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London Telegraph - October 2006

HEADLINE: My Skull Was A Credit To Me




There is a story about Pablo Picasso which I pass on with no notion as to whether it is true or not. It is said that a man of immense means once commissioned the genius Spaniard to paint his wife’s portrait. Anyone with even a scant knowledge of Mr. Picasso’s oeuvre might have guessed that this could result in a representation of the good missus looking rather blue with her ear sticking out of the front of her head. When the piece was completed Mr. Money complained, ‘That isn’t how she looks at all.’ Picasso nodded and asked if the husband could help him get a closer understanding of his subject. Immediately the man removed a photograph of his wife from his wallet. Picasso looked at it for a moment before returning it with the words ‘Small, isn’t she?’


For a person who knows nothing about it, art seems to play a large part in my life. I currently have a very distinguished artist called Deanna Sirlin from Atlanta, Georgia, staying with me. We have been friends for some time and she is here for a gallery opening in London of her latest work. Deanna’s art has been shown all over the world and includes massive installations that dominate entire buildings in Venice, Atlanta and New Orleans. It is very modern and I get a certain frisson from touching the hem of someone I think has great talent.


My own art skills are less than minimal. I do have Art O-Level but frankly only by chance. On the day of the drawing exam our

art mistress presented the class with two possible subjects – the white skull of a small deer or a stick of rhubarb with a full green leaf attached. Having a penchant for crumble I plumped for the rhubarb. A tortuous hour later Miss Jones stood over my shoulder and surveyed my work. ‘Hmm,’ she muttered, ‘a very creditable skull, Miss Toksvig.’ I nodded, wrote the word ‘skull’ in bold at the bottom of the page and handed it in. Upon achieving a rather good result I decided I knew nothing about art and packed it in for a lifetime.


I don’t even know much about artists. I once had my photograph taken at a show- business party for some glossy magazine. ‘Would I,’ the sycophantic snappers enquired, ‘mind being captured with a fellow guest?’ I said it was fine and was introduced to a charming man in glasses and a crumpled linen suit. I didn’t hear the introduction and spent some time wondering who he was until I determined it must be Alan Bennett. He, I am quite confident, had no idea who I was but nevertheless we had our portrait taken with champagne glasses aloft and our arms around each other in a display of intense bonhomie. Some weeks later a friend remarked casually that she had seen my picture in Goodbye magazine or whatever it is called and hadn’t realised that David Hockney and I were such good friends.


Despite my ignorance I am hugely drawn to the world of art and it would appear we are living in something of a golden age of interest. This year’s Turner Prize entries are pleasingly peculiar and I defy anyone not to be intrigued by the 48-ton, bright-yellow steamroller that every half an hour can currently be seen flying thought the air driven by a man with his arms crossed outside Chelsea College of Art. Is it art? Who cares? Would I want it in my house? Well, only if I had particularly annoying houseguests. It is a breathtaking spectacle and we could all do with that.


London, it would seem, is fast becoming one of the great modern-art centres of the world. Today is the final day of the Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park. I go to this every year partly to be profoundly challenged and partly to admire the audacity of those, for example, who think a mattress draped over a metal stand and pierced by a neon light is the conversation piece every collector has been looking for. Some of it I find a little too avant-garde. This year’s fair has also featured the music of Sunn o))) who have been described as ‘not unlike listening to an Indian raga in the middle of an earthquake’ and as ‘taking metal to places you never imagined’. Neither of these descriptions do anything for me except make me run to my record collection to see if I still have my Doris Day compilation album.


Despite my own lack of artistic talent and my confusion about a lot of art, I know it doesn’t matter. The trick is simply to enjoy. After all in 1961 Matisse’s painting Le Bateau hung upside down at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 46 days before anyone noticed.


Sandi Toksvig October 15, 2006

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