National Gallery, London

Georges Seurat: Bathers at Asnières, 1884

Richard Dorment studied art history at Princeton in the 1960s, becoming a specialist in late-nineteenth-century British art. Curatorial work in this field later took him to London. In 1986 he was hired as art critic for that city’s Daily Telegraph, a post from which he retired in 2015. He has now published 115 of the exhibition reviews he delivered each week in a 528-page collection he punningly entitles Exhibitionist. Keeping up the banter, Dorment explains that he only chose those pieces that would make him look good. This objective is achieved. His compact essays—on everything from Aztec art to Matthew Barney, by way of Edward Burne-Jones and Joan Miró—are kumquat-sharp and stimulating. Cumulatively, they provide a master class in clear and informative criticism.

Art writing is a triangle. You must attend to what someone else has made, along with the intentions and circumstances that have informed the making. You must attend to your own aesthetic conscience. And you must attend to readers who may know nothing about either you or the work. Newspaper journalism naturally foregrounds the third of these demands. Dorment speaks for every hired writer’s dread as he begins a review by invoking On Kawara’s “more than 2,000 ‘date paintings,’ monochromatic rectangular canvases on which the only image is the date on which the work was made. At this point, I can almost hear the soft swish of thousands of pages of this newspaper being turned.” Fear of the browser’s twitching fingers makes the critic into a Scheherazade, reaching for any verbal wile to stave off execution. In this case, he disarmingly invites the reader to experience an alternate anxiety: “If you will bear with me, I shall do my best to explain why Kawara is one of the most unsettling artists working anywhere in the world today.”

“Bear with me”: to connect unseen readers to works unseen by those readers, the writer must put forward some face of his own. In one opening line, Dorment urbanely invites readers to share his literary interests, introducing John Singer Sargent by way of a passage from Henry James; in another, he clowns: “It finally happened. The thing I dreaded. Walking through an exhibition [of Egyptian sculpture] at the Grand Palais in Paris last week, I was seized with an irresistible desire to kiss a work of art.” His most arresting entrances are made sword in hand:

No, no, no. The Tate Gallery has got it all wrong. In its hugely enjoyable new exhibition, The Swagger Portrait, the Tate misses the whole point of the Swagger.

Have your cake and eat it, hate your show and love it: How can this mischievous gambit fail to hook readers? The three pages that follow reward them with a jaunty account of how lush oils and flash brushwork were put to the service of British social ostentation in a genre possessing “all the subtlety of an oncoming bus.” The true Swagger, he writes, “is a society portrait in which the artist substitutes sheer visual panache for the revelation of character.” Dorment neglects to explain just what had been wrong in the first place with the Tate’s take on Swagger: but in this form of writing, tidily resolved arguments count for less than unflagging vigor of diction.

Dorment is amply supplied with such buttonholing energy. He has a knack for a phrase, recalling for instance the “sad, beautiful, talentless people” who hung around Andy Warhol’s Factory, or claiming that Tracey Emin “can draw like an angel, albeit one with a bad hangover.” The critical assessments in his book—delivered “loud and clear and without hedging my bets,” as he proudly claims—are overwhelmingly upbeat, and their exuberance invigorates. Dorment unabashedly reaches for the high-cultural superlatives, asserting that the disciplined conception of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s memento mori is the hallmark of “a profoundly classical artist,” even as he tugs at the heartstrings, confessing just a few lines later that their restrained emotion “brought a lump to my throat.”

He never succumbs to the occupational hazard of art-weariness: no despair here, as among other critical veterans, over avant-gardes that collapse into commercialism; no shoulder-shrugging retreat from judgment. If Dorment sometimes repents of his verdicts—“critics have been getting Twombly wrong for sixty years, and I count myself among them”—it is only for not having looked long and hard enough: he was writing this in 2008, when a Tate show curated by Nicholas Serota finally opened his eyes to the breadth of Twombly’s achievement.

He was writing with a confident sense of what constitutes good curation, informed by his own experiences of gallery work—a spell for instance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the direction of a touring Whistler show. Dorment’s training has supplied him with a sound, strong methodology. Look hard and patiently; research just as vigorously; look afresh, allowing for the possibility that your acquaintance with the work may never settle down. Hence the many times he shares the excitement of some aperçu that adjusts the meanings of a familiar museum fixture.


Why, Dorment is made to wonder by a close-focus exhibition at the National Gallery, did the contemporaries who admired Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte not care for its predecessor, the gallery’s Bathers at Asnières? He guides us surefootedly through the social nuances of the latter scene, showing that the modern character of its industrial riverscape would not have caused problems, before speculating that an unexpected subtext might have made the scene “unloved.” Depicting a clothed, middle-aged male stretched out by the water watching young lads bathing, it risked a “sexual tension” that Seurat at some stage decided to smother, giving the formerly naked boys bathing trunks and ending up with a “repressed” image that feels “cold and still, frozen at its core.”

With hypotheses such as this—piquant and historically plausible, even if unprovable—Dorment brought a welcome creativity to the arts pages of a staid and conservative broadsheet with an elderly readership. His aplomb as an observer and historian also lent force to his hatchet jobs—which, in this selection, are aimed not so much at artists as at curators. It is one thing for Dorment to salute Nicholas Serota, whose directorship of the Tate has roughly coincided with his own three decades at the Telegraph and who has thus presided over the popularization of contemporary art in Britain during that period, a cause that Dorment’s criticism urged on.

It is another thing to consider the efforts of Serota’s subordinates. Telling them why their hangs are wrong, Dorment attempts to inculcate: when they place a video work among figure paintings, he tells them, they do not create “an interesting tension between old and new,” but rather “make it impossible to look at either without distraction.” But once he turns to the captions and catalogs of “careerist curators in love with the sound of their own theories,” his patience deserts him. “Pernicious nonsense” and “pernicious drivel,” he yells. And with a further bark, he adds “Marxist drivel,” for he makes it clear that he shares some sympathies with the paper that employs him and with its customary sector of opinion, which is apt to bristle as he does at the “politically correct.”

The relation between the constituency Dorment here addresses and the cultural politics involved when he speaks up for contemporary art is the side of his art-critical triangle that is hardest to trace. He may be adept at looking both the reader and the work of art in the eye, but is there some aesthetic thread that binds his perceptions? We commonly expect conservatives to subscribe to a formalist approach to art, insofar as an emphasis on the internal workings of pictures entails no challenge to anything outside their frames. Formal analysis, indeed, is another of Dorment’s specialities. He enjoys illuminating compositions: “Having subtly created four equal quarters, Vermeer [in his Woman Holding a Balance] then balances them diagonally, void against mass and light against dark.” He has a fine eye for paint handling: the same canvas “contrasts areas of dense, opaque pigment with other areas where the paint is thin and transparent.” But as Dorment writes elsewhere, “the part of my job I’ve most enjoyed” is not the crafting of appreciations of Old Masters and high modernists, but rather the opportunity to commend to Telegraph readers works created by living artists over the past few decades. And when it comes to this so-called “contemporary” field, it would seem that his value system has nothing to do with formalism.

A case in point is a piece about a 2002 show of The Dirty Words Pictures, created in the late 1970s by the London collaborative partnership Gilbert and George. The pictures in question are towering grids of framed, two-foot-high, black-and-white photographic prints, some of which are tinted red. The photos record obscene graffiti from walls in London’s East End, passersby, traffic, various London tourist sights, and the duo themselves standing in the sober suits that they made into their trademark. Internal counterpoint, in these portentous quasi-documentary assemblages, makes way for rumblings of low-level visual static; to put it another way, they strike me as inert and thinly imagined analogues to the era’s punk rock, devoid of its wit and zest, and I have yet to meet a British artist who thinks well of them.

Private Collection/Estate of Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly: Ferragosto V, 1961

But the resident American insists that we are all quite wrong: “These are among the most powerful works of art made in this country in the twentieth century.” The reasons for this are to be found in their content. “This is a picture of British society at boiling point…. Anyone who lived through this period will remember how troubled the times were, and how accurately Gilbert and George capture the mood of those years.” The artists have crystallized the sullen rancor that Dorment felt was typical of Britain at the time he settled there and that seemed for him to overlap with a residual national fear of innovation. As Dorment indicates in an autobiographical introduction, this was a cultural malaise that, in the visual arts at least, began to be remedied in the later 1980s when “energetic and media-savvy museum directors” such as Serota created “new and appreciative audiences” for contemporary work while “a distinct new social class of collectors and potential patrons” arose thanks to “the boom made possible by Mrs. Thatcher’s economic policies”—with a modest supporting role being played by critical advocates such as himself.


Dorment’s attraction to the work of Gilbert and George, then, is avowedly associative and allegiance-laden—even, in an inverted sense, sentimental. But once you read through the range of these essays you come to see that everywhere, emotional content is the arbiter, whether Dorment is drawn to the kissable lips of Egypt’s Queen Tiy or nonplussed by Seurat’s repressions. Ultimately, for Dorment, art’s reasons will always be the heart’s reasons.

It is true however that between Vermeer and Gilbert and George—between art in which internal relations have been richly imagined and art in which they are merely perfunctory—he recognizes a historical divide. As someone who experienced 1960s New York in his youth, he has no doubt where that turning point lay. Just when “the all-black paintings of Ad Reinhardt finally brought the modernist tradition to an end on a note of emptiness and despair,” Warhol “put life back into art; and by life I mean content, colour, meaning and interest, the things you see not when you look at a black rectangle, but when you look into a mirror.”

“Life”—this impulse that blew aside an “unashamedly elitist” high modernist art world and invited in contemporary art’s larger public—is made to perform many rhetorical duties when Dorment describes work after Warhol. He realizes, after twenty minutes of “apparently pointless” watching, that a Bruce Nauman installation of flashing neon tubes is “about life itself.” He walks down Andy Goldsworthy’s Moonlit Path through English woods and again discovers that the winding chalk track “is like life itself.” Indeed, one of Gonzalez-Torres’s participatory installations, inviting gallery-goers to dance together, invites them to “engage not only with the work of art, but with life itself.”

Nauman, Goldsworthy, and Gonzalez-Torres have all produced work that deserves critical attention. I myself happen to share Dorment’s admiration for the latter two: but what is at issue here is his work, not theirs. In that light, I can’t help noting the way that the term “life” has served as this critic’s bootstrap, a handsomely airy gesture by which he hoists his advocacy of a work of art onto a higher plane without actually touching down on anything external to the work. And this helps to explain why the forms of innovation that might be expected to unsettle and challenge the Telegraph’s tradition-hugging readership apparently turn out, once interpreted by Dorment, to contain little that readers need find indigestible. Contemporary art appears from this perspective as self-contained uplift, a conduit for emotion that sheds the preceding tradition’s formal constraints yet is no less if not more insulated from social implications. “High art lite” was the epithet for this cultural turn devised by the British critic Julian Stallabrass, when he castigated the way that British art, during the period in which Dorment was writing, headed for a “diffused and expansionary aestheticism.” But then, Stallabrass is by his own admission a Marxist.