Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 suspense thriller ‘Vertigo’ last year topped the influential Sight & Sound magazine poll as the greatest film of all time. Started in 1952 the polls are conducted every ten years. Vertigo’s achievement is all the more remarkable given it did not even feature in the top ten until 1982.
Such is the current esteem for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ that on Halloween the RTÉ Concert Orchestra performed a one-off live accompaniment to the film with Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score. The result was an enhancement to both film and musical score.
Herrmann was also the composer to that other shibboleth of movie aesthetes ‘Citizen Kane’. With the exception of the first Sight & Sound poll Orson Welles precocious creation has consistently garnered the top spot. But in recent lists its all-conquering status has begun to wane. For decades it comfortably held the number one position. Now it has slipped behind Vertigo.
Of course the nature of such polls has changed over the last fifty years. When the compiling of votes started critics might only get to view a movie on its initial release. Nowadays fans and critics since the arrival of the VHS recorder and now with DVD and on-demand streaming have the possibility for multiple viewings and appraisals. The spread of critics is also canvassed from a much broader international catchment.
The point to all this is to confirm that people’s tastes and perceptions can change over time. What was once a dominant genre or exponent in a field can fall from favour.
The apparent pre-eminence of one artist over another can also be the result of judicious cheerleading by well-positioned flag wavers. The Cahiers du cinéma magazine in France was the first to regard Hitchcock as more than a mere creator of populist entertainment and accorded him the status of auteur.
Unknown artists can assume a position of prominence from relative obscurity. An advocate can boost or at times even create the reputation of an artist. Johannes Vermeer, now something of a superstar in terms of public box office appeal, was virtually unknown and his paintings forgotten or ignored up until the middle of the nineteenth century. The somewhat disputed ‘rediscovery’ of Vermeer by the French art critic and writer Théophile Thoré was cleverly cultivated. He emphasised the enigmatic nature of the artist and the rarity of his surviving paintings thus adding to their value. This served to enhance Thoré’s own reputation but equally led to the ultimate elevation of Vermeer to the canon of great European art. Exhibitions of his rare paintings like the recent Vermeer and Music at The National Gallery in London now guarantee good box office returns.
Charles Saatchi as a collector, dealer and proselytiser for contemporary art has likewise helped to make the reputations and increase the bank balance of numerous artists over the last two decades.
But the work of artists are usually carefully brought to market by the galleries and large dealers to manipulate and they would say maximise their client’s potential value. Last month though Saatchi took the provocative step to sell-off a large quantity of his sculpture collection in one large sale. The resulting prices obtained were not as good as anticipated with many pieces not realising their expected potential. The reduced prices will impact negatively especially on those emerging artists who need their reputations to be nurtured to develop over time.
In the process Saatchi has it seems damaged the monetary value of some of those emerging artists but perhaps more importantly has he also precipitated the fall of his own reputation.