1 OCTOBER 1977, Page 27


John McEwen

British Painting 1952-1977 (Royal Academy) The jubilee bonanza of British painting (Royal Academy till 20 November) has been chosen by a large committee and it looks it. Here is yet another pudding that lacks a theme, to such an extent in fact that it seems exactly like a Summer Show. One emerges in a daze wondering if British painting can have been so bad or if it is just the fault of the selection. A bit of both, perhaps, but certainly the presentation could hardly have elevated mediocrity more successfully.

What the exhibition singularly fails to do is to give any sense of history. After all, 1952 was a long time ago and things were very different. Unless you are going to be pedantic about it there was no television and no Arts Council. There was no Hayward Gallery and not much Tate. The Illustrated London News really was illustrated, and railway posters were reproductions of pastoral watercolours. London suffered from 'pea-soupers' and 'heat waves'. There were hundreds of prostitutes and soldiers and the parks in the summer were the scenes of incredible sexual strife.

Today London is, I am sure, a less odd and charming place, even if it remains the most domestic of the major cities of the world. Something of this continued gentleness and privacy comes across in the Academy exhibition, but little sense of the changes that have occurred, in art as elsewhere of course, is suggested by the layout. This is a pity because, quite fortuitously, 1952 is as good a year to begin with as any if you are going to try and unravel the story of British, painting since the War. Dreary social realism Was the fashion of the day, the kitchen sink school, and that year Bryan Robertson, who subsequently did so much in establishing contact with New York, fought off their challenge to win the directorship of the Whitechapel.

Some sense of chronology was required if this exhibition was to have any sense of order or scale. It should also have taken the general public more into consideration. Their memories should have been jogged, their favourites brought in. But the first thing was the chronology — and to admit that painters, like dogs and everyone else, have their day. At least most of them do; very few strike an eternal chord or even one that lasts ten years. Most capture a moment and are never favoured by circumstances again. The period under review saw English art more subject to fashionable and commercial constraints than probably at any time in its history, and also more ready for change. It is no wonder the fads and fashions flew and that a lot of the resulting work now looks dated and shallow. This the exhibition should have stressed, not disguised. Painters should have been ruthlessly hung in accordance with the moment of their popularity and influence, not encouraged to think that they are still going concerns.

Every member of the present Academy, who paints, is in the show — Eurich, Dring, Viviane Pitchforth — some of these could have been retained for old times' sake, but only in the popular section, which of course should also have contained Munnings, Topolsk i, Peter Scott, Tretchikoff, Vernon Ward, Lowry (represented by only one painting) and maybe even that good technician Russell Flint, Roland Hildred's Shell posters could have been included and David Shepherd, and Seago, of course, the most radiant of the Marlborough stars. To exclude these people in the name of art only shows what inverted snobs the Academy have become. They are obviously delighted to be accompanying the avant-:garde, and do not want to scare them off by introducing such hoi polloi. What a pity. Such a section would have attracted visitors and. I am sure, many inquisitive connoisseurs. What is more its artistic irrelevance would have been no greater than that of most of the work exhibited.

Then there should have been the chronology, beginning with provincial lyricism (no David Jones,; then refugee expressionism; Berger's kitchen sinkers; then its academic equivalent, the Euston Road School (RAs manau es the lot); then Bacon on his own; then the modern urbanists (Paolozzi, their leader, unrepresented) picking up ideas through William Johnstone's (no sign of him although he has painted and still is painting better than any of the Scottish artists in the show) cross-fertilisations at the Central School; then English Pop; then AngloAmerican pop (no sign of Donaldson); then Hockney with his California paintings (the only painter of the period to make an acknowledged contribution to American painting). And then the same with the abstracts: lvon Hitchens on his own; Pasmore and his systematic followers (no Jeffrey Steele); St Ives Artierican; Anglo-French abstraction; the first mindless reaction to Pollock that briefly swept all before it; post-'sixties gestural; minimalism (no Alan Charlton). People with no relevance to this like Duncan Grant, Ben Nicholson and William Roberts, plus literally dozens of minor figures, would have to be dropped. An opportunity missed therefore, through haste and doubtless unavoidable compromise — which is to say that the opportunity for such a show still exists.