Exhibition Review | Genius and Ambition. The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1768–1918 | David R. Marshall

Genius and Ambition. The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1768–1918

David R. Marshall  

Henry Fuseli, Thor battering the Midgard Serpent, 1790, Royal Academy of Arts

At the Bendigo Art Gallery 2 March–9 June 2014. (Closes 9 June; an exhibition of antique sculpture from the British Museum follows on 2 August.)

The regional galleries have some interesting exhibitions on at the moment. At the Ballarat Art Gallery is Auld Lang Syne while at Bendigo, with only a few days to run, is Genius and Ambition, which consists largely of works from the Royal Academy, London and is an exhibition generated by Bendigo and the only Australian venue. Following the success of its fashion shows, especially Grace Kelly, the Bendigo Gallery has stimulated an arts-led tourism industry serving day-trippers from Melbourne who come by car, train or chartered bus. Bendigo has a lot of offer in this respect. Its architectural charms are considerable, with the old timber stadium in one direction from the Art Gallery, monumental architecture—Gothic spires and Mansard roofs—in another, and nice old, restful houses in another. Opposite the Art Gallery are the necessary antique or mock-antique shops and cafés, while at the back the gallery café faces a park (as gallery cafés should) serving good-value bookable lunches in a suitably metropolitan style. And most importantly, it enables Melbournians to forget for the day the over-development that is destroying what was good about their city.

Certainly when I was there a few weeks ago on a Wednesday the exhibition was quite busy, if not packed as it was for the Grace Kelly exhibition, and the people I spoke to were all up from Melbourne for the day. The demographic was largely the one with free time in the middle of the week and an interest in looking at paintings; that is to say, people over 60. It may well be that in this regard the regional galleries are less conflicted than the metropolitan galleries, who are attempting to attract a broader demographic with large installations in vast spaces, festivals such as white night, and intensive programs for children and toddlers.

The Bendigo and Ballarat Galleries (not to mention the Castlemaine Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales) have fine top-lit nineteenth or early twentieth-century galleries to house their permanent collections, which give them a clear typological identity as Art Galleries. At Bendigo the decision was made to install the temporary exhibition in these nineteenth-century galleries, which means the paintings are exhibited in sympathetic surroundings.

Access to the café is now by way of a long roundabout route, rather than by means of the loggia with its display statues that face a reflecting pool towards the park, turning what is one of the nicer features of the Bendigo gallery into a dead zone. (Incidentally, a green marble version of the Uffizi Wrestlers joins the white marble line-up here, the subject of an academy drawing in the exhibition by Millais, although the connection is not made.)

The exhibition galleries are painted a dark blue-green, not unlike the main Old Master galleries at the NGV before they turned pale blue-green, which, with low lighting levels makes the rooms a little too dark for comfort and serves to detach the walls from the vault. Some of the displaced pictures have been relocated to white-walled new galleries, and it is interesting how much less well they read there than against dark: the white of the walls dominates, and washes out the colours. In the darker temporary exhibition the colours of the pictures emerge much more effectively.

John Constable, A Boat passing a Lock, 1826, Royal Academy of Arts, London

The Genius and Ambition exhibition takes up four large rooms. The first is devoted to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, dominated by works by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, and perhaps best exemplifies one common image of the Royal Academy as a Georgian institution. The next two rooms, however, take us from the Victorian to the Edwardian periods. Most are diploma pictures, in the tradition of the reception pieces that all academies required their members to submit on admission. But this does not mean they were products by newly graduated artists: most are by artists fully established in their careers. These rooms are interspersed with works on paper designed to illuminate the academic process. The last room contains works not from the Royal Academy, but from state and regional galleries, devoted to Australian artists who exhibited at the Royal Academy in its rooms (still in use) at Burlington House. (It is not clear, however, whether all the works were exhibited there, or have been chosen to throw light on the Australia-Royal Academy connection more broadly.) This section is useful in displaying works (including two sculptures) that are not normally on display in their home galleries but which deserve to be. Being hung in this context makes these works more intelligible, emphasising the Britishness of most Australian art before 1939, and serving to undermine the narrow nationalism that attempts to separate ‘national’ from ‘international’ art, crudely embodied in the physical separation of the NGV on two separate sites.

This is a surprisingly rich exhibition, with more to see the deeper you go. I recommend that if you haven’t seen it to catch it before it closes on 9 June, and if you have been to it make the effort to go again.

Engraved by Charles Bestland after Henry Singleton, The Royal Academicians in General Assembly 569 X 760 mm

The tenor of the first room is established by Charles Bestland’s engraving after the painting (which did not travel) by Henry Singleton showing the Royal Academicians in General Assembly in their premises at New Somerset House in 1795. This shows all the bigwigs, with casts of the Belvedere torso, the Apollo Belvedere, and above all the Laocöon in pride of place. Although the catalogue does not point this out, on the wall can be seen Reynold’s self-portrait (represented in the exhibition by a mezzotint, Cat. 3) and John Singleton Copley’s The Tribute Money, which is present in the flesh nearby. This strange piece of Italian seventeenth-century revival (the hands are pure Guercino, and it would not be out of place in the Prado exhibition at the NGV) is a good indication of where the exhibition is not headed, as is Reynolds’ Theory, his only ceiling painting, made for the ceiling of the library of New Somerset House. Rather fun is a delightful eighteenth-century spin-off of a superhero movie—oops, that can’t be right—Henry Fuseli’s Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent, 1790 (above). Thor’s six-pack surpasses in inauthenticity those of the Spartans in 300. Gainsborough’s Romantic Landscape with Sheep at a Spring, c. 1783 and Turner’s Dolbadarn Castle, 1800 would be at home in Ballarat, where this kind of sublime imagery is identified with Scottishness. Equally atmospheric is a full Constable composition, A Boat Passing a Lock, 1826 (above) accompanied by some studies. And there is the poor man’s Stubbs, Sawrey Gilpin, where all these atmospherics have a direct effect on the animal world (Horses in a Thunderstorm, 1798).

Thomas Gainsborough, Romantic Landscape with Sheep at a Spring, ca. 1783, Royal Academy of Arts, London

In the second room is a very interesting selection of works associated with academic education, picking up on some of the themes in the Bestland/Singleton engraving. The scene is set with Edward Burney’s The Antique School at New Somerset House, c. 1780, where the greatest sculptural hits of the eighteenth century at its most Neoclassical moment appear: it is interesting to note the absence of the most dynamic of these ancient statues—the Laocöon and the Torso Belvedere—which are so prominent in Singleton’s image fifteen years later. The Laocöon also appears in an academy study after a cast by an unknown artist, dating from the period 1851–73, and there are other studies of casts by Richmond, Millais and Landseer. In the academic system, it was necessary to complete these satisfactorily before moving on to the life class. It is remarkable how long this tradition persisted. In the exhibition there are a few life drawings, including a superb Mulready. There are also anatomical drawings, including a famous and hypnotic drawing by Stubbs made in preparation for his book on horse anatomy.

Edward Burney, The Antique School at New Somerset House, ca. 1780 pen and ink with watercolour wash on laid paper, Royal Academy of Arts, London

There is also a range of architectural items, including a Design of a Capital Illustrating the Supposed Origin of the Corinthian Order, c. 1757-70 by Sir Williams Chambers. There are many illustrations of the passage in Vitruvius describing the accidental creation of the Corinthian capital—this involved a tile placed on a basket on a grave with acanthus plant growing up around it—and there have been attempts to show what the prototypical Corinthian capital was like, but Chamber’s shows us instead a fancy capital that alludes to the story in a poetic way. Hence the acanthus leaves are not as we find them in standard Corinthian capitals, but are tender young shoots, the stems of which form a basket weave with horizontal bands at the bottom of the bell. Although it uses the orthographic projection standard for such academic architectural drawings, it remains a wholly pictorial conception that could never be executed in stone.

The Gateway to the Great Temple at Baalbec, 1841, Royal Academy of Arts, London

A less comfortable architectural image is found further along the same wall in David Roberts’ The Gateway to the Great Temple of Baalbek, 1841. This image of a gigantic gateway with its slipped keystone is a very powerful piece of represented architecture. It demands that you imagine yourself daring to pass under it. (It is notable that in the painting no-one is standing directly below, although one man is close.) Giulio Romano played with the slipped keystone as an architectural motif at Palazzo del Te, but for purely intellectual effect. Roberts, by contrast, employs the full repertoire of Romantic techniques to make you experience the terror of impending collapse. Although this looks like a keystone (that is, the central member of a flat arch), what puzzles me is that the sides seem to be parallel. Even if they are slightly tapered, this is a building that is asking to fall down. There is a later nineteenth-century photograph that makes you appreciate Roberts’ powers as an artist. The slipped block has been prosaically supported on a crude brick pier, and the whole things looks a lot smaller than Roberts would have us believe.

Nearby is an intriguing work by Alma-Tadema, although a bit dark, which has a striking sense of design in the tall format he sometimes employed. There are sinister silhouetted shapes at the top that take their cue from the legs of an archaic Greek pinwheel figure. These lead to a constricted view of a gaudy Etruscan temple. One’s attention is made to shift restlessly from front to back and top to bottom, and characteristic of Alma-Tadema is the way the archaeological hyper-realism of the red-figure vase in the foreground clashes with the very Victorian Covent-Garden flower seller masquerading as an ancient priestess behind. Alma-Tadema deserves more credit that he gets for the sophistication of such syncopated compositions, which maintain your interest by forcing you to make sense of them. There is much more to Alma Tadema than the ability to paint marble, as a glance at Poynter’s The Fortune Teller 1877 makes clear.  The marble is carefully painted but the composition is wooden, the clothed woman flat and excessively rectilinear, and the naked woman clumsily painted.

John Frederick Lewis, The Door of a Cafe in Cairo, 1865, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Much more fun is J.F. Lewis’ The Door of a Café in Cairo, 1865, which doubles as a rather evasive portrait of a sheikh of Lewis’s acquaintance. This too has a very interesting design, with the wooden screen echoed by one behind, and, as with Pre-Raphaelite painting (and to some extent Alma Tadema), you get a series of little independent rectangular views that are flattened by the perspective. You are forced to focus on the colour for its own sake, and try and make sense of the forms, as in a waking dream.

Moving into the twentieth century, there is Stanhope Forbes (of the Newlyn School). This artist I was not much aware of until recently when I went to Cornwall and stayed at a B&B that turned out to be Stanhope Forbes’ house. It was rather grand, on a hill above Newlyn, with a run-down garden of sorts and—the owner informed me—a helipad, because some of his custom was business groups having a getaway after strenuous negotiating in London. The room I was in, he told me, was Stanhope Forbes studio. I headed off on his recommendation through the dark and rain (it was an English summer after all) to the Ship Inn in the intriguingly named Mousehole (pronounced Mowzle). The pub faced a tiny harbour with the fortress-like breakwater, which is what you see out the window in Forbes’ The Harbour Window, which was painted from an upstairs room of the same pub. It is curious how Forbes shows us the same place but a different world; few people would experience Mousehole today as the setting for a quietly introspective manual occupation with the sitter absorbing the view rather than photographing it.

Stanhope Forbes, The Harbour Window, 1910, Royal Academy of Arts, London

The reputation of painters like Stanhope Forbes has suffered in Australia because he does not fit the avant-garde mould. Another painter with a similarly compromised reputation is Sir John Lavery, whose diploma piece is a view of The Van Dyck Room, Wilton House, c. 1920. This is paired with John Singer Sargent’s An Interior in Venice, 1899, and while in the catalogue the two paintings appear to apply a similar use of light and shadow, in the flesh the Lavery looks flat compared to the Sargent. Sargent rarely disappoints, and this little painting is quite spectacular in the sharp tonal contrasts, informal figure groupings, painterly treatment and brilliant touches of gold. It works better that his high keyed At Torre Galli: Lades in a Garden, 1910.

Of all the painters who tackled Velázquez, Sargent understood him best (much better than Manet), because he understood that Velázquez was about illusionism, not fancy brushwork. His Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (Boston) is the only painting that can stand up to Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Sir John Everett Millais, by contrast, misunderstood Velázquez completely. His A Souvenir of Velázquez, 1868 is a display of choppy and showy brushwork that never ceases to be simply that, at whatever distance you view it. In the sentimental face of the girl he abandons Velázquez and reverts to Millais, and this is the best part of the picture.

In the room of Australian painters, there are early works by the big names that are often more interesting than their famous works.  Dobell’s Boy at a Basin, 1932 is all the better for a naturalism that he later abandoned. (The boy’s striped pyjamas somehow remind me of early Rembrandt), while the early Streetons are similarly refreshing.

In conclusion, this is a really interesting exhibition that rewards close viewing, and as an initiative of the Bendigo art gallery, is another example of the interesting international collaborations this regional gallery has pursued in recent years.

 © David R. Marshall 2014


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