Genius and Ambition: The Royal Academy

April 5, 2014
"A souvenir of Velazquez 1868" (detail) by Sir John Millais.
"A souvenir of Velazquez 1868" (detail) by Sir John Millais.

If there is one issue that divides the art of the past from the art of today it is how we assess quality. A primary motivation for the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 was to establish standards of excellence by which artworks may be judged. The members of the R.A. formed an elite group who would pass on their skills to a younger generation, ensuring high standards were maintained.

Today those precious standards have been atomised. It is considered a fascistic imposition if one expects an artist to have attained a level of competence in painting, drawing or sculpture. Mere ‘technical’ skill is derided in favour of the big, daring idea.

The only problem with this glorious liberation is that it leaves us in a quandary when asked whether an artwork is good or bad. By what criteria are we to make a call? In the absence of old-fashioned ‘standards’, the evaluation of a work becomes a highly subjective, highly rhetorical affair. “Art,” as Andy Warhol said, “is what you can get away with.” If we decline to make value judgments, there’s very little point in looking at anything.

As we watch another Biennale of Sydney labouring under the burden of an incomprehensible curatorial concept it’s timely that Bendigo Art Gallery is staging the show: Genius and Ambition: The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1768-1918. This is a candidate for exhibition of the year, not simply for the quality of work, but for the immaculate planning and presentation involved. It’s a project that engages with an important aspect of Australian art history and raises issues of universal relevance. Above all, it’s a fruitful collaboration between Bendigo’s staff and a team of RA curators led by MaryAnne Stevens.

Genius & Ambition: The Royal Academy of Arts London 1768 – 1918 at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

Genius & Ambition: The Royal Academy of Arts London 1768 – 1918 at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

The fact that Bendigo is the only Australian venue before the show travels to four cities in Japan is an amazing tribute to a Victorian country town that has adopted a proactive arts strategy and reaped the rewards. It’s impossible not to make comparisons with Newcastle – a much bigger city that has watched its regional gallery be undermined by a Council that doesn’t even believe such an institution needs a director.

This landmark exhibition springs directly from an idea that Bendigo’s director, Karen Quinlan, took to the Royal Academy. Visiting the RA’s retrospective of the work of Victorian painter, J.W. Waterhouse in 2009, Quinlan noticed that A Mermaid (1900), had been submitted as a “diploma work” when the artist became an Academician. She realised that the RA’s collection of works by England’s greatest artists was little known outside of London.

"A Mermaid" by John Waterhouse.

“A Mermaid” by John Waterhouse.

This was the starting point for an international exhibition that makes a mockery of some of the recent shows held at more prestigious Australian galleries. Not only are there pictures by famous artists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Millais and Sargent – the collection is a virtual Who’s Who of British art. For their diploma works the artists usually chose pieces that represented their skills most effectively.

There is also a selection of drawings and prints by Academicians, and by artists such as Goya and Piranesi, collected partly for their value as teaching aids. The show even includes rare books from the RA Library.

The final part of the exhibition, put together by Bendigo curator, Tansy Curtin, features the work of Australian artists – from George W. Lambert to William Dobell – who spent time at the RA School or exhibited in the annual shows. It’s a fact that most of the Australians were dissatisfied with the instruction they received at the RA School and swiftly made their way to Paris.

Sculptor, Bertram Mackennal, was the first Australian to become a full member of the RA, but has been almost forgotten in his home country. A similar fate befell George Coates, who had the maximum number of three works accepted for the RA show in 1912, but is at best a marginal figure in Australian art history. The painting, Motherhood (1912), borrowed from the Art Gallery of South Australia, is a convincing reminder of his talents.

The exhibition begins, appropriately enough, with a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founding President of the RA, whose Discourses (1769-90) would become the basis of the School’s teaching program. Reynold’s Theory (1779-80) was painted for the ceiling of the RA’s library in its former venue of New Somerset House. A picture of a young woman in Grecian robes, it loomed over paintings embodying other subjects, reflecting Reynolds’s belief in the primacy of the intellect. In her hand the muse holds a scroll with the inscription: “Theory is the knowledge of what is truly nature.”

If we think what “theory” means in art discourse today, we can see how far we have travelled. Contemporary theory is often nothing more than a contrived, overly elaborate justification for any form of artistic expression. Nature is not in the frame.

Almost from its inception the RA was criticised for being elitist, hidebound and conservative in its views. The core membership of only 40 RAs was one of the most exclusive clubs in town and privileges were jealously guarded. Although the institution owed its existence to Royal patronage it was proud of being an independent body, not reliant on government subsidies or subject to political directives.

Over the years the RA gradually opened itself up to changing currents of taste, spurred on by liberal-minded Presidents such as Lord Leighton – whose own status as a ‘Victorian Olympian’ did not prevent him from taking an interest in more progressive schools of art. Leighton met the challenge of incipient Impressionism by inviting younger artists such as George Clausen to become Associates of the RA.

The inclusive tendency has advanced so far in our own era that artists such as Tracy Emin are now RAs, although her drawing skills would make Reynolds turn in his grave.

The new brand of celebrity RAs may be related to another strand in the history of the Academy: the awareness that all publicity is potentially valuable to an institution that has to raise revenue from attendances, and from sales at the Summer Show. J.M.W. Turner understood the mechanisms of publicity better than anyone, and used his appearances in the annual Academy shows to dazzle his audience and his peer group. Even when Turner was being ridiculed he attracted the lion’s share of attention.

William Frith was another showman, whose Derby Day was the crowd-pleaser of 1858. This sweeping panorama of British society was proto-cinematic in its appeal. In the Bendigo show Frith is represented by The Sleeping Model (1853), which shows the artist painting a poor orange seller who has dropped off from exhaustion. The picture is a social comment on the hard work to which this young woman was accustomed, but with the subtle, self-deprecating suggestion that Frith himself has been the most exacting of employers.

It is very different from the sentimentality and melodrama of so much Victorian narrative painting, of which Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast (1851) may be taken as an example. It shows an unmarried mother being evicted from the family home by her angry father, regardless of a sister’s pleas for mercy.

Another significant aspect of Victorian art consisted of fanciful history paintings of Greek and Roman themes, with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Poynter leading the way. The British were fascinated by depictions of empires of the past, which they compared to their own great enterprise. Then there were the Orientalists, such as David Roberts and John Frederick Lewis, who catered to the public’s interest in those exotic lands that most viewers would never experience first-hand.

It required a powerful sense of self-importance to carry the RA through the lean times and maintain its prestige and its standards. Ironically, the worst piece of curatorship I’ve ever seen at the Academy was last year’s survey of Australian art, which was hardly more than an overblown mess. By contrast, Genius and Ambition brings Australian audiences a lucid portrait of the RA, its history and its artists. Despite all the arguments about standards of taste in relation to individual works, a well thought-out exhibition requires no special pleading. The poor shows generate confusion; the good ones are both a pleasure and a progressive education.

Genius and Ambition:
The Royal Academy of Arts, London
Bendigo Art Gallery, until 9 June.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 5 April, 2014