Writing about ART

An art dealer’s perspective: René Gimpel on Hirst vs. Hockney, Tracey Emin & grown up art

by Tessa Ditner

JANKEL ADLER – Family Group opus 91 1942
pencil ink and wash 15 x 16 1/2 in / 38 x 42 cm
Exhibition Gimpel Fils

“I wouldn’t bin any of them,” René Gimpel, art dealer and director of his family gallery Gimpel Fils says, when I give him the (very silly) option to keep, sell or bin three notorious artworks. He can choose between that skull by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin’s bed and Courbet’s ‘The Origin of the World’.

“I adore Courbet” he says, “it is what I would call philosophical materialism in painting. In very bourgeois 19th century society, there was a narrow gap of nudity depiction allowed within the canon of fine art practice, and he is pushing it. But it is not just about sex and nudity, it raises issues about the continuity of the world being about birth and death. Just don’t try and explain it to your twelve year old, they get embarrassed!” he jokes. 

07 SISTA PRATESI – The Living End 2011
Wood, acrylic paint, hair
17 6/8 x 15 6/8 in / 45 x 40 cm
Exhibition Gimpel Fils

As for Tracey Emin, Gimpel is a huge fan. “We have her slippers here,” he says, pointing sideways, to a glass box in his office, containing a pair of colourful felt slippers. “I think very highly of her bed, it reflects the end of the 80s, the end of the flower power generation, my generation went off to fight in Vietnam. There is a certain harshness to her work, a desperation to seize the moment, which was what the 80s and 90s were about, seizing the moment and at the same time it is rather heart-breaking to see.” Gimpel admits that although he wouldn’t quite ‘bin’ it, out of the three, he is least interested in the Hirst, in part because of the religious aspects. He says he is not a Christian, but neither is he Jewish. “I don’t understand Hirst’s Christianity,” he says, “I don’t think religious references nowadays are terribly interesting.”

02 SISTA PRATESI – The Living End 2011
Acrylic on canvas with velvet
20 1/8 x 23 5/8 in / 51 x 60 cm
Exhibition Gimpel Fils

That being said, Gimpel doesn’t join critics in their denigration of Hirst as ‘just a celebrity’. As Curator and Art writer Edward Lucie-Smith said at the Cork Street Gallery during the Art Erotica week, “I know a lot of younger artists who may be amused by the gossip, but are not interested in what Damien Hirst produces. For them, he is just another celeb. They don’t want to do anything resembling what he does – what he produces is irrelevant.” 

Gimpel has a softer approach. “I think all artists are sincere in what they do, I never detract from the way an artist promotes themselves,” he says. “Damien Hirst is particularly good at promoting himself, that’s fine. Lucien Freud was not particularly good at it, but that didn’t harm his career. I would not denigrate the work of an artist because he is being promoted commercially.”

Hirst’s latest media headlines are around David Hockney’s dig at artists who use assistants. The Independent nicknamed the comment “David Hockney vs. Damien Hirst” and social networking was rife with name calling, Hockney was called ‘elitist’ while Hirst was called ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’. Jokes sprung up from commentator Apocalypsetuesdayweek saying “I wish Hockney would shut up. If it carries on like this Hirst might (be) pressed into picking up a paintbrush again.” “God no! Ahhhhh!” another commentator El Phillips replied. 

DAMIEN HIRST (4 April – 9 September 2012) Tate Modern
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991
Glass, steel, silicon, formaldehyde solution and shark
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2011.
Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates

Gimpel believes that far from Hirst producing irrelevant artwork, having assistants “is a form of apprenticeship for the next generation.” He also believes that critics should be wary of criticising the younger artists. “They paint for their own generation,” Gimpel says .“They are all trying to impress each other. They reflect their own social period. Each generation has its own concern, we must not pass moral or ethical judgements.”

Gimpel’s defence of Hirst may also be due to his not being particularly enamoured by Hockney. “I think there is a tendency in the market in Britain to go for the theatrical, taking refuge in realism. Hockney, Freud and Bacon to some extent. To me there is something retrogressive about this approach to painting.” He favours conceptual artists, what he calls ‘grown up art’. “I find British Realism to be emotional, melodramatic. It is usually a situation that can be read as well as seen, that always worries me when it can be interpret using another discipline. If it can be consumed very quickly it is like an ad, it is just an image that flashes in and out and it makes of art a minor practice.” Gimpel compares realism to a safety blanket and says we must beware of art that is like watching a Walt Disney film. “There is nothing wrong with a Disney film,” he explains “but don’t build it into a Disney version of life.” Interestingly this Disney version of life, seems to be one of the selling points of the current cartoon-coloured Hockney exhibition. The Royal Academy reminds the viewer that he is a Pop Art and Californian artist. Edith Devaney, curator, describes Hockney in Sleeping Beauty-esque detail saying “he will get up at 4am to catch the light. He calls the time when the blossom comes out ‘action week’.” 

DAVID HOCKNEY – Under the Trees, Bigger 2010-11
Oil on twenty canvases (each 91.4 x 121.9 cm)365.8 x 609.6 cm Courtesy of the artist -Copyright David Hockney – Photo credit: Richard Schmidt
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, Londonin collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum,Bilbao and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne

So what is the essence of Gimpel Fils? And if you are an artist looking for a gallery, how do you know if your art will fit with the Gimpel vision? The family gallery started with Gimpel’s great grandfather in Paris, in 1889. He had eloped with Adele Vuitton of the Vuitton family. Adele was a Catholic but she converted to Judaism, which was very unusual in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. Their son, whose diaries were turned into the book Diary of an Art Dealer, kept notes on his life in the art world with Monet (who kicked in one of his own paintings yelling: “Ah! Quel cochonnerie!” when he saw it again), Renoir (who said “if only you knew how hard it was to penetrate a tree with a paintbrush!”), Mary Cassatt (who refused to do portraits of kids who were not pretty) and his friend Marcel Proust (who was always cold so he wore his coat indoors). 

DAVID HOCKNEY- Nichols Canyon 1980

Acrylic on canvas (213.4 x 152.4 cm)

Private collection – Copyright David Hockney
Exhibition organised by the
Royal Academy of Arts, London

in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum,

Bilbao and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne

The value of these diaries isn’t just in the biographical details, nor in the deals that were struck but especially in the gossip, such as his comment that he had remarked to someone that he felt that Toulouse-Lautrec was over the top, and the reply that had struck him had been ‘yes, but life is also over the top’.

Today’s Gimpel says he likes art that is hard “because otherwise it becomes illustration”. Gimpel Fils’ current exhibition features Scottish born artists Sista Pratesi The Living End, a hard to describe installation that captures a between life and death space. Long curtains of pony-like hair look like the entrance to another world and tree stumps jut out, like abandoned jigsaw pieces. Her acrylics on canvas have evolved from her previous collection that included blacked out details of dressing-gown clad women, to the current exhibition which features blue-quiff portraits, with a ghostly lack of features.

Gimpel’s advice to young artists is not to worry too much about trying to control the value of your own work. He is surprised that students expect to be signed to a gallery straight out of art school. “When I started in the business in the early seventies, the idea that anyone graduating from college would enter the art world without a period of reflection was unheard of,” he says. 
“When you leave college your style will change anyway.” In terms of the value of art, Gimpel says that there is more than one value. Apart from the commercial value which might be boosted if collectors compete against each other to buy your art, there is also the fine art value, the academic value, the art historical value, which is created by the museum world, the critics, the art historians. And outside these sphere, how do you determine the value of art? How does it measure up to the goings on of the rest of the world? 

“It seems to matter very little” Gimpel says. “I don’t know that art is important in our hothouse world, but it is a human activity that we appear to need to do. It is a necessity to create. It is the human condition.”

10 SISTA PRATESI – The Living End 2011
Wood, acrylic paint, hair – 81 7/8 x 44 1/8 in / 208 x 112 cm
Exhibition Gimpel Fils

For more information go to www.gimpelfils.com or visit the galler: Gimpel Fils,

30 Davies Street London W1K 4NB


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