Allen Jones @ the Royal Academy

Allen Jones was born in 1937. He attended the Royal College of Art alongside David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield, just after the generation of Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake ie in the heart of what was quickly labelled Pop Art, casting off the existentialist angst of Abstract Expressionism and rejoicing in the bright shiny surfaces or a new world of household appliances and in the flashy sexy images of TV and advertising.

This exhibition in the Burlington Galleries (round the back) of the Royal Academy is a retrospective of a career spanning over 50 years.

Sexy sculptures

The show features sketches and drawings from as early as 1959, but his breakthrough came in 1969 when he exhibited Table, Chair and Hat Stand. These caused a furore at the time and columnists who are paid to fill newspapers with anything they can dredge up were still pretending to be scandalised at the opening of this exhibition a few months ago. Really? In the era when 50 Shades of Grey is the fastest-selling paperback of all time, 20 years after Madonna wore her conical bra, 30 years after Robert Mapplethorpe‘s cock photos.

Another group which set out to subvert suburban society, its pinstripe trousers and bowler hats, its Mary Whitehouse repressiveness, made their debut in 1969 – Monty Python. Python also used references to sex and a rather tame vision of kinkiness to ‘shock’ and subvert. In the small first room of the show there were bits and bobs from Jones’s studio and I was struck to see this included some Eric Gill seaside postcards. Looking back, both Jones and Python seem provincial and tame compared with Mapplethorpe’s sophistication and with any of the bondage pornography which is only a click away on the internet.

Googling for images I’ve also come across some striking outfits worn by Diana Rigg playing Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers, which anybody could watch on TV from 1965 onwards.

There were a few variations on the Table in the show, but not as many as you’d expect. The trilogy seem to have been almost one-offs – but Jones’s long career ever since has been overshadowed by their stunning impact. It’s less their sexiness (they are not very sexy in a cold clinical gallery) but the clarity of their design, combining the super-perfection of a shop window mannekin with the banality of their functionality – table, chair, hat stand – and the sleek lines of the leather boots and panties, which make them such design classics.

Painting

Moving swiftly on the show’s biggest room is dedicated to thirty or so paintings, showing how Jones’ style developed. The 1960s paintings have a few of the motifs of the era, arrows and decals, and details from the magazine world, but overall are rather drab, the muted greens and browns of camouflage.

It’s the paintings from the 1990s and 2000s which make an impact. They’re generally enormous and very simple in design – clearly drawn silhouettes of (mostly women’s) legs, sometimes upper bodies, and some men, set in big patches of bright colours, representing what appear to be night clubs, cinemas, a tryptych based round a piano with a man playing it and women in various stages of undress lying over it.

They are all stylised in the same way – there is no attempt to be realistic – the figures are drawn with cartoon-like strong outlines, the faces of men or women often left blank or not appearing. It is the silhouette, the outline of the human figure, particularly the lower half, the legs, and particularly women’s legs, which fascinate him.

Some of the paintings have an erotic element, some appear to be in sex clubs, or involve men and women in apparently sexual positions. But others are of fully clothed people dancing or in other fairly unerotic poses. What they all have in common is the cartoon-like draughtsmanship, the use of bright primary colours, and the way they left this viewer completely cold.

Steel sculpture

There is a room dedicated to Jones’s steel sculptures: they are slightly over life-size, two-dimensional ribbons of steel curved and cut and painted to have just enough likeness to human beings to be recognisable. Many of them are of dancing individuals or couples and, by this stage one is realising that dance – the human body he’s so fascinated by in lovely movement – is a major subject for Jones.

My wife liked some of the thin steel sculptures of men best in the show.

Mannekins

The final room has a set of a dozen or so mannekins, from the over-famous Hat Stand through a series of mannekins with the same small head and slim body, standing tiptoe in a variety of leather outfits. It includes paintings and photographs, including the stunning photo of Kate Moss wearing a metallic body suit. This adorned the cover of the RA magazine as well as GQ magazine and many others. It demonstrates the crossover in Jones’s work between fine art and fashion, glamour, photography etc, one he’s perfectly at home with but gives Daily Mail commentators and feminists such fits.

I didn’t like the stylised small head and expression of these mannekins. they were all minor variations on the same model, though wearing different style shoes and covered in different bright paints (as in the huge recent paintings) or with figure-hugging leather outfits.

In the same room were paintings with similar poses ie a single female. By far the standout piece and one of the best things in the exhibition is the painting of ballet dancer Darcy Bussell (1994). A reproduction doesn’t do justice to the painting’s size, its lightness and elegance, and the likeness of the face – one of the few faces anywhere in his work which shows genuine individuality. I also liked the small scurfs of paint in the yellow section and the bottom, brown section – I like paintings which leave some paint unfinished, which indicate their hand-madeness in a world saturated with perfect images.

Dégas

Looking at the Darcey Bussell painting made me think of Dégas. There was a painter and sculptor obsessed with the female form and its movement, who painted and sculpted the slender figures of ballet dancers over and over again. Realised there is a direct link between him and Jones – and how, because Dégas’s svelte female figures are dressed in tutus and pumps they are acceptable as Art, whereas, because Jones’s equally stylised and repeated female forms sometimes are wearing kinky boots, or elbow-length gloves or leather body stockings – they are dismissed as sexist exploitation.

Sketches

Easy to stroll through the small final room and exit without stopping to look at the pencil and charcoal sketches. These were there to demonstrate the care and thoroughness Jones brings to his large-scale paintings and sculptures. But in among the preparatory works were a couple of gems, showing the brilliancy of his draughtsmanship, and also that he was interested in individuality before the interest in homogenous or generic or blank mannekin faces came to predominate.

Head of Judy, 1959, had an angularity and rigour and individuality which reminded me of 1930s Wyndham Lewis, hinting at the lines and blocks and angles hidden beneath the skin.

Skull, 1978, was a drawing of a skull with a Dürer-like intensity of detail – but what lifted it was a swatch of light brown paint, just one broad brushstroke to the right of the skull, which perfectly counterpoised it. this was the best piece in the show, for me.

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