SEVERAL leading figures in the arts world have added their weight to a growing campaign for the work of painter Jack Vettriano to be properly recognised by the Scottish arts establishment.
Vettriano’s reputation has been fiercely defended by sculptor David Mach. A visiting professor at Edinburgh College of Art - an institution that turned away Vettriano in the 1980s - Mach praised his work and castigated critics for "jealousy".
Now the best-selling novelist AL Kennedy, the renowned sculptor Gerald Laing and the distinguished painter Joseph Maxwell have joined Mach in calling for Vettriano’s work to be exhibited in the National Galleries of Scotland.
Kennedy said she believed there were only about 20 people who go "round and round in a nice wee dance" who have a problem with Vettriano.
"It’s a tiny handful of people who just don’t want things to happen if it doesn’t involve their pals, or if it doesn’t involve what they think should be in any particular art form, or if it doesn’t involve the people they go to parties with," she said.
"Frankly, if official recognition means being recognised by that kind of person, why would you want it?"
Vettriano, a former miner from Leven, Fife, remains the best-selling artist in Britain. More than 500,000 posters of his work have been sold, the majority in the UK, US and Japan. His painting The Singing Butler is the best-selling fine-art print in the UK; the licensing agreement for this image alone is worth 250,000 a year.
Fans of his film noir-inspired work include Jack Nicholson, Terence Conran, Raymond Blanc, Robbie Coltrane and Gary Rhodes, but despite this worldwide success Vettriano has never found a place in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, or any other public institution outside of the Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery in his native Fife.
Indeed, Vettriano’s work is not just ignored by the establishment; his many critics have been vociferous in their assessment of his work.
Sandy Moffat, head of drawing and painting at Glasgow School of Art, said: "He can’t paint, he just colours in."
Sir Timothy Clifford, the director general of the National Galleries of Scotland, has steadfastly refused to comment on Vettriano’s lack of inclusion.
After Mach’s words of praise in August, Vettriano said he could "count on one finger" the compliments he has had in Scotland. But now other supporters have chosen to voice their disquiet at Vettriano’s treatment.
Maxwell, a distinguished member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Water Colours, said popular acclaim and critical acclaim should not be divorced.
"His prints have sold more than anyone else in the country and there’s nothing to say that it is bad art. What’s wrong with the National Galleries recognising the public love of Vettriano? It’s the public’s gallery after all.
"I’m not saying he will definitely go down as a great artist in 100 years but I still think he should be represented in the National Galleries."
Sculptor Gerald Laing, who is currently working on a 5million memorial to the victims of the Highland Clearances, said: "I’m delighted to hear people are coming out to support him. In the real world he’s absolutely hitting the button. People queue up to buy these paintings. They can’t all be wrong."
Laing added: "His paintings are full of questions, something is definitely going to happen, something’s probably going to go wrong. They are sexy, erotic. All his credentials are terrific and his drawing pretty good."
Laing predicted that Vettriano would, one day, be accepted in the National Galleries but said positions were now so entrenched that change would be slow.
"They have dug a hole so deep they can’t get out. You will have to wait until they pass on a bit until things change."
Vettriano was so stung by some of the criticism that he moved to London in 1999. However, he still craves the appreciation of Scots.
At the recent opening of a restaurant in St Andrews he said: "I’m not used to a great deal of warmth in Scotland, at least at a high level. It’s as though they want me to go away.
"It’s easy to say just laugh at them, but when you are reading about yourself, quotes from critics, it doesn’t fill you with joy. It’s a human thing - you always want what you’re not getting."
Vettriano was unavailable for comment last night but his agent Tom Hewlett confirmed the artist’s desire to be appreciated in Scotland.
"I think any artist would want to be recognised by his peers. He’s fiercely patriotic and I think it’s because he is so patriotic that he feels when the establishment kicks him for being successful it’s a bit odd," he said.
"I think it would be nice for there to be a proper appreciation of his work rather than this summary dismissal."
A National Galleries of Scotland spokesman said: "The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a historical collection with international priorities.
"With limited funds for acquisition, it has, since its foundation, tried to represent emerging Scottish artists early in their careers, as demonstrated in our current exhibition NEW, with contemporary artists such as Christine Borland, Douglas Gordon, Alison Watt, Callum Innes and Roddy Buchanan being included."
David Mach said: "If he was a fashion designer Jack would be right up there. It’s all just art world snobbery. Anyway, who cares, he probably makes more money than Damien Hirst anyway."
BY POPULAR DEMAND CLIFFORD SHOULD BACK DOWN
"THE scribblings of a child have a navet, a sincerity which make one smile, but the excesses of this school sicken or disgust," said the reviewer of La Presse about the first exhibition of Impressionist paintings in Paris in 1874. Of Monet’s eponymous painting at the exhibition, Impression: Sunrise, another critic wrote: "Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape."
Of course, the Parisian artistic establishment was later forced to eat its words when the French, then American, middle classes fell in love with the colourful, easy-on-the-eye Impressionists.
But even these days, you will find critics who think works of Renoir, Pissarro and co. are merely bourgeois confections.
According to a recent review in the Irish Times: "A roomful of Sisleys can be hard going: all those candy-coloured brushstrokes make you feel as if you are in a sweet shop."
With these historical precedents, then, perhaps we should not be too surprised by the fact that significant parts of the Scottish arts establishment shun the popular and populist paintings of Jack Vettriano.
He suffers all the same criticisms of the early French Impressionists: mere wallpaper, too simplistic in execution and subject, too obviously erotic.
Yet just because JK Rowling is currently the world’s most popular author does not debar her Harry Potter books from being in every public library in the land.
Likewise, just because Vettriano has struck a chord with the public - in a way that the current fad with minimalist, conceptual art has not - is no excuse for censoring him from the history of Scottish art by leaving him out of the national collections.
Sir Timothy Clifford, not a bad showman himself in the right causes, should give the public the right to see what all the fuss is about.