AT THE Royal Academy Summer Exhibition this year, the courtyard rejoices in a trio of large dancing and musical hares by the late Barry Flanagan OBE. Here is something of the spirit we need today.
His bronzes have always had that defiant and quicksilver energy exuded by the leaping and boxing hares so seldom seen in the wild nowadays. For all that a hare is hardly better equipped to face danger than a rabbit, it has as much courage as its cousin has timidity.
Something of Flanagan flamboyance carries us on through the doors. If we wish to see more, his famous hare and elephant stands at the threshold of the Fine Rooms, where this year works by the artists who have died since the last Summer Exhibition are gathered together.
Here hangs, for the last time, one of Craigie Aitchison’s unforgettable Crucifixions. Here is represented Flavia Irwin, Roger de Grey’s widow, and one of the leading teachers at the City and Guilds Art School, which gave a traditional grounding in techniques under her husband’s outstanding directorship. She did not become an RA until 1996, when she was 80 years old.
Frederick Gore CBE takes us back to the inheritance of the Camden Town School; Cadbury Brown was one of Hugh Casson’s team on the brilliant Festival of Britain Exhibition in 1951; John Craxton will be remembered for his pastoral landscapes, and for set designs, especially Daphnis and Chloë for Frederick Ashton. All the artists represented here made a clear and valuable contribution in their time. There is a strong if quiet message on these walls.
That is more than you can say of the main body of the exhibition. The strain of the past few impoverished years shows. Stephen Chambers has co-ordinated this exhibition, setting the theme of Raw, which has struck a nerve rather than a chord for the majority of exhibitors. They have responded with square yards (metres if you prefer) of abstract exhibitionism in raw, indeed shrill, primary colours.
The first point of reference for a Christian is Hughie O’Donoghue’s Cumae (47 in the second room). A swaying Crucifixion, larger than life-size in fawns on a white ground, is suggested rather than described. It has a remote and tragic dignity, contrasting with the strongly coloured abstracts by which it is largely hedged about.
I turned, as is my wont, into the South Rooms where, had I not been at the press view, my relief at discovering modest pictures and prints of recognisable, indeed usually pleasant, subjects tends to be ratified by the testimony of rows of red dots on their frames. I was too early for those affirmations, but there were fewer than usual undemanding, indeed cheering, subjects for the attention of loyal supporters.
Among loving studies of domestic animals, an unexpected stroke of bestiality struck a jarring note that I hope will not be repeated. Robin Smart’s Handbags returned in lithographs to hares dancing (127), and Emily Smith Polyblank is hanging a woodcut of March Hares and Leaping Dog (225). What are the odds against two other artists’ submitting small prints of hares in the year of Flanagan’s posthumous display of hare bronzes?
I hastened to the small south room where I continue to miss a small case of portrait miniatures. As ever, there were ranks of highly skilled little pictures, many of them this year with Surreal overtones. Mike Rooney has, unusually, a cluster of small pictures here (425, 447, 467, and 483). You expect to find him among the expansive artists in the main rooms. The smaller scale suits his thoughtful art.
Back to the full, cacophonous orchestra of the main rooms. There are several small three-dimensional bronzes holding their own among the oversized objects. James Butler has contributed four, my favourite a cluster of scholars around a man who has made a breakthrough. His The Eureka Moment (910) stands at the threshold of the architecture room. An entry that I can only describe as a basket-ware dustbin lid nicely woven in beech wood by John Cobb, We are all domed (774), catches the mood of the exhibition in general. If we look back to the excitement of the Dome of Discovery in 1951, and the total disappointment of the Millennium Dome, the angle of the trajectory gives no scope for optimism.
And so into the larger space offered to the architects this year, curated by David Chipperfield. Last year’s architecture room was filled with exquisite models, displayed against a stark sky of the threat that nothing would be realised in our economic bad times. The poignancy of it lingers behind the eye. This year, Chipperfield has declared his preference for “how projects begin . . . more drawings on the back of envelopes, concentrating on the creative origins of work rather than outcomes . . .”.
Among the advantages of this interesting approach is that it is much cheaper to offer a rough sketch than the final model. And there is a new acceptance of cardboard.
One unfortunate result is that the three-dimensional pieces are not visually attractive in their own right. I understand that the new buildings around the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon are a great success. You could not guess as much from this card-and-foam-board development study by Bennetts Associates (1099).
The unforgettable contribution is the forest of models for the India Tower in Mumbai, carried out in nylon print (1101) for Lord Foster of Thames Bank. A row of what would be immensely tall extensions of the concept of Salisbury spire stand beside a hotel or conference centre resembling on this scale a cotton reel with projecting feelers. If one of those spires were built, it would surely approach, if not pierce, the ozone layer.
And so through to the Wohl Central Hall. Near the centre of the octagonal space is an installation by Yinka Shonibare, Crash Willy (1140). Sprawled across a crashed vintage car, open-topped in scarlet with a gold headlamp, lies a very young man in clothes of defiant glitz. His green blue and white waistcoat is studded with the alphabet, perhaps scarcely mastered before seizing the independence proclaimed diagonally across his scarlet and gold trousers. He has used his brand-new liberty to destroy himself and maybe others. Has a partner been catapulted from the passenger seat? He has been decapitated.
Stephen Chambers describes the work as “. . . nutty but fabulous . . . humorous, it avoids whimsy . . . a collision between Lagos and the Garrick Club. . .” Oh. Humorous? Has no one lost a son to this kind of behaviour? “Nutty but fabulous”?
Perhaps this sick joke is the news brought to the nude woman walking slowly through a fountain of water by Bill Viola (1208). As she reaches the screen she receives information. Her sad face for a moment lights up, but then she gives a wordless scream, slowly regains her poise and returns whence she came. Viola has called this sequence Acceptance. I would have used the old-fashioned word so often needed by survivors of war: resignation.
Either way, is that bitter taste all we can take from this exhibition? Curi-ously, not quite. I nearly missed them myself; for these large, life-size designs for mosaic lunettes are hung high, riding over the bustle in Room VI (715 and 716). Gainsborough used to complain that his pictures were skied, ousted by Reynolds, in the original Royal Academy rooms in Somerset House. Gainsborough has endured well, none the less, and so perhaps will these, the latest commissions towards the completion of the mosaics that were intended to cover, above marble panelling, all the walls of Westminster Cathedral. These are to be found around the chapels off the narthex.
Their creator, Dr Leonard McComb, is also showing (1184a) a straightforward portrait (a rarity this year) of Charles Saumarez Smith, the Royal Academy’s chief executive, whose sensitive and witty restoration of a 1740s house in Spitalfields is celebrated in the Academy’s magazine. Artist and patron appreciate traditional values, and that means McComb’s designs do not jar in their context.
It is an almost impossible commission, but these full-scale models in pastel, watercolour, and gold leaf suggest an appropriate solemnity. As so often in classical mosaics, the creatures are more successful than the people. Byzantine artists conveyed people less realistically, and their slender silhouettes carry a spiritual force which grows mightily the less realistic they are. Think, always think, Torcello.
In these terms, the bust of St Francis is over-large, over-physical, for all his compelling and compassionate face. St Anthony is hunched, hugging his book inscribed with a cross. Both figures are extremely realistic, and so, much more successfully, are their audiences. St Francis, of course, is surrounded by an ordered crowd of birds, with a white dove of peace standing rather precariously on his open hand. (If I could have changed anything, I would have had the dove nestle into the saint’s palm.)
Clearly, because it offers a matching subject, St Anthony is shown preaching to the fish. That story can be traced back to The Deeds of Blessed Francis and his Companions, which was compiled between 1328 and 1337, approximately a century after the event suggested. According to The Deeds, St Anthony preached to the fish after he had been rejected by the people of Rimini. He went to the mouth of the river, so that he was able to address both salt- and fresh-water fish, who arranged themselves in orderly ranks.
His sermon follows closely the pattern of St Francis’s sermon to the birds. St Anthony reminds the fish of their part in the saving of Jonah, and in the provision of a coin for tax on behalf of Christ. He encourages them to praise God.
The main thrust is to show that where people were deaf to the preaching of the saint, creatures attended. That had not been the whole purpose in St Francis’s case. These two very large maquettes recall an element of long tradition in an exhibition that otherwise appears to ignore anything older than yesterday. The Summer Exhibition has in recent years almost forgotten its conservative past in its pursuit of the cutting edge of novelty, but by including this important commission it suggests a residual loyalty to the more-than-fleeting.
The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2010 runs until 22 August at Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1. Phone 020 7300 8000.