Richard Dorment doesn’t do whimsy. Or Stanley Spencer. He’s a fan of Cy Twombly and Brice Marden, Gilbert and George and Mark Wallinger, Rachel Whiteread and Susan Hiller. He loves writing about contemporary art. And he worked as art critic of the Daily Telegraph for 25 years. Like the grit in the oyster he irritated the establishment, producing pearl after pearl that occasionally had even his own paper distancing itself from his opinions. ‘I looked edgy and transgressive,’ he says, ‘when in reality my taste in art was fairly cautious.’
Born in America, Dorment studied art history at Princeton and was assistant curator in European painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before moving to London and working as an exhibition organiser and writer on art. Having railed against the poor standard of art criticism in the British press, he joined the Telegraph in 1986, in good time to take a position in the furore that erupted over developments in contemporary British art through the late Eighties and Nineties, the years of Britart, the Turner Prize and the Saatchi Gallery.
Public opinion raged against these explorations of the boundaries and meaning of art, egged on by commentators who tossed all innovative art into one bag and dumped it as rubbish. By contrast, Dorment, and perhaps it should be stressed that he was not alone in this, engaged with what these individual artists, collectors and curators were doing and wrote about it in the same clear, intelligent prose with which he reviewed all the exhibitions he visited, from Ice Age Art to Fairy Paintings, from Caravaggio, Picasso and Pollock to Eygptian tomb paintings, video installations and performance art.
The selection of reviews in Exhibitionist, according to Dorment, includes those that make him look good, that read well and that say something new about the subject. Pace the slight whiff of self-congratulation, it’s hard to disagree. His enthusiasm (and in only seven of the 116 reviews is he not enthusiastic) is channelled into lucid descriptions, informative examinations of technique and speculative musings. For instance, in discussing the National Gallery’s exhibition on Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, a painting exhaustively analysed, discussed and loved, seen as a symbol of a passing age, Dorment also draws a parallel with Turner’s own ageing and takes this thought one step further:
I looked again at the picture, and saw something I had not seen before: that there is a mythic quality about ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, with the black tug acting the role of the boatman Charon ferrying his ghostly galleon across the River Styx.
A book of collected reviews of art exhibitions is a curious thing. Shorn of their original purpose — to encourage the reader to go and look at something happening now — and removed from the medium in which the reviews originally appeared, concentrated in time rather than spread out over some 25 years, their impact and function have become something quite different. What could seem an exercise in vanity (the title offers a hostage to fortune) has become a testament to a critic of consistent integrity and openness. He reacts viscerally to beauty, to raw emotion (Bas Jan Ader), to intimations of mortality (On Kawara). He loves to winkle out a narrative (Caillebotte), he laments the stifling of symbolism in British art and he salutes genius wherever he finds it. He applauds academic rigour and excoriates intellectual sloppiness. The selection of reviews has also thrown up unintended resonances across the years: in 2002 Dorment wrote about Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Moonlit Path’ made in the grounds of Petworth House in Sussex. Ten years later he reviewed an exhibition on Symbolist landscape in Europe and illustrated it with Prince Eugen’s painting ‘The Forest’ (1892). The two works make an extraordinary duo.
For those readers who, like me, have missed seeing many of these exhibitions, this book will be a welcome substitute. Of course more illustrations would have been a bonus, but this is, after all, the age of Google. The feel of the book itself is more like an exhibition catalogue than anything else, its design and layout elegant and sumptuous; and so I imagine it must have been annoying for all concerned that one of the full page plates is repeated in error.
Having worked as an exhibition curator himself, Dorment is scrupulous, and unusual, in crediting by name the organisers and designers of exhibitions. This is not to say that he pulls his punches when he doesn’t approve. The other side of his generosity as a critic is naming and shaming where he felt it necessary and there are a handful of reviews at the end of the book that must have made some people want to run and hide.