Tag Archives: Royal Academicians

Double Whammy at the Royal Academy

7 Oct

The Royal Academy is back in Burlington Gardens and to re-launch the space they are hosting RA Now, an exhibition and auction that offers the opportunity to view a selection of works by current Royal Academicians (there are 80) and Honorary Academicians.  Be prepared, as the exhibition includes work by 121 artists!  It has been co-ordinated by Allen Jones and feels like the Academicians’ version of the Summer Exhibition.  By nature a broad range of media and artistic disciplines are encompassed here and not all of the art is good – the show doesn’t exactly enthuse and excite visitors.  The accompanying catalogue is designed to offer an overview into today’s Royal Academy rather than a survey of the exhibition and it is a lovely book.

RA Now in Burlington Gardens. Own photograph.

Although we are used to seeing their works individually, this is the first time that the current membership has exhibited exclusively together.  All the pieces have been donated and funds raised from the works auctioned on 9th October will contribute to the Royal Academy’s long- term plans for this site – a veritable price-war for some of the biggest names in the art world today.  Works not auctioned at this time will be available to buy during the course of the exhibition.

I think the next exhibition here in December will afford us more opportunity to see exactly what they are going to do with the space.  Due to this being a selling exhibition and auction, the curation isn’t very intelligent but it isn’t intended to be.

RA Now in Burlington Gardens. Own photograph.

The RA seem to be setting up this venue as a cultural hub; Pace have opened a gallery downstairs plus there is a new RA shop, the 42° RAW café and The Burlington Social Club – an incredible, huge scaffold construction in the central room of the Burlington Gardens’ space.  Sadly, the Club wasn’t open for us to try at the preview but it looks like a fairly special pop-up restaurant.  Seats are placed around the main rectangular area which is where I’m reliably informed the magic happens – chefs and mixologists brush arms, vying for space in the laboratory.  I think I may have to pop in to sample a cocktail.  The Burlington Gardens’ space is stunning and I, for one, am pleased to see it reopened.

The Burlington Social Club. Own photograph.

Just round the corner in the main Royal Academy is Bronze, the show that everyone is going mad for, the current must-see.

There are no surprises with this exhibition which is a delight.  It does exactly what it says on the tin – presenting around 150 bronze works from across the world that span over 5,000 years, many of which have never been seen before in the UK, certainly not in public.  The achievement of some of the loans is magnificent.  It is straightforward, a blockbuster show both in terms of scale and ambition.

Adriaen de Vries, Vulcan’s Forge, 1611.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Bronze is arranged thematically with rooms focusing on the human figure, animals, objects, reliefs, gods, and so on, including works by Ghiberti, Donatello, Rodin, Picasso, Moore and Jasper Johns.  Everyone is here!  Chronologically, the show is intentionally messy but it is best to forget about this and enjoy the wonderful objects that continue to delight us as we stroll slowly from gallery to gallery.  In fact, this arrangement seeks to show how the medium has not changed too much over the years and the curators would argue that the juxtapositions allow this point to be clearly illustrated.  Works from thousands of years ago look as if they may have been made only yesterday. – such is the power of this medium.  The individual objects are magnificent and the skill is awe-inspiring.

Trundholm Sun Chariot, Fourteenth century BCE.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Intelligently, the show also seeks to teach us about bronze – an alloy consisting mainly of copper, with lesser amounts of tin, zinc and lead.  One room is given over to explaining the complex processes behind bronze looking at various casting techniques and giving step-by-step explanations.

Chimera of Arezzo, Etruscan, c. 400 BCE.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

There is, however, a large but.  Painting is designed to be hung on a wall and stared at from the front.  Sculpture is three-dimensional and, for this reason, it should be circumnavigated and lit from all angles.  The majority of works here are pushed back against the wall, inaccessible and lost.  The entire method of display makes me uneasy.  Even when the works are accessible, you still can’t see them.  There is a fabulous Cellini in room one of Perseus and Medusa.  When you are behind the work, the lights blind you.  Perseus’ bum hasn’t been lit at all, which is a real disappointment.

Cellini, Perseus and Medusa. Image via www.pbase.com

I also have an objection to the stark white cases and statement walls used throughout.  The lighting is too bright and not well enough directed and the white walls only make it worse.  There is no daylight allowed through, this is a dark exhibition that has been floodlit looking like a bad light extravaganza.  The exhibition isn’t actually cluttered but many of the objects here need at least twice the space to be studied properly.  There are far too many things to take in and enjoy.  I’d recommend buying the excellent catalogue to appreciate fully some of the wonders or to visit several times in small bursts.  It is impossible to walk around this show in one hit and attempt to appreciate everything on display.

Donatello, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c. 1455-60.  Image via www.theartsdesk.com

When even slightly busy, the space is really quite claustrophobic.   I found it quite exhausting to walk round and needed to sit down with a glass of water after my visit.  Bronze certainly seems to be dividing opinion and I’m sure many of you will think I’m mad.  Although I’m not a fan of the layout, it is still an unmissable show that celebrates the medium.  The idea of focusing a show around medium does mean that just about anything can be put together without rhyme or reason.  But, what the hell, some of the sculptures are so incredible that it’s impossible not to be blown away.

It was time to head to the Residence of the Ambassador of Sweden for some rather different sculpture in HIT

RA Now is at 6 Burlington Gardens until 11th November 2012 and Bronze is in the Main Galleries at Burlington House until 9th December 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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My Love Affair Continues – Zoffany at the Royal Academy

7 Mar

Aged 16, on work experience at Tate Britain, I was lucky enough to hang an 18th century gallery called Portraits and Perspectives.  I’d always had a strong fancy for the period but this marked the start of another of my enduring love affairs with the 18th century.  It was during this placement that I first properly encountered Johan Zoffany through a pair of portraits that we hung flanking the door at the far end of the room.  One of the works included the most gorgeous water-dog, covered in ringlets staring animatedly at the three boys in the picture.

So, I was ecstatic when I heard that the RA were mounting an exhibition of Zoffany’s works and was excited to see if these portraits were included.  Once again, the RA’s Sackler Wing programme shines and this exhibition does not disappoint.

Johan Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-7. Image via www.arthistory.about.com

The first room has been split into lots of smaller galleries.  This does mean that there is quite a tight entrance in gallery one, that I imagine will become jammed, but it provides a good introduction to the artist.  Because of this split the first and last rooms are back-to-back and I imagine people will hurry past the last three works.

Room one of the exhibition. Own photograph.

Born in Frankfurt, Zoffany boldly decided to move in 1760 to England, a country experiencing rapid social change and growth.  (The exhibition is arranged thematically and room three begins to explore his work in England.)  Soon after his arrival, Zoffany met David Garrick, his first major patron, who achieved great success as an actor in the 1760s.  Zoffany was able to encapsulate Garrick’s success on stage, producing numerous works that perfectly portray the atmosphere of the moment.  In most of his theatre portraits, he artificially compresses the performance space to intensify the sense of intimacy with the actors.

One such striking work is William Powell as Posthumus in ‘Cymbeline’; Powell was one of the rising stars of Georgian theatre and, here he is seen at the opening of Act Five, Scene Two where he enters with a bloody handkerchief.  Zoffany’s portraits maintain a striking air of dignity while his subjects seem natural and at ease.  He uses the same style regardless of the class of the sitter and his detail and vivacity is always vibrant as he expresses his unique humour through social commentary.

Johan Zoffany, William Powell as Posthumus in ‘Cymbeline’, c. 1767. Own photograph.

The exhibition progresses to look at Zoffany’s interest in art academies that began when he painted artists attending a life class at the St Martin’s Lane Academy.  In 1770, he started an ambitious behind-the-scenes portrait of the Royal Academicians.  The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy shows 36 individuals, 34 of whom were RAs; Thomas Gainsborough, George Dance and his brother are absent, possibly due to their discontent with the ideals of the Academy at the time.  It was not yet deemed appropriate for women to be included so female Academicians, Kauffman and Muser, are shown by their portraits.  The work is fundamentally a large conversation piece showing the Academicians setting the model for the life class.  This is not an actual record of practices at the Academy as research reveals that the life model was never set by the Academicians or the Keeper, as shown here.  Instead, it is a record of those who held membership of the Academy, highlighting the aesthetic programme that they supported.  Zoffany himself is seen on the left, closest to the front, with a palette and brushes in hand.  From this position he can survey the whole scene and all who stand before him – perhaps it is even one of the most important positions here.

Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-2. Own photograph.

In 1764, Zoffany was introduced to George III and Queen Charlotte who liked his meticulous painting style.  His earliest Royal portraits are striking conversation pieces showing the domestic aspect of the court.  The portraits show the Royals relaxed; the works are memorable and real.  Zoffany’s career flourished and he was in much demand.

Royal Portraits at the RA. Own photograph.

The same year, Zoffany purchased Stile House near Chiswick, situated near to the Estate of John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute.  Accounts of how they met vary greatly but John Stuart was a significant painter and collector and had commissioned Zoffany the previous year.  These are the works that I mentioned at the start – a gorgeous pair of portraits of the children of the Third Earl of Bute.  It is in this sort of work, his informal domestic or landscape scenes, that we really see how great Zoffany is.  The paintings are the same size and each is dominated by a tree against a low horizon with the figures in a broadly triangular grouping.   The tree, which was common in Zoffany’s landscapes, helps to root the sitters in the space as well as providing symbolic overtones of the family tree.  The works share a touch of playfulness; the painting of the boys emphasises important masculine qualities and pursuits appropriate to their future as leaders or heroes.   The work concentrates on themes of elite masculine privileges.  The image of the girls, however, is more feminine in style showing ideas of responsibility.  The girls are engaged in activities that suggest their nurturing and motherly qualities.  The wall label here is far too low, or maybe these boots are far too high, but it is very rare that I have to bend down to read something.

Johan Zoffany, Three Sons of John, Third Earl of Bute and Three Daughters of John, Third Earl of Bute, 1763-4. Own photograph.

Until this point the wall colours had varied so frequently that parts of the gallery resembled a darkened rainbow but from here on in the lighting improves and the gallery aesthetic seems more coherent.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a stunning exhibition of works by a stunning painter and the exhibition is uplifting.  Zoffany travelled extensively throughout his life and the penultimate room looks at his passage to India and the six years he spent there from Spring 1783; he had an astounding interest in global commerce and was always on the move.

A Passage to India. Own photograph.

This exhibition is long overdue as Tate Britain cancelled their planned Zoffany show in 2010, worried that there wouldn’t be enough public interest.  Zoffany may not have the fame of Reynolds, Gainsborough or Hogarth but he is a fascinating artist whose life deserves the attention it is now receiving.  He may well always be an outsider but maybe it is this that should interest us the most.   The journalist with me yesterday morning was not a Zoffany fan but I was not deterred by his initial despondency and I’m pleased to say that, partly thanks to my infectious enthusiasm, by the end of the exhibition he was a convert.

Zoffany’s works are about human behaviour, covering all aspects of 18th century society.  Not enough people know about Zoffany but through these 60 or so paintings and a selection of drawings and prints it becomes easy to argue his importance to the artistic culture and heritage of the 18th century.  The catalogue is a beautifully designed book providing an in-depth look at his career.

I came out feeling calmer and ready to tackle the day, immersed into Zoffany’s 18th century society.

Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed is at the Royal Academy from Saturday 10th March until 10th June 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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