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August 03 2012

Art and the hidden depths of the humble public pool

The swimming pool is not just a place of pilgrimage for leading Olympians – it has also inspired some of the 20th century's most memorable art. Artist and novelist Leanne Shapton, herself a former competitive swimmer, chooses 10 of the greatest works of art based around the baths

Drawing for 'Children's Swimming Pool', Leon Kossoff, 1971

Kossoff's charcoal study for his oil painting Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon is of a public pool in Willesden, London, near his studio, where he took his son to learn to swim. Kossoff captures the wild energy of an indoor pool overtaken by children during a public session. His vigorous lines, bobbing heads and sharp elbows remind us that as well as being pristine and serene, pools can also be aggressive and feral. The piece is audible, one can imagine the echoing hollers of the children, the heavy odour of chlorine and the lurking verruca.

Nine Swimming Pools, Ed Ruscha, 1968

Among the hundreds of gorgeous photographic images of swimming pools, this grid of colour photos that Ed Ruscha conceived in 1968 stands out as my favourite. The nine pools depicted are glassy, blue and bright, and while they are absent of figures, (only wet footprints leading off a diving board) they shimmer with the American dream. Each photo offers its own condensed version of public or private water; together, they simultaneously deliver the yearning of Sunset Boulevard, the challenge of competition, the seduction of youth, the promise of sunshine, as well as the shallow transience of motel life.

Pool Shapes, Claes Oldenburg, 1964

Oldenburg's palette is consumer goods, and his four bright blue swimming pool designs bluntly and directly convey his interest in the choices we are offered. The piece is a copy of an advertisement with the type removed, and the reframing of these simple diagrams of backyard pools, with their bubbly rounded shapes and shallow steps, is typical of Oldenburg's humour and playfulness. The image appears on the cover of a 1966 catalogue of his early sketches, diagrams and photos, produced by Stockholm's Moderna Museet for an early solo show of his work.

Ellipsis (II), Roni Horn, 1998

Rather than making the tank of water the subject, Roni Horn shifts her focus to the locker room of a swimming pool she loves in Reykavik, Iceland. Her large (8 x 8ft) monochrome grid of 64 iris prints shuffle the viewer through a warren of slick cubicles and halls. In an interview, Horn described the endless tiled surface and peepholed doors as a voyeristic delight, and explained that she "…shot it in a way to bring out more of the sensual aspect to balance against the antiseptic quality of the architecture".

Le bain mystérieux, Giorgio de Chirico, 1938

Giorgio de Chirico's series of bathers and labyrinthine pools, done between 1934 and 1973, began when Jean Cocteau asked the artist to provide illustrations for his book Mythology. He returned to this theme – men, both fully dressed and nude, in and around pools that were connected by twisting canals and surrounded by cabanas – for years after. He always depicted the water as a herringbone parquet, inspired by one day observing sunlight reflected on a highly polished floor. In this series, the founder of metaphysical painting hauntingly evokes dreams of water, submersion and classical Grecian imagery.

Gatsby, Dexter Dalwood, 2009

Pools are often used in literature and film as symbols of hedonism, seduction or danger. In F Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, the pool manifests all three, finally submerging its eponymous hero in its eighth chapter. In his painting Gatsby, Dexter Dalwood, whose subject matter often involves the locations of violent tragedies (other titles: Kurt Cobain's Greenhouse, Sharon Tate's Living Room), gives us the melancholy millionaire Jay Gatsby's sunlit backyard pool in West Egg, and an inflatable red air mattress overtaken by its shadow: a fitting metaphor for Fitzgerald's haunted hero.

New Yorker cover, Richard McGuire, 2008

New York City is not known for abundant outdoor swimming pools, which is why this New Yorker cover illustration, Swim, Swam, Swum, a rendition of the Carmine Street pool in Greenwich Village, is so charming. It showcases the beloved city pool (featured in Martin Scorsese's film Raging Bull and Larry Clark's Kids, and flanked by a 1987 Keith Haring mural). Illustrator Richard McGuire is a master of reductive line. He's a regular New Yorker cover artist, designs toys and games, makes wildly popular comics, children's books and haunting animations, and lives a block from the pool.

Poster for 1972 Olympics, David Hockney, 1972

David Hockney is the undisputed king of swimming pool art. His paintings of Hollywood pools, replete with big splashes, submerged figures and undulating ripples, gave us an iconic Californian landscape that still defines a certain kind of languid and lush west-coast sensuality. My favourite piece of his, however, and one I work beneath every day, is his poster for the 1972 Munich Olympics, which depicts a diver, suspended over a wobbling sunlit grid of aquamarine, the moment before he slices through the water. (Josef Albers and RB Kitaj also did swimming-themed posters in this series.)

Floating Swimming Pool, Rem Koolhaas, 1978

Rem Koolhaas's pool illustrates the last chapter of his book Delirious New York. It's an Orwellian fable about a group of Soviet architecture students who build a vast, floating swimming pool that they propel across the Atlantic by swimming laps. The journey to New York takes 40 years, and the pool's arrival is met with a hostility they had not anticipated. Koolhaas, himself an avid swimmer, satirises the utopian beginnings of Russian constructivism and its slow morph into corporate American modernism with his usual intellect, idealism and rancour.

Aquis Submersus, Max Ernst, 1919

In one of his earliest surrealist pieces, Max Ernst offers us a melancholy and disturbing night swim, though a clock in the sky indicates 4:42 and the shadows cast by a handlebar-moustachioed man are long. A sense of unease and suspense shroud the work. The clock is reflected in the pool as a moon, the lonely buildings around the pool appear empty, the upside-down figure of a swimmer is weirdly still. The painting shares a title with an 1876 novella by Theodor Storm, about a long-thwarted love and the drowning death of a boy, as narrated by a painter. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 06 2010

Susan Philipsz wins Turner prize

Susan Philipsz' work makes you think about place, space, memory and presence: it opens up your feelings

Susan Philipsz winning the Turner prize is the right result, and I feel the same pleasure in her win as I did when painter Tomma Abts won in 2006. In both cases I was impressed by the artists' originality - not a word you hear much in contemporary art circles, their inventiveness, and the difficult yet accessible pleasures their art can give.

Dexter Dalwood's paintings seemed to me too brittle, too clever and contrived to win. He was let down by having too many works in the show, too few of which were in themselves compelling. Each painting was a compendium of styles and references, and it all felt a bit too dutiful and congested. I much prefer Angela de la Cruz's work, with its painful humour, honesty and knockabout abjection. But De la Cruz's work seems to me to be at a moment of transition. Having only recently returned to work following a debilitating stroke, her ensemble of recent and older paintings and sculptures was as much a statement of intent as a fully achieved exhibition. Last month, de la Cruz won a coveted £35,000 Paul Hamlyn award. This is as valuable and prestigious as winning the Turner Prize.

Like De la Cruz, the wider exposure of the art of the Otolith Group collective has been valuable. It is as though Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar wanted to make life as hard on the audience as possible. I took a perverse delight in the fact that they made us work at their art, which is as erudite as it is sensual, as sexy as it is filmic. But they have an almost academic streak that makes one think one is in a classroom or study centre.

Philipsz is the first artist working with sound to have won the prize. I can imagine people saying she is just a singer, with the sort of voice you might feel lucky to come across at a folk club. But there is much more to Philipsz than a good voice. All singers, of course, are aware of the space their voice occupies, of the difference between one hall and another. We know it ourselves, singing in the shower. But the way Philipsz sites recordings of her voice is as much to do with place as sound. She has haunted the Clyde and filled her box-like Turner installation with the ballad Lowlands; she has called across a lake in Germany and had her voice swept away by the wind on a Folkestone headland.

Her current Artangel project, Surround Me, insinuates itself down alleys and courtyards in the City of London, her voice like an Elizabethan ghost, singing melancholy works by John Dowland and other 16th and 17th century composers. I have stood in shadowy old courtyards and between gleaming office blocks, weeping as I listen. And how many artists can you say that about?

Her sense of place, and space, memory and presence reminds me, weirdly, of the sculptor Richard Serra at his best. Her art makes you think of your place in the world, and opens you up to your feelings. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Who should win the Turner prize?

Sound artist Susan Philipsz may be the bookies' favourite, but Angela de la Cruz, Dexter Dalwood and the Otolith Group are also strong contenders. Ahead of tonight's announcement, who gets your vote?

When it comes to predicting the winner of the Turner prize, I have appalling form. One year I was convinced that Phil Collins's brilliantly sardonic TV project about Turkish reality shows was going to win (it didn't). In 2008, I quite fancied Cathy Wilkes's chances (Mark Leckey went on to win). So when I tell you that my favourite for this year's award is Angela de la Cruz, who makes awkward, funny sculptures that don't quite do what they're meant to, my advice is: don't listen to anything I say.

The betting is, of course, hardly the point. And some would argue that, when the shortlist includes work as different as painting, film, sculpture and sound, choosing a winner at all doesn't make much sense. But that's prizes for you, and – like it or not – a winner will be chosen later this evening, in the full glare of the world's press, at Tate Britain.

A reminder about who's in the running. There's Dexter Dalwood, who paints scenes that many of us have imagined (the death of Dr David Kelly, Jimi Hendrix's basement, wartime Iraq) but never seen. Dalwood has his fans – you lot said he should win – but Britain's newspaper critics aren't among them: Richard Dorment of the Telegraph called his work "cack-handed paintings of imaginary landscapes and interiors", while our own Jonathan Jones said back in 2000 that "if this is what they mean by painting, I hope it goes away soon". Then there's The Otolith Group, Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, who make erudite, multi-strand work drawing on the history of cinema and social movements. Their room in the Turner prize exhibition contains a 45-minute film made of fragments of other films, a row of TV sets playing an obscure documentary about Ancient Greece, and a densely packed book. Easy to digest it certainly isn't; maybe that's the point.

The next room in the show is de la Cruz's, and contains a number of new paintings that have been torn apart or otherwise subjected to violence. They're called things like Deflated and Clutter, and squat anxiously in the gallery as if they're embarrassed to be there. I love her work – the wit as well as the sadness of it – but there's a feeling that perhaps this isn't her year. I guess we'll find out. The fourth artist to be shortlisted this year is Glaswegian Susan Philipsz, whose contribution to the show you hear long before you see it. Actually there isn't anything to see, just three loudspeakers and a bench; it is a piece of sound art, recordings of the artist singing slightly different versions of a Scottish medieval ballad. Mysterious and enticing, sorrowful and enigmatic, these songs overlap and intermingle, echoing around the room and out into the gallery beyond. The bookies tell us that Philipsz is the favourite to win – a good result, if only because it will be the first time that sound art has received this kind of recognition (and if you want to find out more about what she does, we ran a video interview with her last Friday).

The judges are meeting this afternoon to decide, and the waiting will be over for the rest of us at about 7.50pm when the ceremony is broadcast on Channel 4 News. Both Charlotte Higgins and I will be tweeting snippets live (follow us at and; we'll use the #TP2010 hashtag). We'll have news and reaction as soon as we can, pictures as soon as we get them, and tomorrow morning we'll have a video digest of the night's events. In the meantime, you could watch Adrian Searle's video tour around the exhibition, read Laura Cumming's astute review, or test your wits with our Turner prize quiz. And of course we want to know what you think. Have you seen the show? Did it pass muster? Who do you reckon should win?

Oh, one final thing: you haven't seen any of the artwork and still feel like posting that it's a load of old nonsense, I'm afraid Twitter's IanVisits has already got there: he suggests using #YouCallThatArt, #MyKidCouldDoBetter, #ItsRubbish or #WhatAWasteOfTime as tags. Enough said. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 09 2010

Passionless prize

Tate Britain, London

Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true. This miserabilist's charter came to mind at Tate Britain this week. For the 2010 Turner prize has righted the wrongs of many years and, in theory at least, accomplished everything one could reasonably hope for, and yet it remains imperfect.

This year's shortlist, for instance, is not sensational, modish, tendentious or obscure. The judges have not broken any unspoken rules. None is in charge of a gallery where a shortlisted show took place; none has a professional relationship, as far as I know, with any of the artists. There are no obvious conflicts of interest.

Nor does it strain credulity to imagine that the judges might actually have seen the art in person, as opposed to viewing the works on video or slide. The shortlisted shows were happening here in Britain, not in Eindhoven or Texas, as in years gone by. It is even possible that the public nominations were for once heeded, rather than binned. For some of the shows – Dexter Dalwood at Tate St Ives, Angela de la Cruz at Camden Arts Centre – were both popular and critically praised.

And while some proportion of these facts may have been true in the past, what is so unusual this time round is that we too can see (or hear, in Susan Philipsz's case) the shortlisted art in Tate Britain. Instead of four tranches of new or different works by the shortlisted artists, we have the opportunity to experience a good proportion of the art selected by the judges. We are in their position.

Which is why it pains me to report that this is not the best of shows, however much one might respect both artists and judges. It is beautifully displayed, concise, undoubtedly representative, indubitably serious. But it falls fairly short of exhilarating.

Take Dexter Dalwood, currently tipped as favourite by William Hill. Dalwood is a painter of strength and wit; his pictures touch upon the limits of the imagination.

In the past he has painted interiors that exist, or must once have existed, but were necessarily imagined – Che Guevara's mountain hideout, Jimi Hendrix's last resting place, the Queen's bedroom (with a single-bar heater). The protagonists are always absent, but their presence evoked in the image.

If that were all, Dalwood would not be the modern history painter he is. The Bay of Pigs, the Brighton bomb and Greenham Common have all been portrayed in recent works constructed like out-of-kilter collages full of abrupt stylistic disjunctures. Death of David Kelly has a pale moon rocking in a midnight-blue sky, uninflected as a child might paint it, sadness in its stark simplicity. By contrast, the brown earth below is an open wound of ab-ex brushstrokes: a painfully adult enigma.

In White Flag, Jasper Johns's eponymous white painting of the stars-and-stripes flag appears solid, forming the wall of a compound, its shattered floor strewn with the hookah pipe and Arab slippers from one of Delacroix's Arabic paintings. Every motif in Dalwood's picture acquires a double meaning – eastern-western – by juxtaposition, clinched by the political pun of that title.

But though there are trenchant concepts here, this is by no means the best of Dalwood's recent work. I remember a painting about the execution of the Ceausescus that sampled Baselitz and Goya to terrifying effect, and none of these pictures has anything like that power. Ipso facto, I should stop wishing to see only the shortlisted works.

Another moral easily drawn from this show is that not everything survives Tate Britain. Those who heard the recording of Susan Philipsz's clear, sweet voice singing that melancholy ballad "Lowlands Away" beneath the George V bridge during this year's Glasgow international art festival knows that it drifted out across the water to poignant effect, its lament for a drowned lover now seeming to commemorate all those who drowned themselves there in the Clyde.

These recitals are by definition site-specific. The 16th-century ballads currently issuing from discreet speakers around the City of London put you on the spot, make you mindful of the Shakespearean past. If Philipsz is an artist at all, it is by this fine application of sound to place. At Tate Britain her work dwindles into a pleasant recording.

The Otolith Group – aka Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar – has turned its gallery into a cross between an arthouse cinema and a seminar room, complete with desklights and books.

On screen you can watch Otolith III, a film initially inspired by one that was never made, Satyajit Ray's 1967 The Alien. The characters from that film are now looking for people to play them, literally searching the streets, alternately hopeful and frustrated; precisely the feelings engendered in the viewer, especially one unfamiliar with The Alien, let alone the critical accretions surrounding its legend.

More compelling by far is Chris Marker's 13-part television series on Ancient Greece. The Owl's Legacy (1989) featured George Steiner, Elia Kazan, Cornelius Castoriadis and many others offering violently contrasting views on Greek culture, from democracy, mythology and music to philosophy and sex. The Otolith Group's contribution is to screen the series on 13 sets simultaneously: emphasising the brilliance of its montages as a montage.But that is secondary compared to the challenge issued to British television executives to broadcast this stupendous series again now.

The remaining contender, Angela de la Cruz, makes sculptures out of paintings, monochrome canvases that are made to behave like real people. Weary, slack, crumpled, slumped, coming apart at the seams, they are stretched past all endurance. A yellow canvas hangs as if over a hooded body, irresistibly proposing the torture victims of Abu Ghraib. Other forms are bent double, battered, collapsed on the floor, anthropomorphism made manifest.

This is a perfectly good selection of de la Cruz's work. She deserves to win as much as Dalwood, but certainly no more than so many other artists showing during the Turner year: for instance Fiona Tan, Willie Doherty, David Shrigley, Katie Paterson, Marcus Coates, Kutlug Ataman, Tacita Dean, Luke Fowler, Rosalind Nashashibi, in no particular order. Which reminds one that this show only represents the taste of five judges, first to last, and nothing more this year – thankfully not the zeitgeist, the market, or the politics of the art world, but nor its passion and excitement. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 04 2010

Dark nights of the soul

From mangled canvasses to disembodied voices singing Scottish laments, the entries for this year's Turner prize are mournful, tough and beautiful, says Adrian Searle. So which of the four contenders should win?

This year's Turner prize exhibition at Tate Britain in London has got soul, passion and intelligence. It resounds with echoes of past music and quotations of past art, as well as all the usual argy-bargy and din that surround the annual prize itself.

Ever since he was a student in the early 1980s, Dexter Dalwood has been interested in producing a kind of narrative painting – art that tells a story. Using De Kooning licks and Rauschenberg drips, his work splices references to famous 19th- and 20th-century paintings into scenes that depict real people and situations: William Burroughs in exile in Tangiers, the mysterious death of weapons inspector David Kelly in the Oxfordshire countryside, the Greenham Common protest, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dalwood's human subjects never themselves appear, though their presence and absence is signalled in all kinds of sidelong ways – a pair of slippers and a hookah on a step, a typewriter on a table in Burroughs's room, the wobbly moon hanging over the hill where Kelly died. There are no nukes or protesters in Dalwood's painting of Greenham Common. The author of The Naked Lunch is not at his desk – perhaps he's out scoring drugs or a boy. Instead, Matisse's Moroccans fill Burroughs's bed, and Rauschenberg's brushstrokes and a Cy Twombly scribble mess up his room, like so much mental clutter. Dalwood's attempt to track down the junkie-modernist author in Tangiers is waylaid by all that art.

Dalwood's work forms a narrative of art both contaminated and informed by life. In White Flag, Jasper Johns's white-on-white stars and stripes forms the wall of a compound. Smashed slabs litter the ground, a reference to Hans Haacke's work in the German pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale, when the artist tore up the marble floor, an explicit response to the pavilion's Nazi past. Dalwood's paintings are suave and clever, but recontextualising and quoting great art doesn't by itself make you great. Witty though they are, these works are too big, too flat, and suffer the same mechanical failings as grand 18th- and 19th-century history paintings. Spotting the references is apt to make you smug, like shouting answers at the telly while watching University Challenge.

Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, the Otolith Group, have turned their space into a kind of darkened seminar room. Lamps illuminate pamphlets on a table. You can sit and read, ponder the 49-minute film Otolith III, projected on to the end wall, or sit with headphones watching The Owl's Legacy, a rarely seen TV series by veteran film-maker and artist Chris Marker about the legacy of ancient Greece, whose 13 parts play on 13 monitors. By showing Marker's work in their Turner space (and retitling it Inner Time of Television), the Otolith Group are presenting us with what they call "a monument to dead television". Words, words, words. More words, quotes by Marker and others, emblazon the walls.

The Otolith Group, at one level, are dismantling the idea of a "Turner prize show". They swamp you and eat your time – you could spend the day in here – which is either to signal that they don't care about winning the prize, or that they want to overwhelm the opposition. "I want more life, father," says the boy in Otolith III, a film that contains fragments of other films and is intended as a kind of prequel to legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray's unmade The Alien. If Dalwood demands of his viewers a certain art historical diligence and knowledge, so the Otolith Groups's film works demand a familiarity not just with auteurs, but also goings-on in the underground art and film scenes of the patchouli-drenched late 1960s. Good Lord, there's the young David Medalla up a ladder at a happening at London's Arts Lab. And there's a painting by Jannis Kounellis floating by. The details accumulate.

But what matters? We see old footage of London, still struggling out of postwar austerity well into the 60s, while a voiceover invites us to search for possible actors among stock footage of pedestrians on the street, asking, "Could this gent play Arthur C Clarke?"

It is all very reminiscent of Marker and of the Black Audio Film Collective, whose work the Otolith Group curated in a major travelling show. The Group might well be accused of pretension (and what's wrong with that?), but what they really have is ambition. Otolith III must be seen from beginning to end in order for it to mean anything. It also has a kind of passion and sadness that means I want to watch it again. If one thinks it is derivative – well, nothing comes from nothing, and originality means going back to origins.

A galumphing, ridiculous act

Much has been made of the formal correspondences between the work of Angela de la Cruz and the late American painter Steven Parrino, who died in 2005; the New York Times's art critic Roberta Smith flagged up the connection in a 1998 review of her work. If De la Cruz's paintings have in the past paralleled some of Parrino's formal gambits and deconstruction of painting's surface and support, she recast the idea of the wounded, damaged painting in terms of her own body image and sense of human vulnerability.

For De la Cruz, even the business of painting became a galumphing, ridiculous and accident-prone act. Her paintings and sculptures may be knocked-about as well as knockabout, but there is a great deal of personal abjection in them. She also lets the muck of daily life in, the frustrations and absurdities of painting, of creativity itself. Each work is a kind of personage, or a plight, or an uncomfortable and sometimes funny situation. Her work is also painful – the broken chair on top of a rickety stool could be taken for a self-portrait, the filing cabinet and paint-rimed metal box jammed together on the wall a kind of collision of bodies, her dangling, mangled canvases fighting gravity, twisting in the wind, flopped hopelessly on the floor. Her Turner prize room is a tough, emphatic display.

Her best and biggest show, in Lisbon in 2006, took place soon after De la Cruz suffered a debilitating stroke, and it took a long time for her to start working again. Both her Turner exhibition and her Camden Art Centre show earlier this year have focused, mostly, on work made prior to her stroke, which interrupted an increasing concern with sculpture and objects. I think De la Cruz is in a moment of transition.

Who will win the Turner?

The final gallery is almost empty. Three audio speakers are hung low on the walls. Daylight falls in. Susan Philipsz's unaccompanied voice fills the space, singing three slightly different versions of the Scottish lament Lowlands Away, the voices moving together and apart, the variations in the lyrics and intonation creating dissonances, harmonic beats, a palpable friction. It is beautiful. As you move around the room, the voices cleave you and steal your heart. The experience is also very sculptural. I found myself thinking of Richard Serra, and the way he makes you feel your own presence in a space.

I first heard Philipsz's Lowlands when it was broadcast beneath a bridge on the Clyde at this year's Glasgow International festival. The effect in a room is utterly different, the voices turning in on themselves instead of lilting over the water and echoing under the bridge. This weekend, and every weekend until January, her voice also echoes and drifts in corners, alleys and courtyards in London's financial district. In this separate project, Surround Me, A Song Cycle for the City of London, Philipsz sings sad and yearning 16th- and 17th-century madrigals by John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and their contemporaries.

Her voice glances off glass-and-steel office buildings, leaks down alleys and resonates below London Bridge. Unlike walking around with an iPod, the music inhabits the space rather than your head. It follows you like a rumour, dogs your steps, disappears in the traffic. You find yourself looking for it, and searching for what cannot be seen. Susan Philipsz should win the 2010 Turner prize.

Turner Prize 2010: see artist profiles and more images from the show – plus give us your verdict at

Win two tickets to an exclusive private view and guided tour of the Turner Prize exhibition at © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 10 2010

A grotesque eye on history

Beautifully coloured and ever-sharp, Steve Bell's cartoons have been a general election highlight. If anyone in Britain is a true history painter, it's him

Last week saw the painter Dexter Dalwood being shortlisted for the Turner prize. According to his jury citation he is a "history painter"; the name of David, the great artist of the Oath of the Horatii, was invoked.

Hmm. There was another event last week – a historic one. The general election 2010 offered newspaper readers, and followers of the Guardian in particular, the chance to see "history paintings" every day. Let's hear it for the political cartoonists. But why be coy? Let's hear it for Steve Bell.

The Guardian's cartoonist has far more claim to be called a "history painter" than Dalwood does. Bell is one of my favourite contemporary artists, and has been since I was at school. In the dark days of Thatcherism, his strip If… was a rallying cry and comic escape rolled into one: it was what made me a Guardian reader.

If… continues, gloriously, but what made me laugh most in this election were Bell's ambitious, indeed epic, creations for the comment pages. These are masterpieces in the vein of Gillray. On Friday, he caught the reality of a hung parliament more accurately than any number of words can.

Art criticism should surely mean being awed by talent, and it is awe-inspiring how Bell can produce images that are so beautifully coloured while being so grotesquely apposite – and do this to punishingly tight deadlines. And the cartoon is a great art form. Tate Britain is right to honour it with the exhibition Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, due to open in June. In truth, this is our own national genre of "history painting".

While artists such as David were making history the highest genre in 18th-century France, the attempts of British artists from James Barry to Joshua Reynolds to elevate history painting in Britain never quite took off. Instead, the local alternative of comic history painting was born. Regency cartoons with their vicious depictions of political leaders have a sense of history all their own, a scabrous vision of the follies of the world. It surely lives in Bell's vision of the general election. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 04 2010

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