill.” He laughs: “And guess who’s dying?”

He took care over his own image. It helped that he inheritied the swarthy good looks of his Italian grandfather. He annexed his surname too, Vettrino, but added an ‘A’ because it sounded cool. Style still matters – Vettriano’s hair may be wisped with grey, but he cuts a dash in his dark frock coat and black jeans.

And the women still love it. Those who get close can get hurt – it’s not long since he up the broke up the marriage of a lady reporter from the local paper, and she had only gone along to interview him. But there are plenty more gagging to meet him. It’s most noticeable at book signings and exhibtions, he says, when the fans turn up dressed to the nines. “They like the work and they find it sensuous, and if they themselves are attractive, they enhance the occasion a bit ,” he says.

“One of the attendants at Kirkcaldy said me, ‘It’s great to have you back Jack.’ I said: ‘I’d have thought you would be upset because it’s too busy, and you can’t just sit around talking.’ He said: ‘No, Jack. Some of the crumpet’s smashing’”

A slightly shorter version of this ran in the UK edition of the Times. Read it here, Jack

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