No modern artist, not even the likes of Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin1, divides opinion like Jack Vettriano. It seems that the public cannot get enough of his work: it is estimated that he makes over £200,000 every year from posters and prints of his work, and celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Robbie Coltrane and Terence Conran queue up to buy his work and sing his praises.
The critical establishment, on the other hand, is less enthusiastic. Prominent critics have described his work as 'soft porn', dismissing it with comments such as, 'he's welcome to paint, as long as nobody takes him seriously'. Is this merely snobbery and fear in action, or do the critics have a valid point?
From Miner to Artist
Like most young men of that era, he left school at 16 to work in the local coalfield, although Vettriano himself is quick to point out that the image of him 'lying on his side hewing coal is bloody nonsense'. Vettriano trained and worked as an engineer before going on to work in the personnel department at the colliery. Eventually he moved on to a job with the Manpower Services Commission, a government agency dealing with technical education. He married, bought a house, and settled down.
In 1988, at the age of 37, he sold two paintings at a Royal Scottish Academy exhibition. This changed his life irrevocably. His marriage broke down under the pressure of his ambition, and he quit his job, moved across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh, and changed his name.
As a young man, Vettriano was a frequent visitor to the nearby art gallery in the town of Kirkcaldy. Inspired by the works he saw there, and by the gift of a watercolour painting set, he started copying the works of the Old Masters, especially van Gogh and the Impressionists. Without the benefit of formal training, he slowly taught himself how to paint. But an application to Edinburgh Art College was rejected without explanation, and it took him almost 20 years to get from his first daubings to his first sale.
A Rich Man's Pornography - or 'Wasted Elegance'?
Jack Vettriano is a hugely successful artist in commercial terms. His originals sell for thousands of pounds, often to high-profile buyers.
But it's the posters and prints that really make money. His most famous painting, The Singing Butler, sells more posters in the UK than any other work of art, including the more critically-acclaimed works of artists such as van Gogh. Runner-up in the poster sales chart is a similar Vettriano work, Mad Dogs. He has enjoyed similar success around the world, especially in Japan and the USA.
The problem with such success is that artists are supposed to struggle, their talents unrecognised by the world, until they are dead or insane. Vettriano's refusal to follow this tradition has resulted in sneering comments from the arts establishment in Scotland.
Typical of his detractors is Duncan MacMillan, Professor of Scottish Art History at the University of Edinburgh, who has described Vettriano's work as 'dim erotica'. Professer MacMillan's book, Scottish Art 1460 - 2000, grudgingly gives up one paragraph to mention Vettriano, but makes no room for any of his work amongst the 370 images chronicling the period. Sandy Moffat, who is MacMillan's equivalent at the Glasgow School of Art, describes Vettriano's work as 'badly-conceived soft porn'.
It is true that Vettriano's more recent work is darker and more sexually charged. For an example, compare the popular The Singing Butler with the more controversial later work The Assessment. Other prominent critics have described his paintings as 'flat', 'soulless', 'no more than colouring-in' and derivative of Edward Hopper (who does share certain noir stylings with Vettriano). A good example for comparison is Hopper's Nighthawks.
The money and success must soften the blow a least a little, but it is clear that Vettriano craves acceptance by the art establishment. 'Show me the artist,' he has said, 'who does not want to be recognised by his peers, and I will show you a liar.'
Although Vettriano's supporters in the art world are few and far between, he has his share of celebrity fans. As well as famous collectors of his work such as the film actor Jack Nicholson, respected people in other fields of the arts have leapt to his defence. Author AL Kennedy has described his critics as 'idiots', claiming jealousy as the reason for their ire.
Vettriano, who got such inspiration from Kirkcaldy Art Gallery, has returned the favour by ensuring that his exhibitions, though they may travel all over the world, always spend some time in Kirkcaldy. The curator of Kirkcaldy Art Gallery has described Vettriano as 'a very significant artist of the moment'.
It is impossible to tell if time will be kinder to Jack Vettriano than the Scottish art establishment has been. Perhaps, 100 years from now, his work will be as highly regarded as van Gogh's or Rembrandt's is now. Possibly it will be forgotten, as the works of artists who struggle penniless now are discovered and held up as masterpieces. But the present ridicule of Vettriano, which has caused him to abandon Scotland for London, is perhaps a shameful indication of how Scotland treats her success stories and self-made men.