ART: A COMMONPLACE ACADEMY
By ANTHONY BLUNT
Tins year the exhibition of the Royal Academy has at any rate the merit of being consistent. Usually it is possible, by tipping oneself into the position of an anti-aircraft gun, to pick off in the upper rows of the paintings quite a number of magpies, if not many bulls. But this year, even in the upper regions of the walls, the patches of relief are few ; and the whole show is of an almost continuous drabness and emptiness. Not that it is necessarily worse than in other years. There are even probably fewer absolutely outrageous paintings than usual ; but this only serves to accentuate the uniform dullness of the rooms.
But this purely subjective abuse can hardly interest anyone, not even the Royal Academicians, I suppose. And a more objective analysis of the qualities of the paintings shown will perhaps be more helpful.
The usual complaint made against the Academy by the supporters of the more advanced kinds of art is that its members are too literary. My complaint is that they are generally not literary enough, and that, when they are, it is in the wrong way. From this point of view let us consider first the types of painting at . Burlington House in which the themes are in- sistent but offensive ; secondly those in which the themes are negligible.
, As always there is a large group of mythological paintings in the Academy. Now, can it really be maintained that there is much point at the present time in painting subjects from the stories of the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome ? It was all right for the Greeks and the Romans to paint them, because they believed in them and worshipped them. It was still relevant for the men of the Middle Ages to'carve or paint them, for they still believed in them, though they, regarded them as half god and half devil. It was even reasonable for the artists of the Renaissance to depict them, for they converted them into symbols of things about which they felt very deeply, and by means of these symbols, used in combination with those of Christianity, they expressed their view of life. But nowadays we use other and more direct methods—or so they seem to us—when we want to express sometfing which we think of importance in real life. It is only in the arts that we keep up the tradition of using these symbols which have elsewhere no serious meaning for us. In a serious discussion we should not dream of expressing our view, say, of the position of M. Daladier torn between the advice of M. de la Roque and of M. Blum as Hercules between Virtue and Vice, unless it was in a spirit of conscious badinage. Why then do we use these symbols in painting, which, if it is to be a serious activity, ought also to scorn such things ?
There is one painting at the Academy in which the mytho- logical tendency appears in a particularly tiresome form, namely, Louisa Hodgson's Birth of Venus. Here the artist has made an attempt to bring a dead theme up to date by giving it a contemporary setting. Venus appears among a rather meagre catch of fish in the net of a fishing-smack. The contrast between the naked goddess and the oil-skinned sailors produces a faintly entertaining effect, which, however, only adds a touch of self-conscious humour and no point of reality to the subject.
Mr. Russell Flint's In their Own Home is so clearly meant to be the puzzle piece of the year that I am sorry to have to add my grain to its publicity by attacking it. Many people have already said that it ought not to have been exhibited, but not, I think, for the right reasons. The Spanish war, they say, is not a suitable theme for a painting—adding, knowingly, "in spite of the example of Goya." Now this seems to me the reverse of the truth. The Spanish war is a mattter of urgent importance to everyone, so why not paint it ? What is really shocking is when an artist comes to a serious subject such as this, as Mr. Flint has done, simply in order to apply to it the methods which he has for years used for scenes of empty prettiness and subjects of no import- ance. Apart from a faintly sadistic atmosphere, there is no difference in feeling between this painting and another by the same artist called Vanity in the Wash-house, also in the Academy. Every political implication has been eliminated, apparently by design ; and the human tragedy has been turned into an affair of picturesque fancy dress.
As is only to be expected, one group of paintings in the exhibition deals with the Coronation. As is also to be expected, they are not the most successful paintings there. Those who have had to make official versions of the subject have had their hands tied by the necessity of giving the function an almost supernatural solemnity. Lord Methuen has approached the matter from a quite different point of view, as an Impressionist, and has apparently regarded the whole affair as an exciting effect of rather unexpected colours. The result is honest and successful. Another instructive group of paintings deals with racing scenes. Mr. Munnings is only interested in the racehorses, and in the bright jackets of the jockeys. It is all sun and games to him. Dame Laura Knight devotes her attention to the gipsies who haunt the racecourse, whom she paints with all her love of the picturesque and the exceptional, It is hard to see, however, how they can be of very serious interest to the public of the Royal Academy, to whom they can only appeal antipodally. Then there is Mr. Burke, who, in his Green Umbrella, seems to regard the racecourse as a good place to study human beings, not pursuing them for some eccentricity or for their flashy attraction, but taking them unawares at their pleasures—real pleasures, simply noted.
About the portraits there is little to say, since they are much as in other years. Mr. Brock continues to treat his sitters as if he was Raeburn ; Mr. Brockhurst makes every woman he paints into a femme fatak ; Mr. Connard shows a witty obser- vation of gesture and light. Of more positive interest are Mr. Henry Lamb's portrait of George Lawrence, which actually has character, and Miss Mitchell's bust of Mr. Paul Oppe, which uses the roughness of clay modelling to define and not merely to give a picturesque effect. This portrait is balanced by a polished bronze head of Mr. Hore-Belisha, in which the likeness to Mussolini in pose is so great and the reminiscence of Italian Futurism so strong, that it is hard to believe that the bust was made before the sitter received his recent decoration. The rest go through their varying degrees of fluffiness and prettiness, without striking any novel note, or showing any real study of the sitter's character as opposed to his formal and outer shell, so that, though portraiture is perhaps the one genre in which the Academicians might make contact with reality, they fail even here by lack of insight.
Of course, not all artists can at all times paint great themes, and it would be foolish to maintain that still life and landscape are of necessarily minor importance. At certain moments in history the painting of still-life has meant a return to reality from the shanmess of the historical painting of the time (e.g., with Chardin). But with the Academicians still-life and land- scape fulfil no useful function. The former is purely decorative, the latter merely surface-pretty. But even in these condi- tions such paintings could still serve some purpose, if they carried on a tradition of sound technique, keeping the weapons of artists polished, so that when they again had something to say they would be able to express it readily. But alas ! even this is not so at Burlington House. The general level of careful execution is this year lower than usual. The Academy seems to have acquired the most dangerous of the methods of modem art without understanding the purpose for which it was in- tended, and the result is a cult for the " slap-dash " which is fatal to any academic tradition. Perhaps the most remarkable technical display in an Academician is to be found in Sir John Lavery, whose actual use of paint, quite apart from what he paints or the state of mind in which he seems to paint it, arouses a shudder.
I have often wanted to see the selection committee of the Academy making its choice. By what process do they arrive at a conclusion? On what grounds do they decidz that one painting is better than another ? Certainly not by any rational analysis—that, I am sure, they would themselves admit with pride. Rather, they would probably say, by sensibility. But it is only too easy to take refuge behind that over-rated faculty, and to attribute to it supreme importance, even when it has sunk to the level of a mere sensuous pleasure. For what can one get from the paintings at the Academy beyond a certain tickling of the palate ? And the palates of many are not suscep- tible to this particular form of tickling.