Royal academy

Insipid show of a weak painter: Angelica Kauffman, at the Royal Academy, reviewed

Angelica Kauffman’s funeral in Rome in 1807 was designed by her friend Canova on the model of Raphael’s. The corpse of ‘the great Woman, the always illustrious holy and most pious… was accompanied to the Church by two very numerous Brotherhoods… followed by the rest of the Academicians & Virtuosi who carried in triumph two of her Pictures’. At the Royal Academy in London, the account of her obsequies was read out at the general assembly and entered in the minutes; as a founding member of the institution – one of only two women so honoured, with Mary Moser – Kauffman was gone, but not forgotten. Kauffman was a decorative

The shock of the nude

Early in the 16th century, Fra Bartolomeo painted an altarpiece of St Sebastian for the church of San Marco in Florence. Though stuck full of arrows, the martyr was, according to Vasari, distinctly good-looking in this picture: ‘sweet in countenance, and likewise executed with corresponding beauty of person’. By and by the friars of San Marco discovered through the confessional that this image was giving rise to ‘light and evil thoughts’ among women in the congregation. It was removed and eventually sold to the King of France (who was presumably less bothered by that sort of thing). So even during the heyday of Michelangelo and Raphael depictions of human bodies

An extraordinary woman: The Art of Lucy Kemp-Welch, at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, reviewed

In March 1913 two horse painters met at the Lyceum Club to discuss the establishment of a Society of Animal Painters to raise the profile of their genre. Of the two, it was Alfred Munnings whose profile needed raising. Lucy Kemp-Welch had been a celebrity since her twenties when her 5x10ft canvas ‘Colt Hunting in the New Forest’ caused a sensation at the 1897 RA Summer Exhibition and was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the new National Gallery of British Art on Millbank. She threw herself into every activity she depicted, whether rounding up colts or hauling timber The daughter of a Bournemouth solicitor, Kemp-Welch had been riding and

Joshua Reynolds’s revival

In front of the banner advertising the RA Summer Exhibition, the swagger statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) by Alfred Drury stands garlanded with flowers. But the Academy he founded won’t be marking his tercentenary with a retrospective, just a small display and a series of artists’ lectures. For an anniversary show, you have to travel to his native Devon. Ever since the Pre-Raphaelites dubbed him ‘Sir Sloshua’, Reynolds has been out of fashion Ever since the Pre-Raphaelites dubbed him ‘Sir Sloshua’, Joshua Reynolds has been out of fashion: blame the outmoded ideals of beauty he promoted in his Discourses and his role as portraitist to the Georgian establishment. But

Brilliant and distinctive but also relentless: William Kentridge, at the RA, reviewed

William Kentridge’s work has a way of sticking in the mind. I can remember all my brief encounters with it, from my first delighted sight of one of his charcoal-drawn animations, ‘Monument’ (1990), in the Whitechapel’s 2004 exhibition Faces in the Crowd to my awestruck confrontation with his eight-channel video installation I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) in Tate Modern’s Tanks in 2012. That marked a high point for the Tanks, since when they’ve tanked. Kentridge’s is a face you don’t forget, partly because it often appears in his own animations in the guise of his beaky alter ego Soho Eckstein, partly because of the trademark

As cool and refreshing as a selection of sorbets: RA’s Milton Avery show reviewed

‘I like the way he puts on paint,’ Milton Avery said about Matisse in 1953, but that was as much as he was prepared to say. Contemporary critics tried to ‘pin Matisse’ on him as if art criticism were a branch of police work. He resisted, and remains a slippery customer. Post-impressionist or abstract expressionist? Colour field painter with added figures? To those who view art history as the march of progress towards modernism, he looks like a backslider. Clement Greenberg thought as much, dismissing him in 1943 as ‘a “light” modern who can produce offspring of Marie Laurencin and Matisse that are empty and sweet with nice flat areas

His final paintings are like Jackson Pollocks: RA’s Late Constable reviewed

On 13 July 1815, John Constable wrote to his fiancée, Maria Bicknell, about this and that. Interspersed with a discussion of the fine weather and the lack of village gossip, he added a disclaimer on the subject posterity would most like to hear about: his art. ‘You know that I do not like to talk of what I am about in painting (I am such a conjuror).’ Perhaps by that he meant he did not like to give away how he did his tricks. As Late Constable, the magnificent exhibition currently at the Royal Academy, makes clear, he was a true magician with paintbrush and palette. Before your eye he

How I was stitched up by the Royal Academy

Recently I found myself cancelled by the Royal Academy. It was a strange affair, and this is how it happened. I’m an artist who makes a living out of creating intricate hand-embroidered portraits and flowers. I was working in my garden one afternoon last month when a glance at Instagram took me aback. My friend Laura was defending me against… well, I didn’t quite understand who or what. Laura was at work and couldn’t talk, so it was only later that evening that I began to realise what was going on. It turned out that some keyboard warriors had mounted a witch-hunt against me with the intention of getting me

Why the Royal Academy is wrong to consider selling their precious Michelangelo

How much does a Michelangelo cost? It is, as they say, a good question, meaning: nobody really knows. The reason for this odd state of affairs is that almost none of them have ever been bought and sold on the open market, which is how the prices of most things are established. It’s hard to think of many examples of his sculptures being traded in that way over the past 500 years. Strangely, the main exception is the ‘Taddei Tondo’, otherwise known as ‘Virgin and Child with the Infant St John’, which, reportedly, some members of the Royal Academy are suggesting the RA should sell. If that were to happen,

We’re wrong to think the impressionists were chocolate boxy

One Sunday evening in the autumn of 1888 Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin went for a walk. They headed out of Arles into the countryside and when they looked back towards town they saw a sunset so splendid that each was inspired to paint a masterpiece. One of these, Gauguin’s painting bearing the timely title ‘Human Misery’, is among the star exhibits in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. All the works in this show come from a delightful small museum in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen, housed in the early 20th-century mansion from which it takes its name, Ordrupgaard. This was the dwelling of Wilhelm Hansen (1868–1936),

Keeping it real | 4 July 2019

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) was a member of the Nabis (the Prophets), a problematically loose agglomeration of painters, inspired by Gauguin and Émile Bernard, the school of Pont-Aven. Broadly speaking, this entailed an alleged allegiance to spirituality and anti-naturalistic flat colour. The Nabis — a secret group moniker —were heterogeneous, a broad church that seldom sang from the same hymn sheet. As we can see from Vallotton’s inadvertently emblematic ‘The Five Painters’ (1902–3): Vallotton stands to the left and Ker-Xavier Roussel stands to the right. Below, seated, are Bonnard, Vuillard and Charles Cottet.  Like many group paintings, it is an identity parade of posed and wooden mugshots. It is formally incoherent.

Privates on parade | 28 February 2019

‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ If there’s an exception to prove Shaw’s rule, it’s Phyllida Barlow. The 40 years the sculptor spent teaching at the Slade, where her pupils included Rachel Whiteread, have not only left her creative energies intact, but completely failed to keep a lid on them. After turning Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries into a cross between a lumberyard and an enchanted forest in 2014, then filling the British Pavilion to bursting point at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the septuagenarian who can conjure a sculptural wonderland from the contents of your local branch of Travis Perkins has been let loose on the Royal Academy’s Gabrielle

The odd couple | 31 January 2019

The joint exhibition of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Bill Viola at the Royal Academy is, at first glance, an extremely improbable double act. Viola is one of the contemporary-art stars of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. He was one of the first to achieve fame in the new medium of video art, and is still its best-known exponent. While Michelangelo, as they say in showbusiness, needs no introduction. But there’s more to this bromance, across eras and continents, between a 16th-century Florentine and a contemporary Californian than might immediately be apparent. The more you think about the pairing, and follow the argument of the curator Martin Clayton, the more

Lost in the Pacific

At six in the morning of 20 July 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson first set eyes on a Pacific Island. As the sun rose, the land ‘heaved up in peaks and rising vales’. The colours of the scene ‘ran through fifty modulations in a scale of pearl and rose and olive’, rising into ‘opalescent clouds’. The whole effect was a ‘suffusion of vague hues’ shimmering so that mountain slopes were hard to distinguish from the cloud canopy above. Oceania, the new exhibition at the Royal Academy devoted to the region’s arts and cultures, is almost as beautiful as that dawn landscape, and just about as difficult to make out with any

Academic questions

What is the Royal Academy? This question set me thinking as I wandered through the crowds that celebrated the opening of the RA’s new, greatly extended building. After all, there is nothing else quite like this institution anywhere else in the world. It was a terrific party: a mêlée of artists, journalists, politicians and media types such as I have not seen since the inauguration of Tate Modern 18 years ago (with the unexpected addition of DJs and high-volume music). The whole gang was there, and rightly so. This is a significant addition to the amenities of London, including, among other things, two new suites of galleries at 6 Burlington

Crown jewels | 25 January 2018

Peter Paul Rubens thought highly of Charles I’s art collection. ‘When it comes to fine pictures by the hands of first-class masters,’ he wrote from London in 1629, ‘I have never seen such a large number in one place.’ In Charles I: King and Collector the Royal Academy has reassembled only a fraction of what the king once owned, yet even so this is a sumptuous feast of an exhibition. Some of what’s on show will be familiar to an assiduous British art-lover, since it comes from the Royal Collection and the National Gallery. But the sheer concentration of visual splendour is overwhelming and the installation spectacular. The Renaissance, like

It’s the thought that counts

During a panel discussion in 1949, Frank Lloyd Wright made an undiplomatic comment about Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated picture of 1912, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2’, in the presence of the artist. ‘I am sure he doesn’t himself regard it as a great picture now.’ At this Duchamp bridled, exclaiming in his excellent English, ‘I beg your pardon, sir!’ However, the architect had a point, as the exhibition Dalí/Duchamp at the Royal Academy bears out. I came away from it reflecting that Duchamp wasn’t a very good painter. This is not the point, obviously, that the RA intended to make. The idea was to reveal how much this improbable pair

Object lesson | 3 August 2017

Why did Henri Matisse not play chess? It’s a question, perhaps, that few have ever pondered. Yet the great artist provided an answer, which is quoted in the catalogue to Matisse in the Studio, a marvellous new exhibition at the Royal Academy. He did not care, he explained, ‘to play with signs that never change’. It’s a revealing reason in several ways. For one thing, it underlines how different Matisse was from his younger contemporary Marcel Duchamp: the most celebrated chess-player in art. Duchamp loved logic, so his work tended to turn into a series of theorems. Matisse, in contrast, lived and worked in a beautiful muddle, surrounded by clutter

Paradise lost | 9 March 2017

The American dream was a consumerist idyll: all of life was to be packaged, stylised, affordable and improvable. Three bedrooms, two-point-five children, two cars and one mortgage. The sense was first caught by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835–40), where he talks about a people more excited by success than fearful of failure. We all know when the dream died: on 9 November 2016. People in Brooklyn were crying. In Manhattan they couldn’t breathe. A national angst had been revealed: the land of plenty had become the land of the plenty cross. But when did the dream start? There was the Jeffersonian trinity of life, liberty and the

American psyche

The latest exhibition at the Royal Academy is entitled America after the Fall. It deals with painting in the United States during the 1930s: that is, the decade before the tidal surge of abstract expressionism. So this show is a sort of prequel to the RA’s great ab ex blockbuster of last autumn. It might have been called, ‘Before Jackson Began Dripping’. Not much in this selection, though, can compare to the power of the abstract expressionists at their peak in the Forties and Fifties — not even an early work by Pollock himself. But it does include a couple of masterpieces by Edward Hopper, plus several pictures so brashly