Obviously, we don’t think this way any more. These days, we get our history from David Starkey on the telly, or from full-colour wallcharts given out free in newspaper promotions. And we no longer consider it any of art’s business to improve us by confronting us with telling moments of history or myth or literature. But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the heyday of history painting, any artist who wasn’t painting this kind of picture was considered to be of a lower rank. When the Royal Academy opened for business in 1768, the hierarchy went like this: history painting was at the top, then portraiture, then genre pictures, and finally, at the bottom, the irredeemably minor category of landscape.
So, Dexter Dalwood deserves a handful of brownie points just for tiptoeing into this unfashionable terrain, and for daring to conceive of his output as history painting. His latest show at the Gagosian tackles such profoundly unlikely Brit Art subjects as the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yalta conference, the poll-tax riots, the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. The show’s title, Recent History, doesn’t beat about the bush, either.
Dalwood was brought to our attention a decade or so ago by the ubiquitous Charles Saatchi, in a dodgy exhibition called New Neurotic Realism. Whatever that meant.
Dalwood was pretty much the best thing there. In those days, his shtick was to imagine and paint famous interiors for us. The room in which Sharon Tate was butchered by Charles Manson was a notable one. He showed us the Queen’s bedroom, too. And Kurt Cobain’s greenhouse. What made all this interesting was Dalwood’s refusal to base any of his painted interiors on the real thing. He could have found news photographs of Tate’s house, but chose to imagine it for himself, from scratch, which gave his work a dreamy and mysterious quality.
Since then, Dalwood has hardly been seen in Britain, although I gather the Gagosian has been doing well with him in America. So this show’s harshness, its bigness and its recurring shriekiness are all surprising. Instead of the poetic mystery of old, the new paintings pursue a Spartist line of accusation and add up to a much more hard-core affair. The fluffiness has gone, the slebs have been booted off the agenda and that Through the Keyhole mood of the pretend interiors has disappeared entirely. Instead, Dalwood’s ambition to be a history painter has caused him to confront big political subjects with muscular exteriors that are many sizes larger than the old interiors.
The first one that hits you is a huge, fiery painting of the poll-tax riots of 1990. Set on Trafalgar Square, it shows a sea of angry protesters surging down Whitehall towards Big Ben. The surrounding walls are covered with angry graffiti. Thatcher-hatred fills the air. And reflected in the fountains of Trafalgar Square are the licking flames of a burning London. At least, that’s what the painting feels as if it shows. A closer examination, however, reveals a picture full of inconsistencies. This isn’t really Trafalgar Square. There is no Nelson’s Column, and the surrounding concrete with all the aggressive graffiti on it isn’t from these parts, either. It looks more like the grim wall that divided Berlin until 1989. So, Dalwood hasn’t actually painted the poll-tax riots. He’s painted a huge historical porky that seeks to capture the mood of them.
The resulting painting isn’t pretty to look at. It’s large and aggressive, yes, but the various bits don’t hold together all that convincingly. Every Dalwood painting begins life as a collage. Taking fragments of images from magazines and postcards, he assembles them on paper first, and only then blows them up in size and paints them. So the fiery expanse in the foreground of The Poll Tax Riots is actually a detail from a painting of a Dutch naval battle by Gerhard Richter.
In the past, when Dalwood was painting his imaginary interiors, the unavoidable architecture of the room held the jigsaw in place. But the Yalta conference isn’t a room, it’s a complex historical moment at which the post-war world was divvied up between the victorious powers and many inter- secting story lines crisscrossed. Dalwood’s Yalta brings together a map of Europe, a boardroom of plotters, a doomy Picasso painting of a skull and a plush lakeside location, in a rather clunky attempt to evoke not only the look of the conference, but its disastrous consequences.
Another problem is the actual touch of his brush. The old interiors were small and flat enough to disguise the stiffness of his paintwork. Indeed, the stiffness was part of their mysterious mood. But this show searches for big, thunderous natural effects as Dalwood tries to evoke the raging storms of Katrina or the surge of the tsunami, or the darkly forested horror of a mass grave in the Balkans. And these are subjects that show up the stiffness of his wrists. That’s the difficulty history painters saddle themselves with: momentous topics call for momentous paintwork.
Yet even when individual pictures don’t come off, the ambition being displayed is praiseworthy and convincing. The accusatory mood with which the gallery bristles is the mood that appears to be creeping into contemporary art in ever increasing quantities. It’s the mood of the Chapmans, Jeremy Deller and Banksy. It’s the mood Saatchi tried to tap in his dismal but angry USA Today show.
This isn’t really history painting, because history painters sought to improve their audience, whereas Dalwood and his peers are far more interested in accusation. They’re protest painters. Punkish nay-sayers. And I predict that we’ll be hearing lots more from them in 2007.
Dalwood has also made a short film, which goes on show from tomorrow at London’s Prince Charles cinema. It’s called 1800, a date that takes us to the epicentre of the history-painting era. The film is only four minutes long and reaches a climax, before you know it, with a re-creation of David’s famous painting of Napoleon Crossing the St Bernard Pass. Before that, we watch extras rushing about, camera crews bustling, helicopters darting between mountains. It quickly becomes clear that the shooting of this tiny film is as ambitious a campaign as any mounted by Napoleon.