The Rolf Harris exhibition ‘Can you tell what it is yet?’ opened at the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool on Friday 18th of May 2012, and runs until August. It features a large and varied selection of his paintings and drawings, plus many artefacts from his long and distinguished career, including musical instruments such as didgeridoos, jews harps, a stylophone and painted grand piano. There are also memorabilia such as family photos, record sleeves and gold discs.
What’s astonishing about the exhibition is the large selection of really amazing and wonderful paintings in a variety of styles, and the impressive technical and creative quality of the work, much higher than I expected.
I was there on the opening night, Liverpool’s annual Light Night when museums and galleries stay open late. I queued up to see Rolf doing one of his paintings in front of a live audience. I stood just a few feet away from him and captured the whole thing on my Fuji Finepix W3 stereo 3D camera. A mono version of the video is above.
I felt very privileged to be there and to finally see a personality I know from my earliest childhood.
What struck me was that Rolf Harris is exactly the same in real life as he is on screen: genuine, down to earth, honest to goodness and totally real, unlike many of today’s so-called reality tv personalities.
Now, as ever, he has a universal appeal. He joked with a tiny kid on the stage but also chatted and exchanged banter with people of all age groups in the audience.
I admire Rolf Harris because he is blessed with many talents and likes to make use of them, and because he has a strong educational intent. He tries to share the joy of art with people and help to develop their appreciation, encouraging them to have a go themselves. That’s brilliant.
His television and media career is long and distinguished, making him a priceless national asset. He has been there since the earliest days of British TV and has met and worked with many of the most distinguished people, including the Beatles, and all the best known stars.
A high point of his career was when he painted the Queen. The excerpt from the BBC programme is one of a number of items shown at the exhibition and has people spellbound. Only Rolf Harris could make a visit to Buckingham Palace like dropping in to have a chat with your favourite auntie.
The painting is on display at the exhibition and what’s striking is that she looks exactly in the painting as she does in the video. When Lucien Freud did his portrait of the Queen she looked forbidding and haughty, but in Rolf Harris’s painting she is smiling and engaging with twinkling eyes.
In many ways, a portrait often reflects the character of the artist as much as t the sitter, if not more so.
He was born in 1930 and first came to England in 1953. He’s now an octogenarian, but looking healthy. One lady asked him about his skin regime.
But it is remarkable, and rather shocking, that he has had to wait until now to experience a retrospective of his work, the first in his lifetime. Thank goodness he’s alive to see it.
The fact is that Rolf’s work has not received the recognition it deserved.
It was criticised by Brian Sewell and Norman Lebrecht. I won’t bring down the tone of this article with their comments, but they can be read here.
Perhaps I was unconsciously influenced by those reviewers, and lazy enough to assume that as cultural commentators, they must know what they were talking about.
But when I saw Rolf Harris’s paintings of London, I was bowled over by their sophistication and subtlety, I realised I should have mentally torn up those reviews and thrown them into the bin where they belong. I won’t make any comment about the initials of the first of those named above, but they seem apt.
There is a lot that is bad about the art world, a lot that distorts and debases culture.
In my opinion, culture is precious. It should have a capital C. It should be about honesty and integrity, not pandering to a narrow clique in a certain part of the country. It should appeal to as wide an audience as possible, not just an elite. It should be about celebrating and encouraging creativity at all levels and in all genres, and not focused on just a tiny number of over-paid and under-talented personalities who know how to play the media. It should be about encouraging personal development, about including people, not excluding them.
On all these counts, Rolf Harris embodies all that is good in the arts and media.
In my opinion, Liverpool has the best museums in the UK (leaving aside the unfair bias in this country towards the capital). It’s great that that the Walker Art Gallery has brought the first ever retrospective of the artistic work of Rolf Harris to Liverpool.
For me, that proves that four years on from 2008, Liverpool remains the UK’s true Capital of Culture, (with a capital C).
More information about the Rolf Harris exhibition on the Walker Art Gallery website.
The exhibition was developed in association with De Montfort Fine Art. Rolf Harris is represented by Billy Marsh Associates.
And below is a detail of the very nice picture that Rolf painted especially for me and the other people looking on. It’s a frequent theme of his, an Australian view based on childhood memories, with trees, dripping paint and a chain fence running diagonally across the frame.