When I told my cab driver that I was going to visit the Walker Gallery to see Rolf Harris’ exhibition Can You Tell What It Is Yet? he announced very firmly that Rolf was a “good bloke”. I’m quite sure that most, if not all, of my fellow visitors the following day would have agreed with him. Rolf is well loved and he has made a long career from entertaining people on television as a singer, comedian and performance artist, able to make huge expressive paintings in real time while giving a running commentary. Later he made a series of programmes Rolf on Art which brought people who might not necessarily have thought that they were interested into contact with great artists via his own efforts to paint in homage to them. As my partner remarked when I said that people obviously liked him “Well he hasn’t made a long career out of being a shit to people”. There is a lot of this side of his talent on show in the exhibition. It is a celebration of Rolf the man as well as Rolf the artist and there is a wealth of video footage and personal memorabilia on show. It is a lot of fun and visitors of a certain age were clearly engaged and delighted to wallow in nostagia, watching the footage intently as he explained how a painting developed or sang Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport yet again. All the verbiage alongside the paintings and exhibits was written by Rolf himself. It is a very personal look back at a life well lived.
But this is an Art gallery and an art exhibition, which begs the question can he actually paint? Is he really any good? He is a modest, unassuming man, serious, humble and self critical and he would be the first to admit that he is not in Rembrandt’s league, but few artists are. There is no shame in that. His work is very much like himself, lively and expressive, with a flair for colour and movement, and there is a real sympathy for people in his portraits. There is a particularly beautiful portrait of a “dear friend” Doris Monet which has real soul. I liked his street scenes a lot. They catch the immediacy of a stolen moment and people unguarded as they live their lives unaware that they are being watched. His Australian landscapes are vibrant and capture the strangeness of a landscape that he was remembering from memory when he painted them. It is art that everybody can understand and enjoy and that is no bad thing. His portrait of the queen is simple and touching and it is typical Rolf that in the video footage of its unveiling he introduces it with “Right, here we go, take a deep breath”. The work which made me wonder what he might have achieved had he concentrated solely on painting throughout his life, as he has done in recent years, is a large, understated and melancholy self portrait in the style of Rembrandt. There is a look in his eyes in that image which is a very long way from the Rolfaroo cartoon persona.
In the shop it seemed oddly appropriate that you could buy yourself a signed print by Rolf for under £1,000 and even an original oil if you had thirty odd grand to spare. He may not be Rembrandt but you can’t buy one of those after a look round the National gallery. It had been an unusual exhibition, a look at a life and a personality as well as some of the work he has produced and a well deserved opportunity for him to look back and assess what he has done now that he is in his eighties.