16 JUNE 1990, Page 34


Exhibitions 1

Seed-cake with granny

Giles Auty

The 222nd Summer Exhibition (Royal Academy, till 19 August)

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibi- tion is probably the hardest show of the year to write about constructively. Not a single critic I know looks forward to the task. Indeed most seem to regard the experience as a bit like taking tea with a slightly senile grandmother; a duty to be performed uncomplainingly but with little expectation of pleasure . . . 'A little more seed-cake, Rupert? And tell me how is what's-her-name your sister?'

This year's show comprises 1,206 ex- hibits of which more than 10 per cent were sold on the opening day for getting on for fl million. This is a new record apparently, yet, for reasons I will go into later, I am not sure whether to cheer or boo. Colleagues have told me that, so far as the human side of the Academy of recent years is con- cerned, they have found the atmosphere increasingly creepy. Many of the Academi- cians enjoy little critical recognition out- side their domain; within it there is a danger that some will become smug and self-serving. As ever this year there are good pieces from unfamiliar as well as expected sources. Indeed, with such a large exhibition, assessment is hard to make against shows of the recent past.

One fact to bear in mind always is that only between five and ten per cent of all submissions by non-RAs get hung. Each year, the disappointed 90-odd per cent subsidise the lucky few to the tune of £100,00 or so in fees charged for entering their works. Clearly the feeling that some kind of honour pertains to getting hung in the Royal Academy continues to dazzle a nation of aspiring amateur daubers. But how much of an honour is it today to find your tough, well thought-out little painting hung in a roomful of vapid abstractions? The Royal Academy seems to be trying lamely to catch up with notions of art fashionable in the Fifties. Why it cannot pursue an intelligent and independent course remains a mystery. In recent times, a number of incomprehensible-seeming elections to full or associate membership of the Academy have taken place. The idea of an artist of the stature of John Constable waiting long and patiently in the wings for the right to put the initials RA after his name seems now like a mere fable from a far-off age. Back in 1990 a wooden owl exhibited by a full RA in Gallery V resembles nothing so much as an ornament `Oranges', by David Warrillow, in the Small South Room at the Royal Academy mislaid temporarily from a cream-tea par- lour. Again it is hardly reassuring to know that those distinctive half-dozen works which may remind viewers more of ver- micelli than Vermeer are by a full Academician and incidentally a member of this year's hanging committee. The artist was elected at the height of a short-liyed fashionable career.

With this in mind, it is cautionary to remember that there are nearly ,00 Academicians in all and that each is entitled to have up to six works accepted automatically. The standard of too many of such works has become embarrassingly bad, yet if each Academician exercised his or her option to the full only half the space in the show would be available to outsid- ers. Ironically, it is often the latter who keep up present-day standards. Indeed, it is hard to resist a faint suspicion that Academicians on the annual hanging com- mittees may block talented and powerful works deliberately simply for the reflection these might cast on their own efforts.

That the Royal Academy lost its way hopelessly a number of years ago is appa- rent to most outsiders who take an interest in its affairs. There remain excellent and mentally vigorous 'artists among its mem- bers but for far too many the annual summer show, is simply looked on as an invitation to make some very easy money. Thus the new sales ,record I have men- tioned may mean nothing more than lower standards of discrimination or increased purchasing power among the buying clas- ses. Why should wt: cheer this? I prefer to save my own applapse, for visible improve- ments in standards of work. Visitors .com- ment often that successive summer shows look strangely similar. This could be be- cause swathes of work are• very much the same. A number of Academicians trot out stock summer show pictures rather like seaside merchants repeating last year's hot selling lines. Few make any pretence of saving their best works for the summer spectacular. It seems to me that an impor- tant and worthwhile national tradition is being undermined increasingly • through Academicians' greed and complacency.

Nor has any particular skill been shown this year in the matter of prizes. Not only is the painting by R. J. Kitaj, 'The First Time (Havana, 1949)' — Korn/Ferry Prize 1990 — by no means the best in the show, it is by no means the best even on the wall on which it is hanging. The winner of another prize, Patrick Symons's 'Mary Iliff's Viola Played by Electric Light and Drawn by Gas Light', may be a worthier choice yet is hardly unfamiliar. I understood in the past that works submitted to the summer show should not have been part of any previous major exhibition in London. Mr Symons's winning painting will be familiar already to readers of The Spectator, having been reproduced in this column in the issue of 11 November 1989 in a review of the artist's retrospective exhibition at Browse & Dar- by in Cork Street, not one furlong from where it is hanging now. An external judge for an RA prize told me recently how shocked he was at the manner in which selection procedures were conducted. Few may realise that a rule book exists for the conduct of the Royal Academy. I fear the contents are often overlooked. Perhaps granny is not such an old innocent after all. The cake she is offering today is not so much seed as seedy.

Last year I made a list of works which impressed me and which made what I thought to be a positive contribution to the summer show. From the Small South Room this year's crop includes 'Interior, Winter' by Edmund Fairfax-Lucy, `Oranges' by David Warrillow, 'The View from the Tower' by Patrick Shaw, 'Suffolk, Sunset' by Matthew Alexander, 'Mrs Green' by Carol Rhodes and 'The Beach at Beer' by Stephen Brown. Elsewhere `Savoy Alps' by Peter Greenham, 'Mr Arnold' by the late Ruskin Spear, 'A Roll of Paper' by Rodrigo Moynihan, 'Yar- mouth Vauxhall 32 E' by Nicholas Ward, 'Rachel' by Susan Daltry, 'Brian and Kath- leen, Elk River, Maryland' by Leonard Rosoman, 'The Treasury, Petra' by Anthony Eyton, 'Winter' by Carel Weight, `Sara King' and `Maja Yacoub' by Leonard McComb, 'Abandoned Scales (Nettle- combe Series)' by Michael Davis, 'The Farm, Velieux' by Liz Hough and 'Reclin- ing Nude' by Peter Clossick all caught the eye. By contrast I can describe Sir Sydney Nolan's 'White Herons over China' only as the largest work in the show. Like the body of the Royal Academy itself, this venerable Australian artist formerly merited our cri- tical respect.

'And this is one I flayed earlier.'