The Royal Academy summer exhibition 2016

The pleasures of the annual summer exhibition at the Royal Academy are:

  1. The sheer scale – 1,240 exhibits this year.
  2. The variety – it is not a show of One Major Artist, where you’re meant to pay close attention to the artistic development of a Matisse or a Georgia O’Keeffe – it’s such an enormous ragbag of styles, formats and artists, confusing and inspiring by turn, that so you can just like whatever you like.
  3. The prices – most of the exhibits are on sale and the exhibition booklet gives prices: it’s always amusing to be shocked and outraged at the outrageously large prices of the whoppers, but also touched by the affordability of some of the simpler works.

I’ve been to half a dozen summer shows and this seemed to me a rather dull one. Maybe I’m getting used to them, but too many of the oil paintings in particular, were just ‘meh’. Oil paintings of the canals of Venice, of a nude model in the artist’s studio, of a mantelpiece or a flight of stairs in someone’s house. Haven’t these subjects been done to death? Haven’t I seen them done a thousand times before, and much better?

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Likes

I learned about Jane and Louise Wilson from their black and white photos of ruined WWII concrete defences on the Normandy coast. Several of their other large format photos are currently on display at Tate Britain. For this show, they’ve hung six massive colour photos taken in the city of Pripyat, abandoned and never repopulated after the catastrophic nuclear accident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Atomgrad, Nature Abhors A Vacuum VII by Jane and Louise Wilson  © Jane & Louise Wilson

Atomgrad, Nature Abhors A Vacuum VII by Jane and Louise Wilson © Jane & Louise Wilson

They are powerful depictions of derelict ruins and set off a theme which runs, here and there, throughout the rest of the show, of ruin and collapse. Immense and atmospheric though they are, the impact is slightly undermined by the perspex cover on each image, which reflects the overhead lights so it’s hard to see an entire image without a patch of shiny reflection. (As luck would have it, I recently read a gripping thriller set in the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl, Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs, which powerfully conveys the eeriness of the abandoned city, so the photos brought to life Cruz Smith’s wonderful text.)

Old favourites

You only have to visit a few of the Summer Exhibitions to begin to recognise old favourites who exhibit year after year. These include:

  • Allen Jones made his name in the 1960s with female shop window mannequins dressed in sexy underwear and posed to form a coffee table or chair. A retrospective of his work here at the Academy last year showed that his later work has included a lot of paintings of sexy women in leather boots etc in a kind of nightclub ambience of yellow and green washes of colour. There are half a dozen of these paintings in this year’s show, plus one life-size mannequin of a pert-breasted lovely with a splash of yellow paint across her. A snip at £210,000.
  • Anthony Green exhibits each year faux-naive paintings generally of himself, his wife, their house and garden, done in a cartoonish style and often with the frame cut out around the shape of the main image, for example Self-portrait for Gaston Lachaise £6,000. Reassuringly familiar.
  • Norman Ackroyd displays wonderful black and white etchings of the isles off Scotland, as seen rising from the sea, often beswirled by seagulls, with titles like Cow Rock, County Kerry (£1,100), Midsummer Sunrise, Sound of Mull £570, Skellig Revisited £570.
  • Very similar, but done in intaglio and so with darker blacks and a hint of blue, was a series of depictions of the landscape of Iceland and Antarctica by Emma Stibbon.
  • Mick Moon paints peasant fishermen scenes onto what looks like planks or cross-sections of weed. Evening Fishing £25,200.
  • Michael Craig-Martin makes very soothing big paintings of everyday objects in striking, unshaded primary colours. Space II is very big and costs £170,000.
  • Tracey Emin’s sketchy sketches of what is probably her own naked body on a bed go for £1,850 a pop.
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring a typical large work by Michael Craig-Martin © Stephen White

Novelties

  • Allora and Calzadilla displayed a life size petrol pump emerging from a block of grey stone, titled 2 Hose Petrified Petrol Pump. Powerful. Not for sale (NFS)
  • My son like the enormous Böse Blumen by Anselm Kiefer, a vast grey slab of lead, with daubs and blodges of oil paint and, incongruously, a relief sculpture of a big leather bound book. NFS.
  • Beard Aware is the name of a huge mock-stained glass work by pranksters Gilbert and George, depicting the artists bending over to moon us, but their bottoms concealed by swathes of barbed wire. One of an extensive series which is something to do with security, apparently.
  • In the same room is a raised dais bearing a large rectangle of paper on which are two carbonised skeletons, blackened bone fragments, some of the teeth with gold fillings. Self Portrait as Charcoal on Paper by Zatorski and Zatorski, £42,000.
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring Beard Aware by Gilbert and George, andSelf portrait as charcoal on paper by Zatorski and Zatorski © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring Beard Aware by Gilbert and George, and Self portrait as charcoal on paper by Zatorski and Zatorski © Stephen White

  • The Small Weston Room is devoted to 30 or so black and white photographs by the husband and wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher. They spent decades photographing isolated and often derelict industrial buildings with Teutonic precision – always on the same kind of grey, overcast day in spring or autumn (never summer) to avoid shadows, and always using a camera placed on a tripod at human eye level. These images are then arranged into squares or rectangles of prints showing the same type of building – gas tanks, cooling towers, water towers, stone works and cooling towers. My son liked the cooling towers since they had the most variety on the central design, and also often looked like space ships.
  • In the room devoted to Landscape, I liked Black Sea by Lee Wagstaff, a simple depiction of waves (£3,500) and a big colour photo of a Coal Mine, Outer Mongolia by Richard Seymour (£4,200).
  • Gillian Ayres has had a long career. She is represented here by two colourful woodcuts on paper, which channel Matisse’s late paper cutouts – Scilla and Achiote (£5,760 and £6,600 respectively).

Architecture in the room of shame

As usual one room is devoted to architects’ fanciful, space-age plans for buildings which might as well come from another planet. If architects are in any way responsible for the inhumane, rainy, windswept heartless streets and concrete rabbit warrens which so many Londoners are forced to endure, they whole profession should hang its head in shame.

Slick, clean, plastic or wooden models show the utopian world of these fantasy planners, a world where it never rains, it’s never windy, and where cars, buses, vans, lorries, cabs, coaches and diesel trains don’t – apparently – emit any toxic gases – a world free of CO2, CO, sulphur dioxide or diesel fumes. By rights this room ought to be pumped full of car and bus fumes so that visitors quickly feel sick and ill, in order to convey the awful, car-choked reality of the shiny plastic dreams peddled by so many architectural fantasists.

Themes

Room VI claimed to house works devoted to ‘the role of art in healing a shattered world’. Sentimental tripe. Art may record the appalling devastation humankind is wreaking on the planet, but I’m not aware of it forming the keystone of any notable peace agreement. In Chechnya, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq – is there a lot of healing art?

One example among scores – Christopher Hughes’ sketch of the utterly devastated landscape of Homs in Syria, depicting how actual buildings often fare in the actual world, instead of in the utopian fantasies of dreamy architects.

Room IX featured a lot of work by the Sensation artists, the Young British Artists who shot to fame with the Sensation show in 1997. (Surely they should be celebrated next year – will there be a tenwtieth-anniversary show?) As a totality, this room instantly made more visual impact than most of its predecessors. It felt like it was the product of people who were savvy with the actual, image-saturated culture we live in – compare and contrast with the very tired-feeling oil paintings of Venice or a garden.

I liked All The Fish In The Sea by David Mach (£56,000).

Transformer-Performer Double-Act VIII by EVA & ADELE (2015) Photo courtesy of Nicole Gnesa Gallery

Transformer-Performer Double-Act VIII by EVA & ADELE (2015) Photo courtesy of Nicole Gnesa Gallery

Towards the end of the show, the Lecture Room has a lot of big sculptures in it, including David Mach’s Silver Hart, a stag’s head made out of shiny coat hangers (£48,000) – though nothing will top the gorilla made of coat hangers which he exhibited a few years ago.

My son liked Wood Burner II by Guy Allott, which looked like a tea urn with space rocket fins attached.

Leila Jeffreys contributed two big colour photos of cockatoos (£2,160). There was a big b&w photo of people at a nightclub dancing – a rare window into the actual everyday world where millions of people live – the daily commute to work, meeting friends down the pub, playing football and other sports, clubbing, cafes, taking kids to school, homework, shopping, cooking – which is almost entirely ignored by the world of art and architecture alike.

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Every room in Tate Britain (part one)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a beautiful neo-classical building facing onto the river Thames. To the left a ramp and steps lead to the lower floor with a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened 1987), nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s big collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Sweet haunting sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of these chronological sequences are single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1540

  • Full length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen. I like the still-medieval feel, the flatness, the compaction, and the gorgeousness of the detail, the tremendously patterned gold background to the left, but also the idealised plants, flowers and fruit to the right.
  • Sir Peter Lely Two Ladies of the Lake Family (c.1660) I love the stylised round-cheeked cherub look of all Lely’s women. He was Dutch and emigrated here to become the principal portrait-painter at the court of Charles II, filling the position Sir Anthony van Dyck held for Charles I.

1730

  • Samuel Richardson, the Novelist, Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740–1 by Francis Hayman. This isn’t a particularly good painting, I’m just surprised to learn of its existence. Richardson was a printer whose long epistolary novel about a 15-year-old serving girl named Pamela who writes letters to her parents about fighting off the ‘attentions’ of her country landowner master, Mr B, became the first bestseller and prompted a flood of merchandising and imitations. I enjoyed the attention paid to the silk of the dresses and the detail of the leaves on the trees.
  • William Hogarth The Painter and his Pug (1745) embodying a certain kind of pugnacious bully-boy philistinism. I’ve always enjoyed his O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) which is a pictorial list of reasons why the French are rubbish.
  • Hogarth’s crudity is highlighted by comparison with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773). Here the focus not now on the depiction of static fabric, as in the Hayman painting of 30 years earlier, but on the effect of the overall composition, the diagonal made by the three women, and the softening effect of light and shade on the numerous decorative details, flowers, rug, plinth, jug and so on.
  • Sir William Beechey Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited 1793) reflecting the later 18th century fashion for ‘sentiment’, for subjects depicting finer feelings.
  • Henry Fuseli Titania and Bottom (c.1790) stands out from the other 18th century works, mainly portraits in the country, for its dark fantasy, note the tiny old man with the long white beard at the end of a lady’s leash in the bottom right.

Foreign painters in England

À propos Fuseli, it’s worth pointing out how many of these ‘British’ painters are foreign. Not featured at all here is the great Hans Holbein (German Swiss painter to the court of Henry VIII), but other foreign painters ‘incorporated’ into the British tradition include van Dyck (Flemish), Rubens (Flemish), Lely (Dutch), Fuseli (Swiss), James Tissot (French), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Netherlands), John Singer Sergeant (American), Percy Wyndham Lewis (Canadian).

  • I liked George Stubbs’ Reapers (1785) rather than the several dramatic horse pictures on display because it is unusual and it shows a very human, almost Dutch landscape-type scene.
  • Next to Reynolds the other great genius of the 18th century is of course Thomas Gainsborough, represented here by half a dozen enormous portraits and a few landscapes. I liked Henry Bate-Dudley: it is not a magnificent picture, the opposite, it has a quiet, a calm superiority or confidence. Note Gainsborough’s distinctively loose brushstrokes on coat, silver birch bark and among the leaves, but somehow coinciding with precise detail.

Looking back down the long 1780 room to compare them, you can see that Gainsborough is dainty and Reynolds is stately.

No religion

After five rooms I noticed a striking contrast with the National Gallery with its in-depth collection of European paintings from the same period – the lack of religious paintings. Overwhelmingly, the works here are portraits, with some landscapes. I counted only two religious paintings in these rooms:

  • Henry Thomson The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (exhibited 1820) with the stagey Poussinesque figures to the right but the rather haunting central figure of the dead daughter.
  • William Dyce’s Madonna and Child (c.1827–30) a sport, a freak, a careful pastiche of a Raphael painting and completely unlike anything else being painted at the time.

Our British tradition of painting may be thin until the time of Reynolds (1770s) but I think it is typical of the national culture that it focuses on real people and places, and very often on touching and moving personal stories, rather than the tearful Maries and crucified Jesuses of the continental tradition.

All of that, the heavy earnestness of the Baroque tradition of languishing saints, weeping Madonnas and annunciating angels, is completely absent from these displays. For me the religion is in the attention to ordinary life, the valuing of people and their feelings, the same emphasis on psychology and the human scale which saw the English pioneer the novel, the art form which more than any other penetrates the human mind. This sensitivity and refinement of everyday human feeling is exemplified in:

  • George Romney Mrs Johnstone and her Son (?) (c.1775–80) Sure they’re rich, sure it’s partly to show off the sumptuousness of the fabric. But it also shows real love.
  • It’s actually at the National Gallery, but Gainsborough’s unfinished portrait of his young daughters, The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1761) epitomises the English ability to capture love and affection, not Holy Love for a Martyred Saint, but real human love, and childishness and innocence and intimacy and aliveness.

Even when we do intense and visionary, rather than angels floating round the heads of saints, it is embodied in people and real landscapes:

  • Take Samuel Palmer’s paintings strange, vivid, jewelled depictions of the landscape around Shoreham in Kent, eg The Gleaning Field (c.1833)
  • And striking because it is so unlike Constable and Turner and his other contemporaries is William Etty’s Standing Female Nude (c.1835–40), very modern in its frankness, not trying to be Greek or statuesque.

The Turner Collection

There is so much Turner. Enough to fill eight good size rooms in the Clore Gallery off to the east of the main building, and this is only a small selection of what Tate owns. Turner’s history paintings, Turner’s classical landscapes, Turner’s mountains, Turner’s figures, Turner’s watercolours. And in all states of finish, from vast formal commissions to sketches to unfinished canvases to the wispiest watercolours. Despite trying hard I find Turner difficult to really like, and the task is not helped by the sheer volume of material. There is a room here dedicated to ‘Turner and the human figure’ which proves conclusively how bad he was at it:

He went on the Grand Tour and I find the resulting huge Roman landscapes strained, pretentious, overblown, bad in a number of ways:

Senses blunted by the vast Roman landscapes, I perked up when I saw the much more modest, and therefore impactful:

All in all, I preferred the one room dedicated to Constable, which is hidden away in a corner of the Clore Gallery, to the eight preceding Turner rooms:

  • Fen Lane, East Bergholt (?1817) Like gently sloping farmland I’ve seen in my walks around Kent.
  • Glebe Farm (c.1830) the church nestling among trees, the solitary cow at the pond, the thoughtful little girl, all artfully composed to create a stock feeling, but a feeling I like.

Pre-Raphaelite Works on Paper

In the far corner of the Clore gallery is stairs up to the smallish room displaying pre-Raphaelite works on paper, lots of sketches but some oils as well. A wall label reminds me that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) only lasted from 1848 to 1853. I liked the strange, visionary, angular, amateurish but atmospheric work of early Rossetti, like Arthur’s Tomb (1860). Technically not as innovatory as Constable or Turner, but these small works convey an experimental psychology, using medieval motifs for very modern reasons, to convey the troubled inter-personal relationships of the Brotherhood and their various muses, anticipating the tensions of, say, the Viennese Expressionists fifty years later.

But there are also examples of Rossetti in his smooth, glowing, bosomy phase: Monna Pomona (1864). I liked the wall label’s description of the medievalising tendency in PRB work, its use of: ‘shallow space, tight interlocking composition and rich colour of medieval manuscripts’. A handy description of what I like about medieval art.

I liked Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6) the oddities of composition riffing off medieval ideas of space to create a very modern psychology.

The glory years

Although the earlier rooms contain many good paintings, in my opinion British art explodes into a glory of masterpieces between the mid 1880s and the Great War, the period which saw Victorian academic art reach its height of verisimilitude before being swept away by the exhilarating eruption of the new Modernism. Rooms 1840, 1890 and 1900 contain painting after painting of pure visual pleasure, greatest hits which make everything before them pale by comparison.

  • James Tissot The Ball on Shipboard (c.1874) Illustration of a Trollope novel.
  • John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6) Barely a century after Reynolds, and how far not only painting, but the understanding of mood and psychology, has expanded and deepened.
  • John William Waterhouse Saint Eulalia (exhibited 1885) Exotic realism.
  • William Logsdail St Martin-in-the-Fields (1888) The figures, hmm, but the depiction of the church itself is amazing, conveying the cold and drizzle…
  • John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott (1888) Late Victorian Arthurianism.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Silent Greeting (1889) A fantasy of the classical world.
  • Stanhope Alexander Forbes The Health of the Bride (1889) Illustration for a Tomas Hardy novel.
  • Anna Lea Merritt Love Locked Out (1890)
  • Sir George Clausen Brown Eyes (1891) Haunting the way strangers glimpsed in a crowd sometimes are.
  • Henry Scott Tuke August Blue (1893–4) Why is it always naked women? Why not some beautiful boys for a change?
  • Thomas Cooper Gotch Alleluia (exhibited 1896) Peculiar, odd, immaculate in some ways, but look at their lips.
  • John Singer Sargent Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer (1901) The figures are impressive but it’s the vase that takes my breath away. Close up to the painting in the flesh you can see the casual mastery of oil with which it’s done.

And then, suddenly, bang! It is the Modernists with their Futurism and Vorticism and Fauvism and fancy European ways:

In the 1910 room are works for well after the Great War, like Eric Gill sculptures or Stanley Spencer or Alfred Wallis, but I’ll leave them for part two.

One-off rooms

  • One room contains three big bright double portraits by David Hockney. Hockney’s art has always seemed to me bright and empty, and also badly drawn, but I know I am in a minority.
  • Jo Spence Feminist artist-activist in the 1970s and 80s, member of the Hackney Flashers who spent a lot of time interrogating traditions, exploring issues, situating their practices. This seemed to involve quite a few photos of herself naked or topless, especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer. No doubt making serious feminist points, but also a treat for admirers of the larger woman.
  • Art and Alcohol Half a dozen historical paintings on the subject of the English and alcohol, one wall dominated by Cruickshank’s famous panorama of a pissed society (at one stage place in a room by itself with lengthy commentary). The highlight is the series of b&w photos Gilbert and George took in the 1970s of them and others getting pissed in a pub in the East End, the photos treated with various effects, blurring and distortion conveying a sense of the evening degenerating.
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–1985) Never heard of him, a leading artist, novelist, playwright and poet born in north-west India, which then became Pakistan, where he made a reputation before moving to England in 1962 – presumably he’s represented here because Tate bought his works thereafter. The wall label explained that he used Islamic texts as the basis for his abstract-looking paintings, but I was caught by some of the images which reminded me powerfully of Paul Klee, one of my heroes.

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