Sewell on the RA's Summer Exhibition

June 10 2011

Image of Sewell on the RA's Summer Exhibition

As ever, Brian Sewell's review is worth a read. He begins:

Last week, on entering the Royal Academy's courtyard to see its annual Summer Exhibition, I chanced upon a column of Academicians, their doxies, catamites and hangers-on (no 11,000 virgins there) embarking on their yearly pilgrimage to St James's Piccadilly, there to pray for a pox on hostile critics.

It was once a charming and colourful ritual but now even dour members of a Bible Readers' Union might make a gayer occasion of it, for the sense that these pilgrims still think of themselves as smocked Augustus Johns with their polka-dot Dorelias of a century ago has entirely gone. The fedoras were far fewer, the motley drab, and in this shabby crocodile not one woman shone with artifice and no man played the aesthete exquisite.

Sewell goes onto to highlight some of the works he likes, and indeed there are many fine ones. But the wider point, surely, is that the RA is in danger of losing its relevance when it comes to contemporary art.

What is the RA for? Most people, I suspect, think of it as one of the best places in the world for mounting authoritative exhibitions, such as the current one of Watteau's drawings. In my view, the RA's exhibitions of what we might call historic art are unsurpassable. Arguably, it should build on this role and project itself as a guardian of all things art historical in Britain.

But as some of the second-rate offerings in the Summer Exhibition show, it struggles to fulfil its original purpose of promoting the arts in Britain, first by training artists and secondly by exhibiting the best contemporary works.

Instead, its offerings feel like the massed collection of a few humdrum regional art fairs, uncertain of their own meaning, and openly bewildered by their lack of skill. For an institution which was once headed by Reynolds and is decorated by Kauffman, one has to feel that the decline in standards is worrying. 

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