Here’s an intriguing thought experiment: could Damien Hirst disappear? By that I mean not the 52-year-old artist himself — that would be sensational indeed — but the vast fame, the huge prices, the hectares of newsprint, profiles, reviews and interviews by the thousand. Could all that just fade from our collective memory into a black hole of oblivion?
The answer is: yes, quite easily. Artists vanish all the time. Take the case of Hans Makart (1840–1884). He was a contemporary of Monet, Manet and Degas, but enormously more acclaimed in his lifetime than any of those. A period of Viennese life was dubbed the ‘Makart era’, a fashionable idiom was named the ‘Makartstil’.
One reason for his success was that he was a master of PR. Makart transformed his studio, an old foundry, into a vast stage set crammed with floral displays, sculpture and opulent bric-à-brac. Cosima Wagner described it as a ‘wonder of decorative beauty, a sublime lumber-room’. To a 21st-century eye, old photographs of the space look like installation art.
Makart was able to put on a tremendous performance, too. In 1879 he designed a spectacular parade to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the Emperor Franz Joseph, with floats, costumes, every detail conceived by the artist — and Makart leading the entire caboodle in person on a white horse. The Viennese liked it so much they carried on repeating the ‘Makart parade’ until the 1960s.
He gave his age what it wanted: masses of voluptuous naked flesh depicted with sub-Rubenesque gusto, mixed with jewels, rich textiles and maybe a spot of blood. But who remembers Makart now? To be fair, a few art historians do — and probably more in Austria than elsewhere. But compared with Cézanne or Sisley — obscure nobodies when he was riding that white horse — his is a very dim name these days.
Makart’s is not an isolated case. Many of the most familiar figures in the history of art passed through periods — lasting in some cases for centuries — during which nobody paid them or their works any attention at all. In 1786, Goethe — one of the most cultivated and erudite people in Europe — passed through Assisi without looking at the frescoes of the Upper and Lower Churches of San Francesco. Giotto, Simone Martini and Cimabue simply weren’t then on the list of interesting things to see.
Similarly, nobody took much interest inEl Greco between his death in 1614 and the mid 19th century. For a long while, Johannes Vermeer was, if not a complete artistic nonentity, then no more famous than dozens of other 17th-century Dutch genre painters. Even within recent times, the rise of Vermeer’s reputation has been stratospheric. In 2014, the most popular art exhibition in the world was a show in Tokyo in which the biggest attraction by far was one of his paintings, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (seen by 750,000 people at a rate of 10,000 a day). Twenty-five years ago this picture was not even the most celebrated Vermeer.
The market in artistic fame — even of old masters — is surprisingly volatile. The examples above are, of course, those who got remembered again. But plenty, famous in their day, never get rediscovered. Alternatively, they may be hugely admired by one age, then relegated to a much less prominent spot in our collective consciousness. Raphael Mengs, Guido Reni and the Carracci are among those currently in this position: their works still hang on the walls of major art galleries, but they are not paid much attention.
When it comes to art that is being made right now, the volatility is even greater. Recently, I’ve been looking at Private View, a lavish coffee-table book published in 1965. It was intended as a snapshot, as the subtitle puts it, of ‘The Lively World of British Art’, including gallery owners, writers and many others, but mainly artists.
In many ways it’s a marvellous volume, with wonderfully evocative photographs by Lord Snowdon. Quite a few of those featured are still highly familiar: Bridget Riley, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud. But dozens of names are now known only to specialists in the period. Some of them even the experts would have to look up.
David Hockney, who got a few pages in Private View, once observed that ‘very few people would know what the truly significant art of today is. You’d have to be an incredibly perceptive person to do so. The history books keep being changed.’ That’s demonstrably true. And it’s possible to climb a long way up the pole, then slip right down again.
Some years ago, I was lining up to go into a lunch in honour of the artist representing Britain at the Venice Biennale. I fell into conversation with an elderly man standing behind me in the queue whose face I couldn’t quite place. After a bit he remarked in a melancholy tone: ‘In 1970, this lunch was given for me.’ It was Richard Smith.
During the 1960s and early 1970s Smith, and his friend and art-school contemporary Robyn Denny, were among the brightest stars in British art. The glittering prizes — Venice, Tate retrospectives while they were still in early middle-age— were theirs. Then it all went away. There are 85 works by Denny in the Tate collection, but only one is currently on view (which is more than there have sometimes been).
Towards the end of his life, Smith reflected sadly: ‘I was the right kind of artist for that kind of time. Then… I don’t know.’ Denny kept telling him, Smith said, ‘Our time will come, Dick. Our time will come.’ But he’d been saying that for a long time: ‘years and years and years’.
So the answer is that it would be entirely conceivable for Hirst — mega-rich and colossally well known though he is — to melt away like mist. Indeed he has several resemblances to Makart and Smith. Like the former he is a master of self-presentation. Like the latter, it seems to me, he had good ideas, but only for a short period (approximately 1988–93 in Hirst’s case; 1959–63 in Smith’s).
He certainly managed to provide just what a particular era wanted (future historians may call it ‘the plutocratic period’). His auction of new works at Sotheby’s — held, by eerie coincidence, on 15 September 2008, the day Lehman Brothers collapsed — realised £111 million. But his prices and reputation have been bobbing up and down since then.
His current exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which fills two large museums in Venice until December, looks like an attempted relaunch. It has pulled in the crowds but received some hostile reviews (‘undoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade’ according to ARTnews). The numerous exhibits, fabricated at a cost of millions and priced accordingly, might well sink back down into the cold, green depths of collective indifference.
The good news, from Hirst’s point of view, is that what disappears may always resurface. Makart, Smith and Denny may yet make a comeback. To echo Hockney, it would require an incredibly perceptive person to know what, if anything, being made today will fascinate future centuries.