I had a difficult conversation about this painting at the recent Cluster Contemporary Art Fair. A Ukrainian woman approached me and asked me to explain it. I don’t think she was happy with what I said.
First, I should make clear that I see only one aggressor in this war in Ukraine, and I admire the dignity and bravery of the Ukrainian people. But that is not what this painting is about.
Clearly I was mocking Putin, naked on his golden throne with rickety wooden legs. And having Macron with Boris Johnson wearing theatrical costumes is obviously questioning their motivation for their actions on the world stage. Biden cheering on from a distance is a comment on the US’s stance in this war.
No, what puzzled this woman was the relevance of the naked men wrestling.
Many visitors who saw this painting at Cluster Contemporary spotted the reference to old photos of wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge, and also to Francis Bacon’s Two Figures, which had used the Muybridge photos as a reference.
This is not a noble painting about Ukrainian heroism. Instead it is a grubby little story about you and me: it’s about everyone cheering their chosen sides from the safety of their living room; it is about how a primal conflict to the death by two warring races has become an exciting spectacle for the rest of the world; it is about my shame in feeling any excitement at missiles raining down on Russian tanks and troops; it is about my sadness over what we have become.