Tragedy of the burnt masterworks

    Jokes about a ‘bonfire of the vanities’ are crass. We have lost art that really mattered, says our art critic Waldemar Januszczak

    Hell had taken three years to create. It was probably the most important example of Britart ever made. Now the Chapmans’ mini apocalypse has suffered its own major apocalypse. It’s a horrible cultural setback. But Jake and Dinos Chapman won’t like anyone getting overly sentimental about the loss of their Hell. They’ll joke and giggle their way through the aftermath of the blaze.

    Indeed, it’s rather heartening to see them spreading disinformation about remaking the piece in asbestos next time, or following it up with an indestructible new sculpture called Heaven. It’s the Chapmans’ way to assume insouciance. But take it from me, they will be feeling napalmed inside. They know how long they struggled with their masterwork.

    They know how much unshakeable determination was needed to lock themselves away, pretty much broke, for as long as they did, fiddling with Hell’s countless bits. Their display of creative stamina has become the stuff of artworld legend.

    Of course, people like to imagine that Britart was always incorrigibly jokey. It could be. But the best of it has an underlying seriousness to it, and my prophecy is that this seriousness will be much more visible to subsequent generations than it is to us. Had Hell been around in the future, it would surely have served as irrefutable evidence of Britart’s power and range. Not only was it a fabulously interesting and endlessly entertaining work of art. But God, how gloomy it was.

    Hell consisted of a huddle of nine glass cases each featuring its own slice of gory war game presented in incredibly detailed tableaux clogged with corpses. The soldiers weren’t much bigger than ants but they were going at each other with the open-tapped viciousness of Staffordshire bull terriers. Most of the war-game soldiers were dressed as Nazis but any uniform would have fitted them. They were interested in cannibalism, rape, mutilation, mass murder; Hell was a description of the warping effects of war.

    It was made before Iraq. It was made before Afghanistan. It was made before any of us had seen those piles of naked bodies posed grotesquely before us for a war laugh. But even though it was created before all that, Hell captured that mood and was about those things, and those people. You know an artwork is really important — of true historic significance — when events that come after its creation appear, magically and perversely, to be mimicking it. Anyone seeking to illustrate a textbook about the times we are currently going through would have sought Hell out. It was so damn prescient.

    There is surprisingly little great war art. Goya produced some. Picasso, of course, painted Guernica. You wouldn’t have thought, however, that Britart would have had the skills for such weighty subjects. But you’d be wrong. The Chapmans’ Hell deserved to be added to the short list of crucial artworks about war.

    Yet to make things worse, we don’t even have a decent photograph of the piece to prove to subsequent generations how telling it was. Hell was pretty much unphotographable. All those little moments of violence packed into all those glass cases refused stubbornly to drop their randomness and get neat or photogenic. Hell will survive only in the memories of those of us lucky enough to have seen it. It’s gone.

    And it wasn’t alone. That sweet piece by Tracey Emin in which she sewed the names of everyone she had ever slept with onto the cloth of her tent has also burnt. Tracey wasted so much breath telling everyone who asked about it that her tent wasn’t a piece about sex but about companionship. Her brother’s name was on there, for heaven’s sake, and the names of her girl friends. But these are filthy times we live in, and when a girl says she’s slept with someone our age insists on thinking the worst.

    I’ll miss the tent. I remember crawling into when it was on show in Minneapolis in an early Britart display, and feeling so warm and cosy in there. Tracey’s tent was a corner of any foreign field that was forever a sleepover with friends.

    The fire would have had its work cut out getting rid of Damien Hirst’s whopping great sculpture, Charity. It was about as tall as a London bus and made of metal. The last time I saw the piece it was getting pooed on by pigeons in Hoxton Square, where it had camped out in the open as part of Hirst’s comeback show at the White Cube gallery.

    Charity was modelled on one of those collection boxes the Spastics Society used to leave outside newsagents’. It showed a little girl wearing callipers and clutching a toy. The idea was to drop a few coins in the slot in the little girl’s head as you left the shop. But Hirst had ambiguous feelings about modern charity. He had ambiguous feelings about modern Britain. And at the little girl’s feet was a jemmy and some scattered coins. The collection box had been robbed. It was the whole point of the piece.

     

    Interestingly, Charity looked old and battered even when it was brand new. Hirst had put considerable effort into roughing the sculpture up, scratching it, making it look spent. . The fire has now completed this job. I fully expect Hirst to seek out the melted blob that remains and to rescue it. I fully expect him to put it on show again one day. I doubt that he’ll change the name.

    But it wasn’t just our younger Brit artists the flames of the East End sought out. An older generation got scorched as well. If the Chapman brothers’ Hell was the most important artwork to be lost in Leyton, the saddest disappearance was the 50 paintings by Patrick Heron that were torched. Fifty paintings. That’s a career.

    Heron’s work was so excellently cheerful and cocky. I visited him a few times at the clifftop eyrie in Cornwall where he lived and worked, and remember the buoyancy of his art so well. Heron, famously, liked to claim that he was the inventor of abstract expressionism. He used to claim it was he, not Rothko, not Pollock, who got there first. It wasn’t true. And he wasn’t a Rothko. But he had bucketloads of spirit and no grim industrial burnout in the East End had any business laying a finger on his happy work. Fifty paintings.

    Apparently, the reason so many Herons were being stored in the warehouse was because his daughters, who’d been left the collection after Heron died in 1999, had no space at home to hang them. Herons were big. Modern art is often big. That’s why it has to be rolled up in soulless industrial hangars like the Momart storage facility in Leyton. In the old days, when a fire had a go at art, it would take on somewhere grand and stoney, the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome, say. Or old St Paul’s. Or Hampton Court. There was at least some cruel nobility to a fiery end like that. The Momart hangar has no such redeeming grandeur. They should store tractor parts in there. Or used carpets. Or pork scratchings. Anything but Patrick Herons and Paula Regos and Patrick Caulfields and the work of Gillian Ayres.

    That’s the bad news. The good news is that the fire may yet lead to some tangible good. I don’t only mean the extra effort that will now go into the safe storage of works of art. It was Picasso who once said that to create you have to destroy. Art and destruction have a relationship. They go together. They always have.

    In 17th-century Holland still life painters used to include other people’s art in their arrangements of wilting roses and decaying apples, precisely to make the point that art, like roses, like apples, like us, has a limited lifespan. Enjoy its beauty while you can.

    I’ve recently been making a television series about Vincent van Gogh and kept coming across fine paintings that had disappeared. The most important of these lost Van Goghs was a self-portrait of Vincent trooping off to paint sunflowers, or corn, in the fields around Arles. It was the only image of him at work. It was lost in Berlin during the war. We blew it up. Fire finished off the job.

    Getting blown up, burnt, flooded, stolen, slashed, disfigured, shot at, hammered to bits, sprayed, or just forgotten is an occupational hazard in the world of art. The Taliban come and dynamite you away even though you’ve been standing there for 2,000 years preaching love and peace. Rampaging hordes of Iraqis steal you from a Baghdad museum, break you into portable pieces and then flog you in the market. Being an art object is dangerous work.

    It’s a lesson that history keeps teaching us, often with grimly impeccable timing. Far more of the art that has poured out of humans through the ages has been destroyed than has survived. Art is like those trees in South Africa that need a good burning every few decades in order to grow. In recent years Britart has slowed to a creative crawl. It has some need of a short sharp shock. And the collector who lost most in the great fire of Leyton, the formerly mighty Charles Saatchi, could certainly profit from a zap to his engines. Saatchi has done little that is impressive of late.

    Not for one second do I think the Momart bonfire of the vanities was a good thing. But good may yet come of it.