Monday, 18 October 2021

Artist helps unravel the mystery of Emin

WHY pickle a shark? Why decant 10 pints of your own blood into a plastic head and plug it into

WHY pickle a shark? Why decant 10 pints of your own blood into a plastic head and plug it into the mains? Why display a filthy bed covered in the detritus of your three-day depression? And most pertinently of all, why call it art?

These are some of the common questions that baffle art lovers, and at least some of them will be addressed by Reading artist Julian Gordon Mitchell at a “light-hearted” lecture at Reading’s South Street Arts Centre in March called Pickled Sharks And All That.

Mitchell, an artist who tends towards the traditional with his own work — painting still lifes and portraits in oil on canvas — will talk about how art has changed, but also how our perception and appreciation of it has also changed during the last 100 years or so.

He organised the event after his first lecture at South Street six months ago on the history of art was well received — but punters said they would have liked to hear more about modern artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.

“This time I’m going to look at what happened in the 20th century,” he said. “There’s something peculiar about why art, which used to be about paintings and rather staightforward stuff, has now become something completely different.

“I mean, who has actually seen Hirst’s pickled shark or Emin’s unmade bed? It’s a media thing, and that’s something completely new. I’m going to try and tell the historical story of that.

“Things started to change in the late 19th and early 20th century and by the Fifties there was a lot of modern art around that most people found incomprehensible — from artists such as Picasso and Jackson Pollock for example. Then there was the pile of bricks at the Tate gallery, and lately work such as Emin’s My Bed. Sophisticates, though, think that is all wonderful.

“There’s a division between people who feel themselves to be the intelligentsia who like stuff that is not popular or understood by people at large, and that’s something new to the 20th century.”

Mitchell, 44, who was born in Reading, is entertaining to talk to and has something of the stand-up comedian about his patter — though this is not to trivialise him, for he evidently knows his stuff where art is concerned.

He said he knew he was going to be an artist from the age of about six. He said, “I had it like a rock in my head. I just wasn’t interested in anything else.”

After leaving school he studied drawing at Heatherleys in Chelsea, and did his masters in fine art at Brighton University. He has exhibited regularly at the Barry Keane Gallery in Henley — in fact, his portrait Ljubica is currenty on display there — as well as at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and the Mall Galleries in London, among others.

He said the Reading lecture should be “fun”. “There’s a bar, and it’s a Saturday night, so it’s going to be light-hearted,” he said.

le_SHrSPickled Sharks And All That is at South Street Arts Centre on Saturday, March 2 at 8pm. Tickets are £8.85 in advance (plus booking fee). Box office 0118 960 6060 or

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