Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

The design guru says Mohammed Al-Fayed has lots of taste – and all of it is bad

Stephen Bayley

Image: Brijesh Patel

April 08 2011
Stephen Bayley

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Just been on the radio talking about Mohammed Al-Fayed’s taste. It’s a big subject: he has lots, and it’s all bad. But he does deserve recognition for his absolute and unerring commitment to kitsch, or, as I have just put it: “The debris that’s left when vitality leaves art”.

The hook for this was Al-Fayed’s gift, if that is the right word, of a Michael Jackson statue to Fulham Football Club. It is not even bad. To say that it is bad would be to suggest that it is in the same area as good and could, with art, be improved. Not in this case: aesthetically, we are in irredeemable territory here. And exactly why Craven Cottage needs a tribute to an American singer who lived in an oxygen tent with a tranquillised chimpanzee may never be explained.

However, some interesting points arise on the General Theory of Statuary. Statues only work in cultures that have a unified belief system and a shared admiration of heroes. Thus, in Britain, there has not been a credible statue since the Albert Memorial of 1872, and even that was controversial. Since then, an increasingly fragmented culture and growing suspicion of heroes have made figurative representations of real people ridiculous.

But next week we may see an exception to the rule. April 12 is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin’s space flight and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has made a gift of a Gagarin statue to us all. The discoverer of space will stand in The Mall opposite Captain Cook, the discoverer of Australia. It’s a great story: Gagarin whistled a patriotic Shostakovich song on re-entry and a visit to London and Manchester was prioritised in his new earthbound career as a pro-celebrity propaganda cosmonaut.

The Gagarin statue is, like all Soviet art, dire, but compellingly so. One of many copies of the 1984 original by Anatoly Novikov (who worked on the mighty Stalingrad Memorial), it is the last gasp of socialist realism. We used to laugh at the figurative absurdities and philosophical contradictions of presenting the “reality” of socialism represented by muscular blonde beauties with perfect busts driving tractors across sunny fields of Ukrainian corn. Or handsome, square-jawed spacemen. But we can now recognise a coherent aesthetic with a sophisticated discipline. And Gagarin does seem more of a true hero than Michael Jackson. What’s more, don’t we all, if we are honest, feel a sort of affectionate nostalgia for Soviet style? The Gagarin statue will be unveiled by his daughter, now director of the Kremlin Museums – a nice touch that brings science and art full circle.

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