In an age when a football commentator can – quite rightly – be fired for making racist remarks, I wonder why Brian Sewell is still allowed to publish art criticism. Sewell believes that ‘only men are capable of aesthetic greatness’, and argues that women can’t paint because they can’t drive . . . I first heard that quote when I was taking driving lessons from a woman who could parallel park with one hand. (She had two arms, she just didn’t need both of them to swerve neatly backwards into the shortest possible curb space.) Sewell’s comments discredit only his own abilities, his reasoning as faulty and archaic as Aristotle’s, who relegated women to second-class citizenship on the basis of a confused assortment of falsehoods, including the claim that we have fewer teeth than men. That Sewell’s ignorant misogyny is allowed to pass for civilised debate is measure of how deeply entrenched sexism still is in British culture. If an art critic were to state that only white men can be geniuses, would newspapers and television companies still hire him?
Sewell is on my mind because of a revelatory discovery I made last week in Normandy at the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Caen: the paintings of Joan Mitchell. I wasn’t particularly seeking a female genius, and initially misread her name. But when asked which were my favourite paintings in the gallery and answered, ‘the big ones by John Mitchell’, I discovered that I’d encountered a woman artist of the first water. Mitchell was an American heiress who determined to succeed in a field her highly competitive father would never dream of entering. Abstract Expressionism would bewilder him nicely thank you, and soon Mitchell was one of the greats of the movement. She had a long, dynamic career, mainly in Europe, where she lived in Normandy near her lover, maintaining separate houses but – in a most civilized arrangement – meeting every evening for dinner. She painted, drank and smoked with the best of her male contemporaries – tragically dying in her sixties of lung cancer after a battle with the disease that left her with a dead jaw.
What compelled me about Mitchell’s paintings was not just her stunning use of colour, or the extravagant portraits she creates of her own motion, but also their pervasive sense of light. Her work, to me, conjures not only gardens, weather and complex emotional states, but stained glass windows, illuminated by their own inner radiance. This quality of light is something I don’t often find in work by de Kooning or Pollock. (Though I do love the (possibly apocryphal) story of the art critics who visited Pollock’ studio to watch him making his infamous dripmarks. ‘But really, it’s just random dribbles, Jackson,’ one remarked. Pollock dipped a large brush in a red paint pot, took aim and flung a globule of paint across his vast studio to the door. It hit the handle. ‘And now, gentlemen,’ he advised, ‘get the fuck out of my studio.’)
I’ve ordered a book of Mitchell’s paintings, and now Brian Sewell can get the fuck out of my head, so I can contemplate their magnificence without his resentful mosquito whine in my ears.