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Summer saunter with the RAs

14 July 2017

Nicholas Cranfield scans the rooms at Burlington House

Courtesy of the artist 

Lively exhibition: Hassan Hajjaj’s Henna Bikers, in metallic lambda

Lively exhibition: Hassan Hajjaj’s Henna Bikers, in metallic lambda

THERE was never any doubt in my mind that 8 June would be memor­able, but it was not clear, as I stood at the local polling station at seven o’clock in the morning, chatting with an airline pilot who needed to fly at 9.30 to Florida, what would prove to be the high point of the day.

The diary held the usual parish mix of excursions and alarums. A requiem mass for a 31-year-old officer of the Royal Field Artillery, who died a century ago in the battle for Arras, returning to the Front Line, having carried one of his wounded men to a field hospital, would be followed by a church visit by Year 7 children from a church academy, the chance to see the Royal Acad­emy’s 249th Summer Exhibition, and an evening reception at the House of Lords.

Tranquil as the flowing Thames appeared from the River Room of the Palace of Westminster, the memory of the attacks downriver at London Bridge was all too recent not to dominate our evening con­versations even before the polls closed.

As we left, I am not sure if I was angrier to be told that none of the services in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft was nowadays con­ducted according to the 1662 Prayer Book, or excited to see New Dawn, a window by Mary Branson which dominates the arch above the public route into the palace from West­minster Hall: not a view even accorded the Queen at the State Opening of Parliament.

Branson, who was appointed artist-in-residence to Women’s Suffrage in April 2014, has drawn from the design of scrolls from the Parliamentary Rolls, which are
back lit and change according to the tidal waters of the Thames outside. Glow­ing green, red, gold, and grey, the ever-changing effect is the same as that achieved by the anemometer on the roof of the Hayward Gallery. The window speaks of a new dawn, seized by the Suffragettes during the First World War, and intelligently brings the contemporary into a largely Gothic space.

Next year, the Royal Academy reaches a milestone anniversary and plans to begin its 250th year with an ambitious show of the former col­lection assembled by King Charles I and dispersed after his death in 1649 (”Charles I: King and Col­lector”, 27 January to 15 April).

To judge by this summer’s display, there is still plenty of life in the arts, although, unsurprisingly, the rooms of Burlington House provide any number of pieces that are best passed over in silence to spare the blushes of their perpet­rators.

Regrettably, there is nothing here by Mary Branson, whose work genuinely inspired and enthralled me. But at the Academy the steady increase of work from current Academicians brings together much to delight and interest the passer-by.

Tracey Emin has three of her distinctive neon scrawls; two are in the central octagonal hall that serves as the entrance to the whole floor of galleries, and from there it is possible to see the third, “And I said I love you”, a follow-up to the piece (”I felt you and then I knew I loved you”) that won an award when it was first installed at Liverpool Cathedral in 2008.

A more recent cathedral installation has been a stained-glass window and memorial to the Special Air Services which was commissioned for Hereford Cathed­ral from another RA, the sculptor John Maine. The work, Ascension, sets a carved stone monument beneath a four lancet, nine-metre-high window. More than 3000 pieces of glass, in forty dizzying different shades, predominantly of blue and gold, but with slashes of red and yellow, glow above the altar-like monument of stone, brought from Tournai, Brazil, and Elgin. Several of his thoughts on paper for this project appear in Room IV in graphite and carved in gneiss.

The Paisley-born artist Jock McFadyen (b.1950), who so mem­orably designed the 1992 ballet The Judas Tree for the Royal Ballet, has had great fun in a large painting of the Edinburgh landscape under a full moon, viewing the monuments of Calton Hill and the distant port of Leith as if they are no more than encrustations of the lunar surface itself.

His older peer Joe Tilson was born in Lewisham in 1928, and here continues his series of The Stones of Venice (courtesy of Alan Cristea Gallery). The large-scale square screen prints of San Zan Degolà (the little Byzantine Romanesque church of St John Beheaded) and the Scuola Grande hang high up on the wall of gallery VII. Those with smaller domestic wall spaces (and budgets) can still steal away with his equally observant views of the Calle dei Fabri, the church of S. Sebastiano or the two Moors on top of the bell tower in St Mark’s Square.

Scale is, of course, inherently in the eye of the beholder and is not in the necessary vocabulary of the artist, as the present retrospective of Alberto Giacometti at Tate Modern (to 10 September) repeatedly demonstrates. As if to make the point, one of the smallest works, lower on the wall beneath the Tilsons (no. 811), is a delicate intaglio gravure of Sunlit Cloister Gloucester Cathedral by Henry Hagger, a member of Camden Printmakers, whose work I had not spotted before. The technique subtly fuses time and depth of field. This could be an engraving by Rembrandt or a scuzzy memory of Dürer.

Tilson is not alone in showing Venice in both macro and micro images. Ken Howard includes two large canvases that offer predom­inantly grey views of high water at St Mark’s and of the church of S. Zanipolo, with snow flurries crossing the campo. Elsewhere, tighter canvases of this popular artist (there is now even a Founda­tion dedicated to producing a catalogue raisonné and to authent­icating his work) find inspiration in the more out-of-the-way Venetian views of the Rio della Fava and Bacini.

Anthony Green was born in the first weeks of the Second World War, and his distinctive realist views of domestic interiors, often on acutely cut polygonal board, make sly jokes and tease the viewer. His recent golden wedding anniversary is celebrated in two parallel works that Gus Cummins has placed either side of the doors of Gallery I (nos. 249, 201).

In Mr Green looks at his wife, the septuagenarian stares out of a vivid green (get it?) equilateral triangle, while his wife is depicted against a gold triangle, with a smaller image of her much younger self, falling in love. The reason for the longevity of the marriage may lie in what Green proudly shows he can offer in The Pink Lounge (no. 1015), discreetly to be found in gallery IX.

I first met the Irish-born sculptor Eva Rothschild at the opening of a show that she is sharing this sum­mer with another British sculptor, Gary Webb, at the prestigious Portuguese gallery run by Mário Sequeira a few miles outside Braga.

Both had designed wallpaper for the upper-level gallery entrance there, suggesting a more domestic scale against which to show their monumental works, ranging from table lights to mirror-glass palm trees that climb up the available wall space. Larger-scale works by both sculptors stand in the grounds of the spectacular hillside site, al­­though, at the opening I attended, Webb’s contribution had not yet made it back across the Atlantic from a New York show in Central Park.

At the Academy, Rothschild has a single work; What we know is constructed in jesmonite with a reinforced-steel bar. Taking geo­metric shapes, which here include broken off cylinders, she makes us think again about space and how we refer to it.

Ten years ago, the RA elected my parishioner Tony Bevan to its number, and here one of his fam­iliar cityscape-like acrylics (Table top) is wittily set next to another work in acrylic, Sir Michael Craig-Martin’s aquamarine violin. Almost unthinkingly, they dominate one of the long walls of Gallery III.

On the same wall, also look out for Bevan’s charcoal House of Wood, which at first sight looks like the canopied arch of a 19th-century railway station. This is a work in charcoal, which may subtly be a comment on the Victorian archi­tecture itself.

As an honorary RA, the German Anselm Kiefer shows a single work (Und du bist Maler geworden) in which, whether or not we have become a painter, the sprouting wheat seems to flare out of the canvas. Several aquatints find that Peter Freeth has now moved toward the more figurative (nos. 880 and following), while George Blacklock takes on a new-found freedom in his Ancestral Voices (Gallery II), in which his characteristic amoeba-like forms sweep across a vast field.

Eileen Cooper, the Keeper of the RA since 2010 (and the first woman to hold the post), has brought together a diverse range of works assisted in each gallery’s display by different artists. The chaotic arrangement of too much colour may defeat her overall purpose, but her own distinctive style crops up in a sequence of works across the show which seem to tell of the stages of a romance, from the tango-like Till the morning comes in Gallery III to Night Music in Gallery VII.

I am puzzled that a 2007 film (Western Union) made by Isaac Julien, who was once nominated for the Turner prize, should command five screens and the whole of the last gallery. Others may know why it should even be awarded a prize, let alone the £25,000 that goes with the Charles Wollaston Award.

Clearly, the themes of perilous sea-bound or sea-wrecked immigra­tion from African shores to Lampedusa and the coast of Sicily remain pertinent. Cut across lan­guorous views of Western wealth, as if Julien had stumbled into the world of The Leopard, this looks little more than a self-serving tug at the heart-strings connived at by the RA before the dizzied viewer is released into the shop.

And the highlights of my day? Being asked how many angels there are (and for their names) by a lad who is clearly a budding theologian; being drawn into the silent cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral, undis­turbed by the shade of Edward II, who is buried in the cathedral; and being awakened in the night to be told that our constituency MP had been returned with a 12.3-per-cent increase in her majority, despite a brave showing by one of my former college students as the Lib Dem voice of conscience.

Oh. And, of course, that dream flight back to visit Tampa Bay.


The 249th Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 20 August. Tickets: phone 020 7300 8090. www.royalacademy.org.uk

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