This beautifully illustrated book is the latest in a series of books from Ben Uri which re-examines the Whitechapel boys, the group of Jewish artists and writers who grew up in or around Whitechapel in the years before 1914. Bomberg occupies a singular place within the canon of English art. For much of his life he struggled financially, often finding it difficult to sell his work, and was never really accepted into the English art establishment. Towards the end of his life he found employment as a teacher at the Borough Polytechnic in London where he inspired a group of young artists, two of whom, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, were to become the leading painters of their generation. When we consider Bomberg, we have to deal not only with the myth of the neglected artist —a powerful but ultimately misleading concept which can lead us to undervalue the art itself— but also with radical changes in style that might seem to suggest his rejection of his earlier work, but which, in fact, were entirely consistent with his artistic principles.
Bomberg studied at the Slade alongside Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer and Isaac Rosenberg. Henry Tonks, their acerbic drawing teacher, claimed at the time that the Slade was subject to a “crisis of brilliance,” a term which has come to be used to describe the work of this group of artists. Bomberg won the drawing prize at the Slade in 1913 for a picture of his friend Isaac Rosenberg, and left the school that summer. He listened to Marinetti as he espoused the principles of Futurism, and visited Paris with Jacob Epstein, where he met with Picasso, Modigliani, and Derain, amongst others. By the summer of 1914 he was ready to mount his first solo show at the Chenil Gallery in London. The exhibition contained what are now seen as his early masterpieces, Ju-Jitsu, In the Hold and Mud-Bath, all of which are now held by the Tate. This exhibition is critically important to our understanding of Bomberg’s art, and the authors recognise this fact by quoting in full the first public statement that the artist made regarding the significance of form within his work. This was a guiding principle which he retained throughout his career, and it is absolutely essential to appreciate that, although Bomberg altered the style of his painting in later years, he never wavered from the declaration that he made in the catalogue to the exhibition. He wrote:
I APPEAL to a Sense of Form. In some of the work I show in the first room I completely abandon Naturalism and Tradition. I am searching for an Intenser expression. In other work in this room, where I use Naturalistic Form, I have stripped it of all irrelevant matter. I look upon Nature, while I live in a steel city. Where decoration happens it is accidental. My object is the construction of Pure Form. I reject everything that is not Pure Form. I hate the colours of the East, the Modern Mediaevalist, and the Fat Man of the Renaissance.
The exhibition was a critical success, with the art critic T. E. Hulme particularly enthusiastic. Bomberg’s work displayed the enthusiasm of the Futurists for active scenes of modern city life, drawing on the Vapour Baths in Brick Lane and the frantic activity of East End dockers, but, as the authors rightly acknowledge, the exhibition was to be a false dawn for the artist, sadly. The outbreak of war just months later changed everything. The realisation that the modernity celebrated by the Futurists, which glorified the industrial world, also provided the means for the mass destruction of its people had a devastating effect on many artists, Bomberg included. Modern movements like Vorticism disappeared overnight, blighted by the conflicting realities of advances in technology which provided more comfortable lives for some, but also more powerful weapons with which to destroy those lives.
The war was to bring turmoil to Bomberg, both personally and artistically. He enlisted in November 1915, but was unable to paint or draw what he was experiencing. In 1916 he deliberately shot himself in the foot in order to escape trench life, but was fortunate that his commanding officer did not press charges. Late in 1917 he was offered a a commission by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to paint sappers at work tunnelling a mine, to be supervised by the art critic Paul Konody. It was to be a defining moment of his artistic life. He enthusiastically engaged with the subject, as he had worked as a sapper himself, and naturally identified with his subject.
The work of sappers during World War I was amongst the most difficult and dangerous. Often drawn from pre-war mining communities, these were the men who tunnelled underground to enable munition experts to lay enormous charges underneath enemy trenches, which, if successfully fired, caused huge destruction and loss of life. Bomberg’s first version, which now belongs to the Tate but is rarely displayed, was rejected by Konody as a “futurist abortion.” The authors, quite correctly, describe it as a “huge achievement” which “honours his subjects,” yet it was only through Bomberg’s wife’s persuasion that he was allowed to submit a second version, more traditional and acceptable to his patrons. This now hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa and is one of their prized possessions. William Lipke, in the first monograph on Bomberg published in 1967, said of this painting that it is “a monumental work which would have assured his national reputation had the work remained in England.” The whole experience shattered Bomberg, and it remains a defining moment of his artistic life.
The war forced a change in attitude to modernism and industrialisation. Bomberg was not the only artist who questioned the pathway to abstraction. Turning his back on his pre-war experiments, in the immediate post-war period he struggled both artistically and financially, until in 1923 he travelled to Palestine, where he lived and worked for the next four years.
His career from this point on is well documented, and was characterised by public and private disappointments. His paintings from the Palestine period are beautiful studies of light-filled landscapes and city scenes of Jerusalem. While appreciated by local patrons, these works went virtually unnoticed in England. From 1928 onwards Bomberg again travelled south, this time to Spain where he once more found inspiration in the area around Ronda and Toledo. Much of his work in this period was essentially focussed on light and form, but it too was largely ignored and proved very difficult to sell. The dealings that he had with Kenneth Clark— at that time, aged thirty, the youngest-ever Director of the National Gallery— were typical of the situation in which he then found himself.
Clark was a keen collector of contemporary British art, and in 1936 Bomberg wrote to Clark to try to gain support for his scheme to encourage state patronage of the arts. This inevitably failed. Clark was keen on the principle, but correct that in practice it could never work. In July 1937, despite Clark making it clear that he had no influence over the buying policy of the Tate, Bomberg offered the gallery three Spanish landscapes and a male portrait head (perhaps a self-portrait). All were instantly rejected.
When the Second World War broke out Bomberg again had dealings with Clark, and again the experience was frustrating and personally negative, although artistically it resulted in some of his very finest works. From the beginning of the war Clark realised that artists should be employed by the state to record the progress of the conflict. Presciently, Bomberg wrote in an unpublished letter to The Times, quoted by the authors, that:
"In a war fought for freedom and progressive culture, the artist surely has a vital role to play. The government should call in the artists to inspire the people, to express their ideals and hopes, and create a record of their heroic effort for future generations."
Clark was to lead, as chairman, the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, whose role was to “record the war at home and abroad.” In December 1939 Bomberg immediately applied but was rejected. The same thing happened in July 1940, and again in March 1941. The authors include some written comments made by Clark at the time, and they are uncomfortable reading, especially the extraordinary statement regarding Bomberg’s latest attempt to gain a commission in 1942, when Clark wrote, “If only it were possible to discourage the Jews from painting.”
Finally, in February 1942, after yet another desperate appeal, the committee relented and, as the authors correctly describe, “reluctantly” granted Bomberg a commission, but one of an unusual nature. Perhaps because of his earlier ‘Sappers’ paintings, the subject chosen for him was, again, underground. This time it was the largest bomb store in the country, at RAF Fauld near Burton-on-Trent. Bomberg was inspired by the subject, and in the two weeks that he spent there he produced numerous studies and quickly used up all his ration of materials. Once back in London he worked the studies up and finally submitted four drawings and three paintings. As might be expected, the committee rejected all the paintings, and accepted just three of the drawings. Two of the paintings are reproduced here, and they clearly demonstrate how Bomberg was able not only to represent the enclosed space, but also to capture the suppressed energy and force of the bombs through his handling of colour and form. Sadly, probably the finest of the three is not shown here, while the original languishes in the vaults of the Imperial War Museum, and can rarely be seen. However, these paintings are magnificent representations of the powerful forces of destruction involved in the war, framed within the dark spaces, both natural and man-made, in which the bombs are stored. Despite the underground environment light bursts from these pictures, as Bomberg presents us with images of monumental scale in which the human element is absent, yet present by implication. The spaces contain no human figures, but the images hum with humanity’s destructive capability. In his very earliest works Bomberg tried to capture the essence of spaces inhabited by human figures, as in The Mud-Bath. The power that Bomberg achieves in these later works is related directly to the relationship between subject matter, form and colour. The huge space in which the bombs were stored is represented not as a real place, but as a brooding weight which overshadows the bombs themselves. Bomberg achieves this unity of purpose not simply through expertise of brushstroke or use of colour, but through the strength of design and handling of form itself. These pictures clearly demonstrate that Bomberg remained true to his statement made in 1914, that it was through his understanding and manipulation of form that he achieved his artistic goals.
One of the highlights of the book are the reproductions of the self-portraits. From the earliest (1909) to the final haunting image (1956), they chart both Bomberg’s life and his artistic ambitions. Almost Rembrandt-like, they move from youthful confidence and even arrogance via middle-aged uncertainty to end with powerful depictions of a life coming to its close, but with its artistic powers undiminished. The final self-portrait is truly remarkable. It is in Pallant House in Chichester, and I defy anyone to stand in front of it and not shed a tear. In so many ways it is the summation of all that Bomberg attempted and achieved. Form and colour combine in ways that words cannot adequately describe. This is what lies at the heart of Bomberg’s finest works. Like all great artists, he was able to illuminate the human condition through the application of paint on canvas, and to make his representations seem real and truthful, and this should always be celebrated.
In the preface to the third annual exhibition of the Borough Group in March 1949, Bomberg declared that “our search is towards the spirit of the mass.” While he never completely explained the exact meaning of this phrase, it dominated his teaching at the Borough, and was remembered by several of his students as of critical importance. One of them, Dennis Creffield, is quoted by Richard Cork as noting that at the Borough “the key words were ‘structure’ and ‘the spirit in the mass.’” So it is rather odd that the authors of this book make no reference to this critical principle of Bomberg’s life work. If one can attempt a partial explanation of the phrase, it is that Bomberg realised that when painting seemingly inanimate forms of nature, or man-made structures, an artist can strive to reveal the experience that he has when confronted by what he sees. The forms can be so constructed that they become more than a representation of what is seen, and are imbued with a spiritual force that the artist has released through his own unique depiction of form. This is the constant in Bomberg’s oeuvre— it transcends his several stylistic changes and is the connecting thread throughout his work, the ever-present within the artistic gifts that he has left us.
This is a fine book which is long overdue. Richard Cork’s 1987 monograph remains the authoritative account of Bomberg’s life and work, but this new book, while adding little new information or interpretation, has the advantage of beautiful illustrations which speak volumes in themselves. Bomberg remains an artist on the edge. He is recognised as one of the finest English artists of the twentieth century, but his works are hard to find in the major galleries. He is referenced as a major influence on many prominent artists, yet few books and even fewer exhibitions are devoted to him. However, as this volume so clearly demonstrates, he was a major artistic force who should be recognised and celebrated as one of our finest, who rewards the closest scrutiny.—Paul Flux
Royal Academy Exhibition, 27th January-15th April 2018 Catalogue, Royal Academy Publications
This is an unusual exhibition, a representation of the collecting process rather than a display of art for its own sake. Not dissimilar to Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery in 2015, which brought together work purchased by the influential art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel with the aim of demonstrating the significance of a serious collector’s support, this exhibition assembles paintings, miniatures and sculptures bought by Charles I and Henrietta Maria and used to decorate their various palaces. This is a story of purchases and sales, collection and dispersal, opportunities taken and causes lost. Some of the art on show here is quite ordinary but made special by its historical context, other pieces are truly wonderful and are included because of the context, and one or two works transcend the context altogether and can be regarded as genuine masterpieces in their own right.
First, the story which frames the exhibition. In 1623, two years before he came to the throne, Charles travelled to Madrid with the intention of negotiating his marriage to the Infanta Maria Anna. Accompanied by the Duke of Buckingham, himself a keen collector, Charles spent nearly eight months in Spain, where he was clearly impressed by the grandeur and quality of the art on display. He was especially keen on the works of Titian in the Escorial, and before he returned to England, having failed to successfully negotiate the proposed marriage, he had begun to buy the first paintings of a collection which would grow into one of the finest in the world.
Wherever one looks, it is impossible to escape the pathos which permeates this collection. Charles’ execution is such a momentous event in our history that anything directly associated with it is tarnished by the tragedy of the event. It is very hard not to become emotionally involved with the family portraits and objects, knowing as we do the fate that awaited Charles, his wife and children. One such piece, a beautiful small bronze statue by Pietro Tacca, Pacing Horse, is a copy of the monumental equestrian statue in Florence erected in 1594. It was originally one of fifteen statuettes given by the Duke of Tuscany to Henry, Charles’ elder brother, to encourage a possible marriage. Henry was to die in 1612, leaving his younger brother to inherit the throne. He was a keen horseman and art collector himself, and particularly liked this piece. It is documented that, as he lay dying, Charles gave this little statue to Henry to hold: it was the last time that the brothers met. It is a commonplace idea that objects can in some way absorb the sadness of the events of which they are a part (examples include Guy Fawkes’ lantern, or the shoes of child Holocaust victims) and become representative of the events themselves. This tiny statuette, given by the twelve-year-old Charles to his much-admired elder brother as a comfort in his last moments, is just such an object, and one which we can look at now as a kind of memento mori.
The exhibition is almost inevitably focused upon Charles himself. We see works by artists whom he clearly favoured, like Titian and other masters of the Italian Renaissance, while there are also monumental van Dyck portraits and commissioned works by Rubens. In a recent television broadcast it was suggested that Charles was “a bad king but a great collector,” but in the exhibition the various issues surrounding Charles’ competence as king are buried by the sheer quality of the art on show. It is almost as if the art has become more important than the actions of a king whose intransigence, and belief that he was directly appointed by God, led him to assume that he was answerable to no-one, least of all his elected parliament.
To many of his contemporaries Charles was an unprincipled tyrant who had little regard for the welfare of his own people. After his execution he came to be regarded as an almost saintly figure, one whose life had been taken unlawfully and whose woeful inadequacies could be overlooked in view of his martyrdom. In his lifetime he would maintain that his authority was a birthright which came directly from God; to his opponents in the Civil War, which his actions had prompted, he was an autocratic despot who had brought the country to its knees through his high-handed actions. This presents something of a dilemma when we view some of the large portraits that Charles commissioned —which Charles are we looking at?
The van Dyck portraits are magnificent, and gathered here together constitute a regal parade of power and authority. All are impressive, and convey quite clearly the message of royal prerogative and prestige. Painted between 1628 and 1638, these works are amongst the stars of the show, and still have the power to impress as they were supposed to do. Painted on a large scale — the smallest is still nearly three metres by two — they show the king dominating the landscapes in which he is portrayed.
Perhaps the most unusual work in this section is Charles I in the Hunting Field, painted in 1636. Hunting scenes were quite rare at the time, although one of the finest portraits of Prince Henry, Charles’ elder brother, shows him drawing his sword in front of a fallen stag, which may indicate that Charles specifically wanted to reference that work in this portrait. Here he stands with one hand on his hip, the other resting confidently on a long cane. His head is turned to look directly at us, his clothes are immaculate, and he is both calm and authoritative. Behind him are two servants, one holding a coat, while the other is struggling to control the horse from which Charles has supposedly just dismounted. The horse’s head is bowed, perhaps as a sign of submission, and, as a result of the excitement of the chase, it is foaming at the mouth. It is hard not to see this painting as a metaphor for Charles’ reign —an authoritative figure standing erect and defiant, oblivious of those behind him, over whom he rides roughshod. However, it is unlikely that van Dyck would have consciously intended this interpretation!
Viewed purely as it appears before us, this painting is everything that would have pleased Charles. In his biography published in 1975, John Bowle wrote this about the legacy of kingship that Charles received from his father and how Charles viewed himself as king:
“That restless, intricate and didactic mind had left a fatal legacy to his son. At first handicapped, shy and retiring, Charles with intense effort now made himself almost the kind of prince he was expected to be: a gentleman of fine manners, fine culture, all-round capacity in Court and hunting-field with high chivalric ambitions in pursuit of honour.”
This description perfectly fits the image that van Dyck has produced. However, it clashes with what we know of Charles and his actions as king. Later in the same book Bowle offers a different analysis of Charles the monarch.
“.… his dogmatic and inflexible cast of mind was politically far more serious. Charles was not in the least original; but he was tenacious and obstinate, and the fixed and then widely believed ideas of regality and its duties that he had absorbed from his father remained with him for life. Like James I he saw himself as a link in the great chain of being that held together the hierarchy of heaven and earth…”
So which Charles do we see here? The benevolent majesty appointed by God to lead his people, or the unfortunate fantasist who could not understand the political world in which he found himself and who totally —indeed fatally— failed to understand the consequences of his actions? This painting was completed in 1636, seven years after Charles dissolved his lawfully assembled parliament, and four years before he was forced to recall it. With the benefit of historical hindsight, an image intended to be a symbolic representation of royal authority becomes a portrayal of autocratic intransigence, ignorance and insensibility.
In 1619 a fire consumed the Banqueting Hall, a significant part of the Palace of Whitehall, and King James immediately commissioned its rebuilding. The task was entrusted to Inigo Jones and the new building was completed by 1622. James died in 1625, and Charles began the search for an artist to decorate the interior. Eventually the commission was given to Rubens, and, after several delays, the canvases were finally delivered from his studio in Antwerp in 1636. The subject chosen was similar to that of the portraits painted at the time, namely the glorification of the role of kingship, this time with James I as the main object of that glorification. By extolling his father’s virtues, Charles was highlighting both his own legitimate heritage and, by implication, his royal authority.
In the same vein, Charles commissioned another work by Rubens, Landscape with St George and the Dragon, which is dated 1630-35. As we might expect, St George bears a close resemblance to Charles: he has slain the dragon (his Puritan opponents, his Parliamentary ones, or even both), and is portrayed handing the princess her girdle, with which she will lead the dragon to the nearby town. The inhabitants will then convert to Christianity and perhaps accept the authority of the prince who has saved them. As with the earlier portraits, the message here is quite clear: a beam of sunlight, presumably straight from heaven, is focussed on St George, thereby confirming his divine endorsement, and the whole scene is surrounded by a host of admiring spectators, variously in awe of what they are witnessing or expressing gratitude. Set within a Thames valley-inspired idealised English landscape, this work is perhaps the summation of what has gone before. Charles is portrayed as the saviour of the nation, anointed by God, who will destroy all those who oppose him and will then be rewarded with the gratitude of his subjects. Within a few years of this work’s delivery to Charles, he would be imprisoned for an hour or so in that same banqueting hall to view these beautiful images of divine kingship that he had commissioned from Rubens, before being led to his execution.
There are many highlights in this exhibition which do not refer to Charles’ notions of kingship and royal power. Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi is a genuine masterpiece which seems completely out of place within this collection dedicated to male authority. Indeed, one wonders what Charles would have made of this statement of female equality: Artemisia portrays herself in the act of painting, clearly demonstrating that she is the equal of any male artist. This is not a concept which would have sat easily with a king who regarded himself as above everyone, male or female.
However, as if to emphasise the importance of Charles as a collector, the final room contains one of the true treasures of the exhibition, Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Woman (the Artist’s Mother). This was given to Charles by Sir Robert Kerr some time before 1639, along with two other works by the same artist. It was painted between 1627 and 1629, when the artist was still in his early twenties, and is very much a young man’s study of old age. Rembrandt clothes the face and figure in a half-light, both covering and revealing the subject. The body is completely in shade, but the face, especially the eyes, are beautifully rendered, as the subject looks down, deep in thought. When one looks at the face, worn with age, one is struck by a human majesty in stark contrast to the forced representations of royal authority present in the portraits of Charles and his family. Rembrandt captures the sadness associated with old age, the regrets and missed opportunities which characterise a human life, but he also gives the figure a powerfully haunting nobility. This face is a witness to the highs and lows of human existence, and expresses a kind of tacit acceptance of all that life can bring. Almost by accident, this portrait represents everything that is missing in the grand portraits of Charles. No matter how skilled Rubens was —and he was one of the finest of his generation— he could not overcome the political and social standing of his subject. Charles could not be shown as a vulnerable, interesting human being because he had to be portrayed as infallible, anointed by God to lead his people, unquestioned in his actions. The dichotomy between this view of Charles’ kingship and the political ineptitude which dragged the country into a vicious civil war could never have been made explicit in official portraits. Ultimately, the missing humanity is perhaps the lasting impression of the royal images.
It is a remarkable achievement to bring together again what was probably the finest artistic collection of the seventeenth century. The story of how it was acquired, dispersed and then re-assembled is fascinating in its own right. What the exhibition lacks, though, is any insight into what drove Charles to collect these things, other than his need to show himself as the legitimate heir to the throne and, by implication, above censure from his subjects. Nowhere is it possible to unravel the character of Charles the man from his royal persona. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of all about his life: his great collection tells us so much about him as a royal symbol, but almost nothing about him as a complex, emotional human being. Charles’ kingly presence is keenly felt, but the mask remains firmly in place, and cannot be dislodged.--Paul Flux
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (June 12th - August 19th), Coordinator Grayson Perry
The Royal Academy of Arts: History and Collections, ed. Robin Simon and MaryAnne Stevens
Yale University Press, 2018
It is somewhat ironic that, at the same time as celebrating its 250th anniversary with a beautifully produced, erudite book, the Royal Academy should have invited one of its most subversive contemporary talents to coordinate its annual show. The contradiction is entirely in keeping with the long history of the Academy, and can be seen as a microcosm of both the organisation’s strengths and its inherent weaknesses. Throughout its long history the Academy has attempted to navigate (with variable success) the conflict between artistic tradition and the rising tide of modernity, sometimes taking one side and sometimes the other. In a sense, the RA is entirely representative of artistic progression in this country in that it has always been perfectly capable of welcoming into its exclusive fold artists who challenge the work of those who came before them, while woefully neglecting those who do not wish to play by its rules and either refuse its invitation to join, or, worse still, are never invited. Think Francis Bacon, for example.
First, the book. It is lavishly illustrated, and the essays chart the life of the Academy from its beginnings in 1768 to the present day. Along the way there are many surprises and delights, as well as revelations which confirm that any organisation which brings artists together is always liable to divide into factions and be subject to vitriolic disputes between its members. Some of these arguments may now seem trivial, but they are part of the history of the Academy and are therefore not only of interest, but also indicative of the issues which have occupied the Academicians throughout the organisation’s chequered past. At more than 600 pages and with more than 500 illustrations, the book cannot be done comprehensive justice in a review, but there are some particular highlights which capture the flavour of the whole.
One editorial choice which works quite brilliantly throughout the book is the deployment of what is termed ‘A Closer Look.’ Here we are presented with pieces given to the Academy as a Diploma Work or purchased or donated after the summer exhibitions. (Every artist invited to become a member of the RA is required to donate a work, termed a Diploma, which then passes into RA ownership. In this way the RA has built up a spectacular collection of the magnificent and banal from the past 250 years of British art.)
For example, one such work, striking but no doubt unfamiliar to most readers, is an ivory, bronze, glass, and opal sculpture by Sir George Frampton entitled Lamia, which was inspired by the John Keats poem in which the protagonist assumes human form to win the love of a mortal, Lycius. At the wedding her true identity is revealed and she reverts into a serpent as her bridegroom dies. Frampton has chosen to depict this moment of transformation, so that the figure is recognisably human, but the emerging serpent features cover her head. It is an eerie image, the face and upper body fashioned from milky ivory encased in bronze. Frampton is perhaps best known for his entirely ordinary rendition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and the Edith Cavell Memorial in St Martin’s Place. Yet in 1900 this artist was experimenting with different media, and was clearly influenced by the emerging Symbolist and Art Nouveau styles. With Lamia he found an unusual subject which enabled him to explore the possibilities of materials which match perfectly the strange half-human figure. It is a beguiling combination, the ivory deathly pale and contrasted with darkest bronze as the outer body of the serpent emerges.
The RA was formed in 1768 partly as a result of arguments within the existing Society of Artists. Indeed, this dispute led to the inclusion of a particular clause within the Instrument of Foundation which clearly stated that a member of the Academy “could not belong to any other professional artists’ society in London.” From that point on disputes have often arisen, and have usually had at their heart two common factors: a battle between modernity and traditional artistic forms and subjects, and a personal, individual feud between existing members.
One of the most notorious incidents, known to art historians but probably quite obscure to the general reader, is the story of Sir Alfred Munnings PRA, Winston Churchill and the 1949 RA dinner. The period between the wars saw some artists engage in experimentation and innovation while others looked back to more traditional motifs and stylistic mores. Many English artists, such as Hepworth, Nash, and Nicholson, looked to Europe and modern developments, embracing elements of abstraction, but by 1939 the RA had become deeply entrenched and seemingly oblivious to the changes going on around it. Alfred Munnings made his living off commissioned portraits of racehorses, and was elected as President in 1944. By 1949 the tensions within the Academy, particularly regarding its response to the art of young British and European painters, had reached breaking point. In Munnings the RA had a die-hard traditionalist who was vocal in dismissing the “foolish daubers,” as he called Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne. And it all came to a head at the annual dinner of 1949.
Munnings had already decided that he would resign from the Presidency and use his address at the dinner as an opportunity to attack those of whom he did not approve. His most noxious remark concerned Picasso. He claimed that Churchill had once said to him “Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking him up the a***?” to which he replied, “Yes, Sir, I would.” The whole speech was broadcast live on BBC radio, so that the effect was immediate: some lamented the impact that the comments would have on the Academy, while many agreed that Munnings had correctly challenged what he termed the “affected juggling” of such artists. A few years later Munnings would borrow a painting and some etchings by Stanley Spencer which he thought were reprehensible, photograph them, and send them to the police with a request that Spencer be prosecuted for obscenity. The attempt failed and the Academy formally apologised to Spencer and indicated that it would support him if “further attacks of the kind were made on him.” These episodes were instrumental in establishing the RA’s reputation as a bastion of traditionalism, which has taken it many years to shake off.
Before the First World War Saki, one of our finest short story writers, made this observation in his story “The Stalled Ox” about the RA: “The Royal Academy encourages orderly, methodical habits in its children.” So this year, to mark the 250th anniversary, the RA child chosen to coordinate the Annual Summer Exhibition is Grayson Perry, an artist who has carved out a career with works combining colour, humour, and a social conscience. If there can be said to be a theme for such a diverse exhibition, it is those three elements. Orderly it is not, but methodical perhaps, in that Perry has clearly set out to work within the traditionalism of the Academy, while not being intimidated by it. The exhibition is a glorious celebration of public art. Alongside the worthy offerings from members of the RA are scattered quirky, colourful, ordinary, outrageous, and downright odd contributions by the general public, and Perry has had the main gallery painted bright yellow.
Just as the 2018 exhibition—with its mixture of prestigious artists and those who aspire to be amongst their ranks—is a celebration of all that can be good about the RA, so the book is a detailed record of everything that has made the RA what it is today. In the battle between modernity and traditionalism, the RA will always be caught in the middle. Another ‘Closer Look’ item presents us with a fine example of this dilemma. In 1898 James Archer wrote to the then-President of the RA offering to sell, for £100, a tea caddy set which had belonged to Joshua Reynolds, the first President. A group of RA members, including Alfred Waterhouse and John Singer Sargent, subsequently purchased this and donated it to the RA, with their names inscribed on a silver plaque inside the caddy box, after the Council had initially turned down the offer. The set is a fine example of its kind, but it is unremarkable except for its connection with Reynolds. One wonders what works of art an astute collector might have acquired in 1898 for the same money. The RA has many such gifts of silver and furniture, which all contribute to the impression that the organisation is similar to the exclusive London clubs which once surrounded it. And, of course, that is what it is like in many respects. It is exclusive, with only eighty Academicians at any one time, and one usually has to die before another can be elected, all of which contributes to the imperative for it to demonstrate forward thinking rather than its natural conservatism.
In many ways the book and exhibition complement one another. The book, which celebrates the Academy’s history, is worthy of its subject. It is authoritative, beautifully illustrated, and contains many hidden gems. It is exactly what one would anticipate from such a publication. The 2018 exhibition also lives up to expectations. In selecting Grayson Perry as the lead coordinator for the anniversary show, the RA could hardly have made a better choice. Bright, colourful, humorous, at times slightly shocking, and somewhat political, the exhibition has everything that makes the RA —despite a heritage which can hang heavy at times— the independent and relevant organisation that it strives to be. Taken together, the publication and the show combine seamlessly to completely embody the history and life of a unique institution.--Paul Flux