Academicians, doxies, catamites and hangers-on take a savaging

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.

Aurora - lead - Anselm Keifer. I love it. But Brian says it's "a rare failure that could as easily have been made by a Namibian handyman or Uncle George in his garden shed.

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.

Rainbow Division Memorial - bronze - James Butler. Brian and I both like this memorial in honour of the Alabama 167, the Iowa 168th and the 42nd Rainbow Division for their action in the WWI Battle of the Marne, July 25-26, 1918.

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?

Birch - Anita Klein. I like it, don't know what Brian thinks.

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…..

Man On Fire - by Tim Shaw. (Part of What God of Love Inspires Such Hate in the Hearts of Men.) He says it was inspired by a man setting himself alight during a terrorist attack on Glasgow airport and his experience of driving into a riot in Belfast.

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, until August 15. Saturday to Thursday 10am-6pm; Friday 10am-10pm. Admission £10 (concs available).

Or there’s more at these places:



Filed under art

6 responses to “Academicians, doxies, catamites and hangers-on take a savaging

  1. I prefer to see photography as a challenge to the painter-artist, and consider it no less a fine art. Not all of it, but then there are lousy painters too.

    And then there’s the cartoon portraiture of the Place du Tertre in Paris

    and the one he did of me (present from the missus)

    • blackwatertown

      Thanks for the links – which go to some interesting pics and more on the argument as to whether or not photography counts as fine art.

  2. I haven’t been to the Summer Exhibition for several years, but when I did I enjoyed it immensely. The only spanner in the works was my severely traditionalist mum (I made the mistake of taking her along) who insisted on making embarrassing put-downs every few minutes – “I could do that”, “But what does it mean?”,”Is that supposed to be art?” etc.

  3. Hi Thanks for the preview—really excited about going to this event with you. We reach UK on 25th–so maybe we can go on Monday 27th or Tuesday 28th depending on your convenience.

    The Anita Klein looks like Gaugin…the sculpture is stupendous….and being a critic myself I discount impressions of other critics!!

    I hope I don’t sound like Nick’s Mom.

  4. I love the James Butler Bronze. Enjoy the day with Padmini, wish I could join you, but alas it is not possible.

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