The UK Mourns the Loss of its Most Famous and Controversial Art Critic, Brian Sewell
Sewell thought Tracey Emin was “trivial” and Damien Hirst “fucking dreadful."
On Saturday morning, the UK lost its most sharp-tongued critic, Brian Sewell. The 84-year-old writer and broadcaster died in his London home on September 19. He was diagnosed with cancer last year.
According to the Guardian, the young Sewell, who was born in Leicestershire in 1931 and brought up in London, turned down a place at Oxford University to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, the alma mater of some of the best art historians and curators in the country.
His love of art was infused by his mother, who used to take him to London’s National Gallery, where he fell in love with Bartolomé Esteban Murillo‘s painting The Holy Family (1665-70) when he was barely six years old.
He worked for Christie’s after graduating but, according to the BBC, he found it extremely unpleasant to sell paintings to those he deemed “undeserving.” He joined the Evening Standard in 1984, where he published his provocative reviews and writings on art until June 2015.
Sewell was a lover of, and expert in, classical art, but he made his most famous remarks when addressing the contemporary art world and its star artists. Acerbic, controversial, and unflinching, he thought Tracey Emin was “trivial,” Damien Hirst “fucking dreadful,” David Hockney “a vulgar prankster,” and that Banksy “should have been put down at birth.” He also considered the Turner Prize to be “intelligence insulting” and that “ignoring it is the kindest thing one can do.” Meanwhile, the Tate was for him but “a minor museum.”
On Saturday, shortly after the news of his death broke, journalist Hadley Freeman, from the Guardian, took to Twitter to honor the critic:
Indeed, Sewell’s harsh and unapologetic views didn’t sit well with many. In 1994, the Evening Standard ran a letter signed by 35 art world figures—including artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Rachel Whiteread—accusing him of “virulent homophobia and misogyny” and being “deeply hostile to and ignorant about contemporary art.”
According to the BBC, Sewell responded: “We pee on things, we pee into things, we pee over things, and we call it art. I don’t know what art is, but I do know what it isn’t.”
But, for all his cattiness and widespread contempt for some of the most famous contemporary male artists, Sewell’s most infamous and oft-quoted remark had to do specifically with female artists. In 2008, he claimed: “There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 percent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.”
Sewell defended himself of claims that he was a cruel critic by saying: “I only review major exhibitions, so the people who really suffer are not the working artists, they’re the curators.”
His critical writing polarized readers and art insiders, but no one doubted his erudite wit and non-conformist views, rather rare in art criticism today.
“Simply, Brian was the nation’s best art critic, best columnist, and the most brilliant and sharpest writer in recent times,” wrote Rachel Bundy and Laura Proto in the Evening Standard’s obituary for its long-serving critic. “His wit was always rapier sharp but his kindness knew no limits. He was a legend in the world of journalism and the arts.”
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