Now Reading: Charles Saatchi: the Man Who Bought the Art World


Charles Saatchi: the Man Who Bought the Art World

May 31, 201911 min read

The persona of businessman-turned-art-collector Charles Saatchi has long been shrouded with a veil of mystery and controversy. While some may say that Saatchi has used his wealth and acquired influence to change the fates of countless artists, others may argue that the empire that Saatchi has built is not the best place for emerging artists to end up in.

Charles Saatchi’s story began in 1967 when he founded a creative consultancy CramerSaatchi. With the help of his co-founder and brother Maurice, the company changed into Saatchi & Saatchi — an advertising agency that was destined to change the world. From 1970 and onwards, the two have worked hard to eventually become the heads of the largest communication company in the world at the time. 

The company’s success was crafted from an infusion of originality, wittiness and controversy. One most notable example of this was the famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ line for the Conservative Party’s 1979 elections. At a time when political billboards were almost unheard of, the campaign was a bold confrontation with the viewers. Many credit it to have eventually put Margaret Thatcher into power. 

The ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ line, created by Saatchi&Saatchi, which many credit to have put Margaret Thatcher into power. Source: BBC

However, Charles Saatchi was never seen on the front lines — he was the creative force working behind the scenes, meanwhile, his brother performed most of the communication with clients. This is something that continued even after the company’s downfall in 2000 and was transferred onto his methods of working with his gallery.

Charles shifted his attention from the agency to art in the 1980s. Having been a collector for most of his life, he began purchasing the works of artists that he enjoyed. In 1985, he opened his first public gallery to show off his collection and soon, it became a destination for art lovers. 

Displaying numerous pop artists and minimalists, the works that hung on the walls of his gallery included those by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd and Jeff Koons. Saatchi always remained behind the scenes, allowing the gallery to fuel his ego and influence in subtler ways. 

His attention shifted once again in the 1990s — from American to British artists. His first purchases included works by Tracey Emin and a recent graduate Damien Hirst. Both of the artists were considered to produce shocking and controversial work. Saatchi was known for showing up in his green Rolls-Royce at young artists’ studios and if he liked their work, changing their lives forever. 

My Bed, 1998 by Tracey Emin. Source: Artnet News

The Saatchi Gallery at the time was known to shake visitors, exhibiting numerous works of great shock value. Perhaps, it reflected the inner contents of the reclusive and media-shy art collector. He likes digestible ideas, in the form of art that can appeal to a mass audience — just like advertising, observes Manhattan dealer Robert Goff.

Just like his advertisement, Saatchi’s art collection stood out — using his wealth and acquired influence in the art world, he managed to bring out contemporary British artists such as Damien Hirst, Jenny Saville and the Chapman brothers into the spotlight. Nevertheless, his grip on contemporary artists spread beyond borders, with several Asian artists, such as Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami.

Branded, 1991-1992 by Jenny Saville. Source: Christie’s

Using similar aggressive strategies as he and his brother used in Saatchi & Saatchi, he could afford to buy any work of art, especially of a young, yet-to-be-famous artist — and he did. Obsessed to seek the new and exciting, he could walk into an artist’s studio and if he liked at least one of their works, purchase most, if not all.

“I think he recognises [art] with his wallet. He’s addicted to shopping”, Hirst said in a 2001 interview with The Guardian. “He suddenly tried to control art. And once you do, art puts a leash around your neck and drags you around by the heels.”

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 by Damien Hirst. Source: Damien Hirst

Some artists, who were supported by Saatchi in their early days, have mixed feeling about his method now. His brutal way of trimming down his collection and selling off less favoured items has been heavily criticized — to the public, it may send off a message of the artist going out of fashion, once the trend-setter of the art world has sold them off.

Such influence has made Saatchi into a monopoly, comprised of works of art that he deemed to be valuable, an advertisement-turned-art mogul. For artists, he disapproved of, careers would have been made much harder. For those with art that he found to be straightforward, yet controversial, a successful career could have been guaranteed.

However, not even they are fully grateful for their skyrocketing fame at such early stages of their career. One of them is Italian neo-expressionist painter Sandro Chia, whose work Saatchi has purchased and then disposed of in the 1980s. Some consider it to be Saatchi who destroyed Chia’s prospective career — he never made a comeback into art, becoming an art critic instead. 

Of course, publicity is almost vital for any kind of artist for their work to be established in the art world. Yet, Saatchi’s aggressive promotion methods still left after his advertisement days, have brought unnaturally high and unexpected boosts of publicity to young artists. 

Many could barely handle the pressure: “There was a certain expectation afterwards that was quite hard,” comments Kate MccGwire on how it felt after being almost dragged into the spotlight. Although grateful to Saatchi for recognizing her, she sympathises with those, who have been negatively affected by this. 

Whelm – Saturate, 2018 by Kate MccGwire. Source: Artsy

For Saatchi, art collecting has become a new way of advertisement — catapulting upcoming artists into the spotlight, not with catchy slogans, but rather with his own endorsement. Investing his money into art, he produced a cycle of purchasing, advertising, raising the cost and selling. 

“It’s incorrect to call it a collection,” commented Irish-born painter Sean Scully. His large geometric abstract oil paintings that resemble checkerboards have been purchased by Saatchi and later sold in the 1980s. “It is correct to call it stock.” Saatchi counters this: “I buy art that I like. Then, if I feel like it, I sell it and buy more art.” He believes that for more serious investment, someone should buy “premium bonds”. 

Nevertheless, the reign of Saatchi in the art world is gradually coming to an end. His exhibitions are garnering more half-hearted reviews. “The whole Saatchi thing has deteriorated,” comments an anonymous Manhattan dealer. “He was, in his day, the leading collector of contemporary art, without any comparison. He was so sharp with his curatorial edge.” He called the 2010 exhibition The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today “a shadow of what the Saatchi collection once was.”

The Saatchi Gallery today. Source: Walpole

Perhaps, it was his constant approach to art collecting that lead to his gradual downfall: attempting to repeat the same young-artist exhibitions over the past ten years, he has failed to evolve and move with the flow of the art world. His mysterious image of the 1990s does not fit into the age of media and publicity. His influence has deflated.

For many, Saatchi has been the man to have helped create careers, help artists do the work they enjoy; for others, he has been an obstacle in the path to success and to the rest, the pathway to their downfall. The monopoly that Saatchi has created within the art world is surely impressive, yet as are the works he has supported — controversial.

His strangling grip on the throat of modern art has weakened and it is only a matter of years until a new emperor emerges onto the throne.

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Aly Balakareva

Born in 2003, in Sochi, Russia, I have always had a passion for storytelling. For the past ten years, I've been living in and exploring Cyprus. Currently, I write and edit for Affinity Magazine Arts + Culture section, and in my free time, enjoy watching films and listening to music.