THE ARTIST RAQIB Shaw is evidently a generous man: to accompany La Nuit d’Amour, his show of paint-pencil-enamel-jewel bestiaries at the Manchester Art Gallery, he has paid for the front railings of the gallery to be bedecked with twisting branches and flowers yet to bloom; for flowers to be festooned beside the front doors and around the gallery’s atrium; for a sextet to play an unlicensed transcription of the Rite of Spring; for an Indian buffet for sixty VVIPs (including Jay Jopling, Norman Rosenthal and Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst); and for two arrangements containing hundreds of white roses, tied with green ribbons bearing a meaningless legend, for guests to take home. I wish such generosity of spirit were infectious, but it’s not and so you’re going to get an honest review, not a generous one.
Monkey King Boudoir by Raqib Shaw, courtesy the artist
The work features monkeys, tigers, snakes and creatures-in-between in delicate enamel – the most charming part of his work – overlaid with tiny jewels in hysterically over-decorated and over-detailed forests or boudoirs. There are individual animal portraits with some average draughtsmanship and large panels without direction for the eye.
There is in theory a blend of East and West, but what we get is that blend known as Orientalism, a manic Ra-jazzling of traditional Eastern motifs. Why settle for beautiful enamel flower petals or beasts when you can gild the lily (a much better title for the show, incidentally)? Ironically, reproductions of the work – in the velvet-covered catalogue – come off better than the work itself because none of the vulgar sparkle is visible.
Detail from St Sebastian of the Poppies, courtesy of the artist and White Cube
MORE LAMENTABLE IS the apparent lack of ideas behind Shaw’s work. I puzzled over this late into the night but can’t work out what Shaw is saying. Take what he told me was ‘the only piece worth seeing’, his version of Stubbs’ colonial Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians (c1765), depicting a cheetah presented to George III.
Shaw’s version has the cheetah proud, not muzzled, ridden by a baboon in Indian military dress, with glittering birds and cupids thronging the sky. All is bejewelled like you’re viewing it through a Swarovski kaleidoscope.
The gallery’s director, Maria Balshaw, described these two works as the height and end of colonialism, but Shaw’s message is simplistic and contradictory. So, India has risen and is taking over the art of the West like it’s taking over the global economy: but by using such an over-the-top style, he only serves to reinforce negative Orientalist messages.
When it comes to the rest of the work, it’s not clear that any ideas are at stake. He may well draw on multifarious sources – mythology, literature, textiles – but what does he do with them? What is his view of the art that he references? Is this work political towards any belief? How does he feel about colonialism or despotism or freedom? You can ask and ask these questions and many others and never draw a response from the work.
Detail from Monkey King Boudoir II by Raqib Shaw, courtesy the artist
THERE WAS A pointed coincidence during the concert which preceded the private view, where a talented young cellist had rewritten the Rite of Spring for six players, including one bloody hard-working flautist constantly changing between the three flutes on her lap and a violinist who gracefully paused the concert for a broken string.
I could see the aim of comparing Shaw with the Rite of Spring, but having looked at the work, I could see that wasn’t going to fly. In my notebook during the concert I wrote: ‘All the animal spirits of the Rite of Spring are absent from the violent animals of Shaw’s work, lifeless despite so much activity, dull despite so much sparkle.’
And lo and behold, Shaw’s eminent friend Sir Normal Rosenthal, former director of the Royal Academy, stood up during the unplanned break in the recital and busked for a moment, talking about the ‘equivalence’ of spirit and energy and invention between Shaw and Stravinsky.
This is about as wrong as you can be: Stravinsky had something new to say and said it in a new way, with an unprecedented energy; Shaw has nothing new to say – nothing to say at all, in fact – and his pulse-less paintings express that perfectly.