The RA hasn’t been relevant since 1829, says Waldemar Januszczak, as he endures yet another Summer Exhibition
Edvard Munch, the notorious painter of The Scream, said something very true when he grumbled: “The things that destroy modern art are large exhibitions and huge art emporiums.” I wonder if he had the Royal Academy’s summer show in mind? Or an event just like it? Either way, he was right. Come to think of it, that poor distorted chappie in The Scream does have the air of a man who, having wandered through a summer show, emerges onto Piccadilly afterwards, grabs his head between his hands and remembers what he has seen.
This year’s event is the academy’s 242nd attempt to destroy art by attempting to pass off its annual farrago as a good thing. I’m sure you know the specious arguments employed recurrently in its defence. It’s fun. It’s anti-elitist. It’s an opportunity for the man on the street to show his work alongside the finest artists in the land. All of which is bunkum. The uncomfortable truth is that the summer show is a money-making exercise for the academy, in which the
poor amateur is treated with total disdain, perhaps even cruelty.
While the academicians themselves divvy up the best spaces, everyone else is crammed into overcrowded enclosures that make the enjoyment of art impossible. This isn’t an hour in the sun, it’s an hour in a sardine tin. The general standard is, in any case, pitiful. And the annual attempt to jazz it all up by adding Tracey Emin to the mix, or by dumping David Mach’s giant gorilla in the middle of the room, is, frankly, desperate.
Even by its own dismal standards, the search for the best sardine has arrived at something truly ghastly in 2010. There is, believe it or not, a theme, “raw”. The outdated “babfig” painter — bit of abstraction, bit of figuration — Stephen Chambers RA, who has had no meaningful impact on art in a career that stretches back three decades, has been charged with organising the show’s overall effect. I do not blame him personally for failing to achieve one. Many better artists than he have lost at this hopeless task.
Raw, when you talk of, say, sashimi, describes conditions of simplicity, elegance, precision. In art, however, it is a call to messiness. In the tiny Small Weston Room, into which the most unfortunate of the amateurs have been most brutally herded, I failed to spot a single picture that could be said to have stood out in the melee. It was like trying to identify a tadpole. Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap is a workable strategy when selling socks from Taiwan, but as a way of displaying art, it is positively barbaric.
As usual, the academicians treat their own efforts with more respect: more respect than they deserve. I calculate that the last time the Royal Academy could truthfully be said to have represented the best of British talent was in 1829, when Turner was already a member and Constable was finally elected at the age of 52. Since then, this ragbag of Establishment lackeys and desperate followers may occasionally have had some impact in London’s social circles, but in the annals of art history, its contribution has been zero. Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Frank Auerbach, Richard Hamilton, Damien Hirst — the roll call of British artists who have not become RAs is so much more impressive than the list of those who have. Allen Jones, who selected and hung the first room here, devoted to slap-it-on abstraction, is a typical modern RA: nearly important, nearly impactful, nearly talented and fully out of step. Back in the 1960s, when he emerged from the Royal College with his naughty celebrations of the fetishistic dolly bird, Jones made a genuine contribution to British Pop, and might have been expected to grow into something substantial. Instead, he regressed into a schoolboy and wasted the rest of his career painting girls in suspenders.
John Hoyland, who dominates the doorways in the Jones-selected “raw” room, is another typical RA might-have-been. His bold, bright, muscular abstraction started out in the 1950s as something heroic and challenging. Yet it ends up here looking as prettily vacant as a gift from Paperchase. Come on, John. You’re an abstract expressionist, not a decorator of hotel foyers.
To save a further waste of breath trying to describe the indescribable, I think it best to name the three exhibitors out of the 700 or so in the show who manage somehow to rise above the occasion and make a meaningful contribution. First, Anselm Kiefer, who is not a full academician, whose work is not for sale and who shouldn’t actually be here, gives us a tormented landscape called Einschusse, in which a ploughed field churns, twists and bursts with a superbly tangible sense of human tragedy. Second, Alison Wilding, an unfairly underrated member of the 1980s sculpture generation, makes a couple of delicately telling insertions in the show’s best room, the one selected by Ann Christopher. Third, Grayson Perry, who is also not an RA, and whose work is also not for sale, gives us an out-of-season Christmas Nativity in which he plays the Virgin Mary, while a glum teddy bear plays Jesus.
The eight academicians who died last year have been given a memorial tribute. In the courtyard outside, a trio of giant dancing hares by the cheekiest of them, the sculptor Barry Flanagan, frolic with the energy of a leveret and the mysterious symbolic frisson of an ancient amulet. Inside, there is more Flanagan to enjoy, as well as the relentlessly twee paintings of Craigie Aitchison, followed by the relentlessly average ones of dear old Freddie Gore. Both will be missed as men. Neither will be missed as artists.
On paper, the current crop of academicians contains a number of encouraging signings. Richard Long is an RA. So are Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg, Anish Kapoor and Gillian Wearing. The trouble is, none of them shows any work here. None is desperate enough, and all can see what a cattle market it is. In their absence, it is the mediocre academician, not the happy amateur, who gets an hour in the sun.