The Queen's laurels for controversial neoclassicist

A lauded artist shrugged off the brickbats of 1970s leftism to win royal honours. Olga Wotjas reports

January 22, 2009

Alexander Stoddart's work has not always been taken seriously by the academic community.

When a student at Edinburgh College of Art suggested to a tutor that Professor Stoddart be invited to give a lecture, reportedly the reply was: "Over my dead body will Stoddart ever lecture in this art school."

So it was particularly satisfying for Stoddart when he was recently named Her Majesty's Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland in recognition of his outstanding contribution to British culture.

It is a lifetime appointment, and one that Stoddart described as "without a doubt the highest honour any Scottish sculptor can receive".

This is just the latest accolade for the honorary professor at the University of the West of Scotland (where he has his studio) and further recognition of his controversial heroic-realist neoclassical style.

His massive statue of physicist James Clerk Maxwell was unveiled just before Christmas, joining his sculptures of philosopher David Hume and economist Adam Smith on the streets of Edinburgh.

Although the University of the West of Scotland, a technological institution, seems an unusual base for a sculptor, Professor Stoddart was quick to point out its 19th-century origin as Paisley College of Art and Technology.

This was one of the schools of design created by Prince Albert with the intention of instructing workers in aesthetic principles.

"It wasn't an exploitative thing. His idea was that the schools would counteract the deleterious effect of industrialisation and introduce (workers) to the refinement of fine art."

Professor Stoddart said he sees the 19th-century approach to art as infinitely preferable to the ethos of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Welcoming his royal appointment, Linda Fabiani, Scotland's Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, said: "I consider it proper that his unusually classical style has been recognised as just as relevant today as it was (in the 19th century)."

But this has not been the view of the arts establishment, which for years shunned his style.

His first brush with rejection came after a "Damascene conversion" while a student at Glasgow School of Art. He was glowing after an excellent critique from his tutor for an abstract sheet-metal sculpture when he spotted a plaster cast of the Apollo Belvedere, revered by neoclassicists. He immediately changed direction.

"This was in the 1970s, (the time of) the British National Party and the National Front, and art schools were profoundly leftist institutions. Suddenly they had their Nazi because I was looking at examples of antiquity and trying to make figures. All sorts of toilet graffiti appeared and folk (avoided) my company."

Despite these travails he was awarded a first, which he ascribed to the intervention of an external examiner. After postgraduate studies at the University of Glasgow, Stoddart became a neoclassical sculptor despite the financial precariousness such a move entailed.

"I'm an art traditionalist. I keep diplomatic channels with the past wide open. People accuse me of going backwards. I don't understand what direction forward is.

"The idea of the arrow of time is increasingly discredited as coarse and unsophisticated. The arts counteract temporality. Great art is timeless."

On 9 February, Professor Stoddart will give the first lecture in the University of the West of Scotland's Inspiring People series, entitled "The Fallacy of Progress: Thoughts on the Culture of Return".

He said he believes that the dominant approach in art today is a bizarre aberration. The art colleges have abandoned their heritage, seduced by the lure of the "contemporary" - a word he takes issue with. "It's a stupid fake word that modernists made up. It should be 'contemporal'."

While he is semantically and intellectually provocative, his stance is laced with a strong dash of humour.

"I'm writing a book, The Metaphysics of Philistinism. It will sell like cold cakes with a title like that."

Professor Stoddart used to get furious with modern art, but said he can now explain the "phenomenon" of acclaimed artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst through his reading of Arthur Schopenhauer. The philosopher believed that basic human desires, which he called "the will to live", are pointless and create suffering, but contemplating the arts offers relief.

Professor Stoddart said that for most of their history, the arts in the Western world have attempted to counteract the will to live, "and this was the essence of their nobility".

He describes them as a lullaby: someone standing in front of a great painting is momentarily freed from their fears and desires.

But the 20th century broke with this centuries-old tradition, he said, "collaborating" with the world and affirming the will to live.

"The arts jumped in and became dynamic, aggressive, filthy and weird. Artists started to be interested in ferocity, brutalism, dynamism, cubism, speed and fury, which migrated into the world of conduct. Having made ugly objects, modern artists began to make them in an ugly frame of mind and then just became foul-mouthed harridans," he said.

Professor Stoddart said he believes that the epoch of false money, now evident in the credit crunch, has been matched by an epoch of false culture, with the contemporary British art movement supporting people who are unable to sustain it.

For example, in making Tracey Emin a Royal Academician, "the Royal Academy is extending credit to her that she has no possibility of ever repaying".

olga.wotjas@tsleducation.com.

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