AN ENGLISH CUBIST


WILLIAM ROBERTS:

Publicity


This piece first appeared as the preface to William Roberts's book of reproductions Paintings 1917–1958 (London, 1959). The present text is taken from William Roberts, Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings (Valencia, 1990). © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society




The cover of Paintings 1917–1958


Until quite recently I believed that an artist's work was its own publicity. Consequently he had only to go on calmly painting, producing pictures, and he would be publicising himself at the same time. This no doubt was so in former times, but with the rise and development of modern advertising this is no longer true. Of the significance of this change for an artist, I have only lately become aware. I knew that artists were written about, and that books were published on their work. I was acquainted besides with the magnificent and profusely illustrated volumes that had been brought out on the paintings of some of my contemporaries. But this I imagined was due to the enthusiastic admiration of some writer or art critic wishing to pay homage to his favourite painter, as for instance Lady Rothenstein's book on the work of Stanley Spencer, and Sir Herbert Read's on Ben Nicholson. These tributes seemed to me subsidiary to the main work of publicity carried out by the artist's pictures on the gallery walls.

I was convinced that if I held tight to my palette, ultimately some admiring critic would eulogize me too in the same way. Stick to your painting, your publicity will take care of itself, was my motto.

However, I was mistaken, for without the books, biographies, articles and reproductions, the work itself would make but a faint impression upon the outside world. Indeed to leave any mark at all, and to escape the 'conspiracy of silence' that is the frequent fate of artists, a prodigious amount of this publicity is needed.

I was made to realise the error and the danger of my policy of 'wait and see', by the very fulfilment of my long cherished hope – the arrival of a 'biographer'. Already shortly before this event, I had received evidence as to the precarious state of my publicity, with the opening of the Wyndham Lewis retrospective exhibition at the Tate, and my biographer's effort gave it a still further nasty jolt. It was at this point that I decided to take an active part in my own advertising. A start was made by the publication of the 'Vortex Pamphlets' and continued with 'Some early abstract and Cubist work'. These booklets were meant to defend and define my part in the origin of the abstract painting movement in England.

Yes, today more than ever, an artist needs the support of a continuous barrage of advertisement. Since the second world war, there has been an enormous development of art propaganda on a world-wide scale. Each country has now its own arts council or similar cultural organisation. Our own Arts Council co-operating with other museums and galleries puts on a continuous series of exhibitions. The catalogues to these Shows punctiliously document the artist's production, giving elaborate details and dates. In some of these chronologies, even where the painter spent his holidays is carefully recorded. The arts have become bureaucratised. Moreover, art is now a News-Item. Big daily newspapers allocate generous portions of their space to accounts of picture sales with their fabulous prices, and the activities of their wealthy collectors. Nowadays the news value of art is second only to football, and the star artist must be featured alongside the star of soccer. Alongside the film star too. For woe betide the painter who neglects his broadcasts or T.V. appearances. Assuredly such negligence will be reflected to his detriment in the sales chart at his dealers. Yes, indeed, an artist needs a great deal of advertisement if he intends to make his living only by his art.

This high pressure advertising of the artist and his wares is a twentieth-century phenomenon. As his pictures become more and more commercial commodities, they have to be advertised like other marketable goods. In all earlier historical periods, for the painter and his patron there was no publicity problem. In Medieval or Renaissance times the demands of the picture market were limited almost entirely to religious subjects and the requirements of the Church. And when Michael Angelo had finally fixed his 'Last Judgement' in cement upon the walls of the Sistine Chapel his worries were ended, it could not be auctioned off for twenty-times its original price, unless the chapel were sold too. Nor had Michael to concern himself with Press notices, Private View invitations, and gallery cocktails to promote sales. For all that was needed to bring the Roman notables to his Private View, was the tolling of a church bell.

Contrast with the present day the conditions in which the artist of the Quattrocento, in the quiet interior of church or monastery, worked laboriously for years slowly fixing his designs in fresco, intended to last for all time. In this Atomic Age who cares whether a painting lasts or not? Your up-to-the-hilt-hundred-per-cent 'Modern' wants action at any cost; he'll drip, throw, or trudge his paint on to a piece of cardboard or hardboard, and if this isn't fast enough he'll use a bicycle.

In the central London area there are some sixty-five picture galleries continuously putting on exhibitions. Three shows a month is the average for a gallery, and about fifty works to a show, so that one hundred and fifty exhibits go up on its walls and off again twelve times a year; and if the sixty-five galleries are taken together, an up-and-down movement of about ten thousand different pictures each month. Nor must we leave out of this reckoning the large number of paintings that are hung in the public parks and gardens of the metropolis each year. In this modern age, from chimpanzees and children to our elder statesmen, we are all artists. What would Vasari say!

Up to the present time, the customary English way to publicise an artist and his work, apart from an isolated reference or so when he exhibits a picture, has been by what I will call the 'Two-Volume' method. This method consists in producing toward the end of the subject's life two thick tomes of memoirs. Into these are packed all the minute biographical details of a long lifetime; his associations with the rich or famous, and what they said to each other; accounts of his travels, and of his friendships with beautiful women. All this is interspersed with photographs of himself at various ages, together with reproductions of his work. As a rule these two magnificently bound books reach the world just as their author is about to leave it, and are more suitable as a monument to a dead artist than propaganda for a living one. As examples of the system we have the autobiographies of Sir William Rothenstein, Sir Alfred Munnings, and Augustus John in two-volume editions.

But there is another method which could be described as the French or Continental, and which as a publicity technique is far superior to the English. It plays a much more active part in the artist's life and production, being a sort of 'running commentary' in contrast to our practice of 'summing up'. This publicity begins with the first creations of the young painter and continues in an ever increasing flood of press notices, brochures, catalogues, appreciations, reproductions, estimations, rolling without cease off the printing presses during his entire career. The outstanding representative of the French system is Pablo Picasso. This enormous propaganda edifice far overtops even such skyscrapers of publicity as Joe Stalin or Sir Winston Churchill, and its effect has been to make Picasso not only the most known artist in the world, but also, to quote the Director of the Tate Gallery, 'A living legend' besides.

In a book published recently for the Museum of Modern Art of New York with the title '50 years of Picasso's Art' there is a list comprising twenty-three pages of more than 550 items consisting of books, brochures, essays, and articles upon Picasso. But this list, we are told, does not include the hundreds of brief exhibition notices, non-critical statements, and routine reviews that have appeared in the world's magazines and newspapers. This book speaks of the 'Picasso Publicity Campaigns' of 1931; of 1932–36; and of 1939. From this date these propaganda campaigns of the painter Picasso were temporarily interrupted, by those other campaigns of the ex-painter Hitler. When the war was over Picasso's advertisement was resumed with even more vigour, and has been carried on without pause to the present day. By photograph and film, the work of this artist-even to the slightest scribble or scrawl-has been popularised throughout the world. To find publicity of this extent and power in England we must leave the arts and turn to industry or commerce; only in those spheres of advertising where 'Castrol is the Masterpiece in Oils' and 'Omo adds Brightness to Whiteness' can anything be found to compete with Picasso.

During this last decade, several of our own 'Moderns' emulating the 'Continentals' have been concentrating upon their publicity. It is among the 'Abstract' painters and sculptors, among the 'Actionists', the 'Otherists' that the greatest advertising energy has been shown. It is here too that the avant-garde critics, journalists, write-up men, curators and gallery 'Personalities' find most scope for their talents. If one is an 'Abstractionist' it is not sufficient to have a merely English reputation, to be a really successful 20th Century Modern one must be 'European' too, and the only way to escape from the art provincialism of London and attract the notice of the International Modern Art autocrats across the Channel is to advertise. But there is something else besides reputation involved. Recently a well known London art dealer speaking about a certain native painter of 'abstractions' observed that it was impossible to sell his work because he was not 'European' and was outside the 'Mainstream'. This stream I take to be a kind of abstract art current that flows between the terminals: Paris–New York. So an insufficiency of the right kind of publicity not only prevents the Modern from reaching the 'Mainstream', but endangers his supply of bread and butter as well.

The reproductions shown in this little book represent a general survey of my work from 1917 down to the present time.

William Roberts
April 1959



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