When reputation trumps talent

Caption: Vincent Namatjira has inherited a famous name. Skill, on the other hand…

When I first encountered the work of Vincent Namatjira some years ago, I suspected that someone was being had. A few years down the track, it seems that the con has been wildly successful: a painter with little discernable skill has been feted with an Archibald prize nomination, showings at prestigious galleries, and profiles in national newspapers.

Having a famous name need not confer great talent, but it certainly helps win patronage. Quote:

The Arrente man and rising Red Centre artist, who has just ?become the first Aboriginal person to have a solo show at Florida?s Art Basel Miami Beach, thinks ?positively? of leaders such as North Korea?s Kim Jong-un, ?although he also views him as dangerous.

?Putin reminds me of tjilpis (old men) back on the community,? he says. ?Most of them were cowboys.?

Namatjira?s latest collection, on show in association with Melbourne?s This Is No Fantasy gallery, depicts Vladimir Putin shirtless on horseback, Trump offering the Queen ?McDonald?s, himself and Trump, with a provocative ?Make APY Great Again? carving-up a cake decorated with a map of the world. End of quote.

Namatjira is clearly not without intelligence and humour, nor a clear talent for self-promotion. Quote:

In Namatjira?s mind, Trump may be ?trying to change the world or whatever? but is still just ?a funny bloke?.

?Trump is doing things his own way, sort of like I?m doing things my own way.?

He sees Trump as someone who?s too quickly judged, much as Aboriginal people are, in his view. End of quote.

But even the smartest person in the world isn?t necessarily going to be a great painter. I?m reminded of the great Australian art critic Robert Hughes?s blunt assessment of wunderkind Jean-Michel Basquiat: ?a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of artworld promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and, no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics?. Quote:

An Archibald Prize finalist, [Namatjira] has previously done reverent portraits of indigenous figureheads and seemingly mocking ones of modern Australian politicians. He has also tackled colonial personalities and Aboriginal admirers of the Sydney Opera House. End of quote.

Of course, the culture vultures and art-world panjandrums will arch their high brows and sniff at any children uncouth enough to point out the emperor?s threadbare state, but children and common folk often have a gift of seeing plainly what their superiors are far too educated to see.

As it happens, though, I actually went to art school. I?m not presumptuous enough to rate myself above a middling talent as a visual artist, but I do know a thing or two about art.

Picasso he ain?t.

As Hughes noted about Basquiat, there also seems to be a stench of patronising masquerading as patronage in the art world?s celebration of Namatjira. ?The racist idea,? as Hughes put it. ?Of the black as naif or as rhythmic innocent, and to the idea of the black artist as ?instinctual??a wild pet for the recently cultivated white?.

I could witter on about ?primitivism?, but the fact is that the truly great primitives such as Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse all worked from a solid base of hard-won skill. Picasso?s early work shows a draftsmanship equal to Leonardo’s. As my old art teacher told me, you have to know the rules before you can break them. The great artists of the early 20th century worked their way down. But since the 60s especially, generations of young artists have looked at the studied primitivism of Picasso, and figured, ?I can do that, easy?.

Only, it ain?t that easy.

Still, I can?t help but suspect a certain sly humour about Namatjira. Quote:

?I want people to see my paintings, smile and chuckle. Looking at my work, laughing about it, go ahead, because it makes me proud of who I am. I paint to have fun.? End of quote.

Caption: Vincent Namatjira, Donald and Malcolm Turnbull. This is almost good.

The kindest thing I can say about Namatjira?s actual art is that, unlike most bad painters, his colour palette is clean and unmuddied, and some of his work is undeniably funny. Still, there are occasional glimpses of true talent in his work. His portrait of Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, for instance, almost resembles the grotesqueries of Francis Bacon.

Caption: This, however, is not. Trump and Obama, Vincent Namatjira.

As Hughes said of Basquiat, ?In a saner culture than this one?[he] might have gone off to four years of boot camp in art school, learned some real drawing abilities (as distinct from the pseudo-convulsive notation that was his trademark), and in general, acquired some of the disciplines and skills without which good art cannot be made?.

Sadly, ours is no longer a sane culture.