I met Brian Sewell only once while a student at the Courtauld Institute. As a fellow alumnus, he was attending a special event for alumni aged eighty or more. Stitching on a pleasant smile and wishing him an excellent visit, he quipped in response that the event was for the few people “who aren’t already dead yet”. He was a miserable git, but importantly, he reveled in being a miserable git.
He resolutely belonged to a golden era of Courtauld scholarship: a dashing and exciting racy period under tutelage of the late great Anthony Blunt. A giant of art history, especially of the Renaissance period to which Sewell remained consistently loyal and loving, Blunt was later outed as a spy and duly disgraced. Also in the late 60s, he was best buddies with Dalí, having apparently shared a fumbling sexual tryst with the surrealist painter in a story recounted in 2003, and named him the last of the great masters.
Put simply, he regarded everything that came after this period – the dandyish 60s, the art history and the Renaissance – as generally shit. He was enormously entertaining to read in his putdowns, and he seemed to be the one and only voice amongst the wave of YBA love to say hold on a minute, are we seriously standing in front of dead sharks and daubs of Emin vaginas and talking about their philosophical content? (Insert comical affected accent here.) Good on him for standing his ground. Pitch Hirst’s output against any of Michelangelo’s lovingly rendered buttocks. No compare, duh.
But he threatened to become a pastiche of himself: some of the slamming was all inclusive to the point of indiscrimination. He hated Grayson Perry, again going against the grain. He hated Anish Kapoor’s show at the RA. (Who can forget his comparison of the canons firing wax to soggy sad ejaculation?). Certainly I’m all for the lack of bullshit, but there is something to be said for the development of art needing room to breathe and explore, even if it does mean there’s some utter trite being made.
As Artbytch I try to speak as candidly about anything that really annoys me regarding contemporary art, and most of this is the waffly PR led hype hype hype bullshit. (Oh how I am grateful for the anonymity.) But even Sewell told it with a piercing Bluntness (sorrynotsorry) that I still splutter in disbelief and admiration at.