Christo­pher Allen re­views the Royal Academy’s Bendigo show

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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

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