Has contemporary painting been "overlooked" during the last 15 years? Or did it just fade from view when the tabloids' frenzied thirst for "shock art" dominated the headlines?
To answer these questions, Charles Saatchi is filling his eponymous London museum with painting for the next year, showing off his latest purchases and letting us all know what we've been missing.
Bombastically titled "The Triumph of Painting," the exhibition is so monumental in scale that it is being held in three landmark chapters over all of 2005. Saatchi's intention is for us to see the "remarkable paintings produced and overlooked in an age dominated by video, installation and photographic art."
Paradoxically, many of the paintings in Saatchi's exhibition reveal a distinct debt to photography and video.
To accommodate this ambitious show, the "Sensation" generation has been cast out of the Saatchi temple.
Hirst's shark is on its way to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, allegedly sold to hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen for $12 million. Tracey Emin's unmade bed is now installed in her own room at Tate Modern.
The rest of Saachi's YBA collection is mothballed until 2006.
In their place, Saatchi's monumental accumulation of contemporary European paintings, with an emphasis on young German painters from Berlin, adorns the labyrinth of Queen Anne wood-paneled rooms at County Hall.
Part one of "The Triumph of Painting" features works by Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Jörg Immendorff, Martin Kippenberger, Hermann Nitsch and Luc Tuymans -- all debatably described by Saatchi as "key European artists."
You have to admire Saatchi's determination to present these spectacles of contemporary art. Few collectors dare to brag about their purchases quite so loudly and put themselves on the line with so much publicity. Such generosity has deservedly propelled Saatchi into the international pantheon of "supercollecters."
However, every collector is an investor. A man who compulsively buys art to show it off, Charles Saatchi has an obsessive nature that is both the source of his genius and his Achilles Heel.
Indisputably Britain's greatest living collector of the past two decades, Saatchi is equally thought of as "the most successful art dealer of our times," a man who, many claim, manipulates the art market to appease his sense of grandiosity and ensure his financial gain.
Saatchi claims he never thinks too much about the market, telling the Art Newspaper that he often pays three or four times the value of a work he really wants.
Yet Saatchi is to the art world what Alan Greenspan is to the world economy. His mercurial opinions and prescient buying patterns are arguably the single greatest influence in today's art market.
And herein lies the problem with part one of the "The Triumph of Painting," an exhibition that should be re-titled "The Triumph of Buying."
"The simple truth," wrote Philip Hamerton in Thoughts about Art (1873), "is that capital is the nurse and governess of the arts, not always a very wise or judicious nurse, but an exceedingly powerful one. And in the relation of money to art, the man who has money will rule the man who has art . . . [for] starving men are weak."
While some of the artists in part one of "The Triumph of Painting" are celebrated, it's mostly for their success in rising to the top of the art market, not for their influence or painterly genius.
On Nov. 10, 2004, a portrait by the South African painter Marlene Dumas, Jule, die Vrou (1985), sold for a record $1,239,500 at Christie's New York. In the current exhibition, Jule, die Vrou finds itself reverently hung in its own room, so one must approach the painting like a sacred relic.
But what awaits us is a painting so inconsequential that one can only be astounded at its astronomical auction price rather than at any pictorial merits it may offer to the viewer -- much less an entire generation of painters!
Further on, we enter a room filled with more flaccid sensationalism, Dumas' portraits of pre-pubertal children, including Over liken lopen (1993), which sold for $276,923 a year ago at Sotheby's London, and Young Boys (1993), which was bought for $993,600 at Phillips, de Pury & Co. in New York on May 13, 2004). Sounding the limits of innocence and vulnerability, what the catalogue labels "no frills, full on, with nowhere to hide," the only thing these paintings truly expose is the uncertainty of Dumas' painterly skill.
Martin Kippenberger's works, the most numerous in the show, prove that unbridled pluralism can be just as boring as rigid formalism. Some would call him the Picasso of our times because of his stylistic meandering. But Picasso was a technical virtuoso, whose appropriation and mastery of a range of pictorial styles often exceeded the original sources. By comparison, Kippenberger is a mere nihilistic prankster, whose attempts to fuse Dada, Pop and Neo-Expressionism, like a stale joke, fails to give us any joy.
Saatchi first started collecting the work of Jrg Immendorff 20 years ago. But neither the accumulation of meaning over time that graces most art, nor Saatchi's brilliant installation, can help Immendorff's overwrought productions.
Paintings like Door to the Sun (1994), Gyntiana Birth/Onion Man (1992) or his celebrated "Caf Deutschland" updates on the caustic social commentary of Georg Gross and Otto Dix, here represented by Caf Deutschland (Lift/Tremble/Back) (1984), are oversaturated to the point where they cause brain lock rather than fire the circuits of creative engagement.
Buried in repetitive lines and obsessive compulsive behavior, Immendorff's narcissistic symbolism is so obscure any possibility of engaging in their narrative becomes an exercise in futility ending in utter frustration.
In direct opposition to Immendorff's manic energy is the utter stillness of Luc Tuymans sublime Still Life (2002).
Although this painting stands on its own merits, it becomes even more impressive after learning that it was painted for Documenta 11 in 2002, in a post-9/11 spirit of political and social engagement.
Tuymans chose a starkly banal theme as a response to unimaginable horror. At the center of a massive (347 x 500 cm.) white canvas sits a bleached out fragment of Cézanne-like still life, hovering silently in empty white space.
Peter Doig is the most accomplished painter in the show. But his paintings suffer for their reliance on photographic sources. Consequently, like so many works painted from reproductions, they lack the sparkle which only direct observation of the original sensory-rich source can provide.
Saatchi's purchases of Doig's paintings have certainly driven up his prices to impressive levels. Works in the show include Concrete Cabin (1994), which sold for $156,500 at Phillips on May 18, 2000; White Creep (1995), sold for $365,900 at Christies New York on Nov. 11, 2003; Grasshopper (1990), sold for $383,946 at Sotheby's London on June 25, 2003; and The Architect's Home in the Ravine (1991), sold for $479,649 at Sotheby's London on June 26, 2002.
Admittedly rendered with the skill of a maestro, Doig's paintings end as unmemorable encounters -- his images have no staying power. While their sensual surfaces are pleasing to our sense of tactility, the vacuous imagery implodes into a level of creative engagement that is not unlike reading a technical manual.
Fans of Doig's thematic investigation of magic realism would do well to remember the American artist Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), the mystical landscape painter whose emotionally charged visions of the felt but unseen forces of nature are the results of direct encounter with his subjects.
The majestic blood-red gestural paintings of "The Pope of Viennese Aktionism," Hermann Nitsch, are like relics of the rituals and mock crucifixions performed at his Austrian Castle. These visceral works seem bizarrely out of place in this otherwise cerebral show. Works from his "Splatter Painting" series of the late 80s, while tedious as a group (when you've seen one, you've seen them all), still contain a raw emotive power, despite the fact that it's not blood on the canvas but good old oil and acrylic.
A telling analogy for painting's direct emotional impact can be found in the diaries of Charles Darwin, who once described a visit to the reptile house in the London Zoo.
Darwin put his face up-close to the glass in front of a puff adder, determined he would not flinch if it struck at him. But when the snake did strike, Darwin leapt backwards, a reflex propelled by ancient and automatic brain circuits. Regardless of how many times he repeated the experiment, no amount of reason and rationality could stop this primitive emotional reaction.
Similarly, great paintings are not mere exercises in exposition but employ a raw power to appeal to more primitive human emotional reactions.
Let's hope that the forthcoming two sections of "The Triumph of Painting" provide a better catalyst for unexpected pathways of brain circuitry to fire with a blaze of creative engagement.
Gut feelings, whether painful or pleasurable, require little explanation. They are hard to ignore. And so are great paintings.