Christopher Allen reviews the Royal Academy’s Bendigo show
Genius and Ambition: The Royal Academy of Arts, 1768-1918 Bendigo Art Gallery to June 9
THERE was no intrinsic or even etymologically plausible reason for schools of art to be called academies; the explanation is historical and takes several detours through a picturesque sociocultural landscape. And the original Academy was an actual location: an olive grove outside Athens, where Plato met with his pupils in the 4th century BC. His successors came to be known as Academics in the same way that those of Zeno, who taught in the Stoa Poikile — the painted porch — came to be called Stoics.
Medieval philosophy was dominated by Aristotelianism, but the Renaissance rediscovered neo-Platonism, first at the Florentine court of the Medici and then around Italy. In this context, learned societies and scholarly clubs came to call themselves academies, and in the spirit of 16th-century mannerist culture, many had eccentric and paradoxical names. Some of these old academies, such as the Arcadians or the Lincei — the lynxes — still exist.
The connection with art reflects the changing status of the artist in the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, as we so often hear it said, artists were considered as craftsmen. This can be misunderstood today, for the status of craftsmen was higher than it subsequently became, and far more professions were considered crafts in this sense. Nonetheless, the Renaissance came to view painting and sculpture and architecture as belonging among the “liberal arts” rather than the crafts, which meant activities using the work of the mind were more important than that of the hand. Giants such as Michelangelo or Titian were regularly called divine in their lifetimes.
In this context associations of artists appeared in Florence and Rome and also called themselves academies. Since they upheld the view that it was the intellectual part of the activity that gave art its nobility, these clubs devoted much of their time to speculation. As a result, the late 16th century was a time of unprecedented theoretical inflation, against which the following generation reacted with an aversion to theory.
Mannerist art too suffered from an inflation of self-referentiality, and the next generation, represented by Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio, demanded a new rigour in observing the natural world. Annibale and his brother and cousin founded an art studio and school in Bologna that they called an academy, redefining it in accordance with a curriculum based on the mastery of drawing.
But the direct predecessor of all modern art schools, though itself inspired by the Carracci tradition, arose in Paris, where the practice of painting was still dominated by the medieval system: boys were trained by being apprenticed to masters and eventually could become masters themselves when accredited by the guild. It was a sound system in many respects, ensuring quality control and maintaining an orderly market without overcrowding. But, like state education bureaucracies today, it was inherently narrow-minded, preferred mediocre competence to genius, and was hostile to the more independent spirit of the Renaissance artist.
It was still illegal to practise as a painter in Paris in the first half of the 17th century unless you held the guild ticket. The main exceptions were for artists employed on direct commission by the crown, and even then they generally had to live somewhere, like a palace or a monastic complex, that was outside the jurisdiction of the municipality: many artists were thus given studios and accommodation at the Louvre.
The guild resented the number of exemptions that had been granted and took advantage of the weakened central government during the regency that followed the death of Louis XIII in 1643 to try to limit the number of royal appointments. But the attack backfired because the independent artists decided to form themselves into an academy and ask the government to grant blanket exemption to all its members. This proposal appealed to the prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, and the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was founded under his patronage in 1648. Subsequently, under Louis XIV and his minister Colbert, its power was greatly enhanced and eventually the guild painters themselves were compelled to join if they wanted to eligible for royal commissions.
The academy was thus originally a professional organisation, but it also had an important educational role, based centrally on the mastery of drawing, together with teaching of perspective, anatomy and other theoretical subjects. What the academy did not originally teach was the studio practice of each art. This was still in effect imparted through the apprenticeship system: the pupil spent the day in the master’s studio learning painting or sculpture, then assisting the master in real projects.
Students attended the academy in the evening for drawings, starting with copying drawings and prints, then working from the cast, and finally drawing from life. It was only later in the 19th century that the studio practices were also brought into the academy, and that was the be-
ginning of the modern art school, which was finally completely cut loose from the making of art in a real world and existed in its own parallel dimension.
Italy was in the vanguard of early modern art; France was catching up in the 17th century, aided by the enormous political and economic power of the regime of Louis XIV, and then England — after the setback of the revolution and the rule of the art-hating Puritans — followed suit in the 18th century. Thus it was 120 years after Paris that London founded its own Royal Academy in 1768, under the presidency of Joshua Reynolds, whose eloquent Discourses, originally composed for the annual prize ceremonies between 1769 and 1790, constitute the last great work of early modern and pre-romantic art theory.
The history of the Royal Academy during its first 1½ centuries, from 1768 to 1918, is told in a remarkable exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery, which is the direct result of a relationship established by the gallery’s director, Karen Quinlan, with the academy. In Australia the exhibition will be seen only in Bendigo, then will leave for a tour of four museums in Japan. Its accompanying catalogue contains useful essays on the history of the institution and its pedagogy, as well as a separate study by Tansy Curtin on the Australian artists who showed at the academy during the period covered by the exhibition.
Works by these Australians form a kind of coda to the British material that makes up most of the exhibition, consisting largely of the diploma pictures presented to the academy on admission as a member. These paintings, in their different subjects and styles, naturally reflect certain changes in taste, social vision and aesthetic standards during the course of a period that spans the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras.
It is surprising, for example, to see so few examples of history painting, traditionally the highest genre in the academic hierarchy, not only because it is concerned with the human figure and thus with the human narratives that are of the greatest interest as subjects but also because it contains within itself the other genres, of landscape, animal painting and still life.
Here there is one conspicuous history painting at the opening of the exhibition, The Trib-
ute Money (1782) by John Singleton Copley, the American academician. Particularly interesting in this painting is the way Christ’s features are modelled on those of the Apollo Belvedere, yet the moist eyes and shiny lips recall Rubens. More generally, the picture recalls the academic debate, the paragone, about the relative merits of painting and sculpture.
Only a few years later, Fuseli has a characteristically hyperbolic vision of the battle between Thor and the Midgard Serpent, reflecting the northern cultural nationalism of the romantic period, and in this case the desire to find a Germanic equivalent for a Greek myth such as the battle of Zeus and Typhon or Apollo and the Python at Delphi.
Many later images show the transformation of history painting, for the benefit of a less cultivated Victorian middle-class audience, into sentimental or moralising genre pictures, and its survival into brooding, suggestive but barely narrative images such as Waterhouse’s charming and anatomically improbable A Mermaid (1900). Many fine landscapes reveal the other direction in which British art evolved, none more memorable than those of Constable, augmented by the extraordinary oil sketches given to the academy by his daughter Isobel a half century after his death.
As interesting as the paintings are the various supporting materials, above all prints and drawings that illustrate the artist’s training. A watercolour by Burney from about 1780 shows students drawing in the Antique Room at the academy’s new quarters in Somerset House. This was the room in which the Port Jackson Painter must have attended drawing classes as part of his training as a naval officer, for in the middle is the cast of the Pergamese Dying Gaul that he came to know so well that, a decade or so later, he drew the Aboriginal victim of a tribal payback spearing in the same attitude.
The most precious casts are assembled in another room, represented in a group portrait of the academicians under the presidency of Benjamin West — another American — in 1790. Today, the untrained eye recognises perhaps only the Laocoon, but the Belvedere Torso is on the left, the Borghese Gladiator in the background, and both the Medici Venus and the Apollo Belvedere on the right.
The academicians stand surrounded by a canon of ancient art that, as Elizabeth Prettejohn pointed out in her brilliant book The Mod
ernity of Ancient Sculpture, was about to be revolutionised by the discovery of the Parthenon sculptures (at the British Museum by 1816) and a series of other lost masterpieces.
On the wall to the upper right we can make out the self-portrait of Joshua Reynolds, reproduced in a fine print included in the exhibition. Here too there is a significant dialogue between figure and sculpture, for the bust is that of the artist whom Reynolds most revered, who stood for the highest ambitions of art, a standard held up to but never realised by the Royal Academy, and the name that Reynolds expressly chose to be the last word he uttered in the Discourses: Michelangelo.
At Torre Gall: Ladies in a Garden (1910) by John Singer Sargent
A Mermaid (1900) by John William Waterhouse, far left; Self-portrait with Gladioli (1922) by George Lambert