This year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy feels brighter and more vivid than before – which is reversal of the trend of me feeling that each successive year was less thrilling tan before. Perhaps it’s the less dense hanging or the rearranged route through the rooms or the prominence given to photography. Or perhaps it was the transformed mood I brought in with me. Even the architectural models seemed more accessible than before.
But not everyone is happy. Notoriously cross critic Brian Sewell has been savaging this year’s exhibition -though he found some personal bright spots.
So I’m posting his review as another little taster for Padmum. (By the way, when are you coming?)
So here’s Brian’s version:
Last week, on entering the Royal Academy’s courtyard to see its annual Summer Exhibition, I chanced upon a column of Academicians, their doxies, catamites and hangers-on (no 11,000 virgins there) embarking on their yearly pilgrimage to St James’s Piccadilly, there to pray for a pox on hostile critics.
It was once a charming and colourful ritual but now even dour members of a Bible Readers’ Union might make a gayer occasion of it, for the sense that these pilgrims still think of themselves as smocked Augustus Johns with their polka-dot Dorelias of a century ago has entirely gone. The fedoras were far fewer, the motley drab, and in this shabby crocodile not one woman shone with artifice and no man played the aesthete exquisite.
These changes suggest a loss of confidence among the old Academicians and the advance of Maoism among the young.
Brian is not impressed by what he calls “the meagre excitement of photography…”
…the C-Type print, prints digital and digital lambda, chromogenic and ultrachrome, archival digital and digital archival (does any ordinary mortal expecting the low technology of paint on canvas understand these arcane distinctions?) at prices rising well beyond £20,000 in editions grossing over £60,000.
Consider the impertinence of it – a year’s income for pressing a button on a camera. But then, in this same room, the only thing I recognise as a work of art (though only through the eyes of Nick Serota) is a stack of chairs of the kind to be bought for a fiver from the pavements outside junk shops in Islington and Stockwell – Martin Creed‘s Work No 998. For this thirty quids’ worth, he too expects to earn £60,000: if we did it ourselves, how could we bear to live with it?
Brian laments the fad for huge canvasses that substitute blunt shock impact for artistic merit.
…too many paintings are too large for any statement they attempt to make and even quite small canvases, particularly abstract or stylistically symbolic of the painter (often no more significant than the tags of the graffiti boys), would have more punch and point if they were even smaller. Consider the quiet perfection of small paintings by Diana Armfield and Bernard Dunstan, their painterliness never overblown, their brushstrokes free but matched to the canvas size, never mere gestures straining to be noticed.They set an example to expansive painters who must dab, dab and dab again to cover the canvas without adding a smidgen of significance. Edward Lucie-Smith – his voice far larger than mine – is now campaigning against warehouse art, wraparound art and “the rhetoric of size”. Too many artists work only to fill the space – they are seduced by it, and so, alas, are we – and when the space runs out we not only provide more in new museums and galleries but allow artists to appropriate whole towns, city centres and even landscapes for their work. Sculptors are the worst offenders, Gormley and Kapoor the obvious examples of this grandiloquence and greed…
And Brian also questions the whole rationale of the Summer Exhibition, suggesting it’s more about revenue than artistic excellence.
Authentic prints, too much diluted by insidious new infiltrators prefixed screen, giclée and inkjet, have been… piled high, though not sold cheap. With 300 in two small rooms, the atmosphere suggests the bazaar rather than a gallery, and less the bazaar of Istanbul than the weekend business trading on the railings of Green Park. I have always felt sorry for the handful of skilled professional print makers exhibiting in the Academy, swamped by the bagatelles of amateurs and filthy rich painter-Academicians who, at the peak of their game, need neither the notice nor the cash. This crammed display is, however, a reminder that the Summer Exhibition exists as much to make money for the Academy as for Academicians and has no credibility as a showcase of the best in British art. To the sceptical onlooker the Academy, a charity supported by sponsors, donors and innumerable friends, seems to exist primarily to pay the salaries of its bureaucracy…..
But it’s not all doom and gloom, Brian approves of some of the sculpture, including the two pictured here.
…among sculptures James Butler‘s Rainbow Division Memorial standing in the courtyard is to be taken very seriously as a major work of commemorative sculpture imbued with nobility and pathos – as were many such monuments to the soldiery of the First World War with which it is kindred in spirit… Brian Taylor’s naked Executioner, as old-fashioned in its way as Butler’s memorial, and Tim Shaw’s What God of Love Inspires Such Hate [above] are both comforting reassurances that Butler is not alone in battling for figurative sculpture with a powerful touch of realism…
The full version of Brian’s crossness is here.
If you want to see for yourself, the Summer Exhibition 2011 is at the Royal Academy, W1 (0844 209 0051, royalacademy.org) until August 15. Saturday to Thursday 10am-6pm; Friday 10am-10pm. Admission £10 (concs available).
Or there’s more at these places: