The opening of the Royal Academy marks the beginning of the Season, the first step along a path made pleasant by such names as Epsom, Covent Garden, Lord's, Henley, Ascot and Eton.
To some people, this light-hearted whirl of pleasure is out of place. It smacks too much of privileged wealth and aristocratic tradition. These tub-thumpers of social equality overlook the fact that many of the out-of-door functions that form the Season are enjoyed by all sorts of people, rich and poor, proletariat and bourgeois, idle rich and all. If these events only enabled the fortunate to sun themselves in their good fortune, the Season would wither and die. But, as I have stressed already, this carnival of radiant youth and mature experience persists. It circles round the Royal Courts and draws to a close at Goodwood in July. It is an integral part of our social background.
The Royal Academy is a happy choice as the forerunner of this pageantry. It is an extremely popular institution . . . quite different from any other kind of artistic body . . . that fits naturally in an atmosphere which welcomes the Opera, the Derby, Eton and Harrow. Just as Piccadilly is more than a street, so the Academy is more than an exhibition of works of art. It is the common meeting ground of the people in their search for aesthetic satisfaction. The exhibition begins on a suave note with the sleek smartness of the private view ... a delightful artificial fafade of convention embellished by the warmth of connoisseurs, the veneer of idle gossip, gentle slander, and casual looks* This selective air gives way to the more robust atmosphere of the first public day. The brass turnstiles click continuously and spill into crowded galleries an extraordinary cross-section of the community. Long-haired curiosities who might be either sex . . * slim young women with pretty faces and shapeless clothes that somehow hold together . . . frustrated spinsters armed with a smattering of artistic jargon ... an occasional bizarre creature resplendent in what is intended to reflect the fashions of the previous day . . . fragile white-haired Victorian ladies who handle their catalogues with a gracious touch ... an army of inarticulate men inveigled into Burlington House by feminine charm. The blending is remarkable, something like the spirit of Chelsea on Ascot Heath. The onlooker drifts on a wave of artistic generalities and studio heartiness. Even the graceful young woman who can always be found sitting about somewhere without her clothes looks quietly amused as she surveys us from an ornate picture frame, closely guarded by a still-life from Cornwall, the promenade at Brighton replete with seagulls, waves and trippers, and a commissioned portrait of a municipal councillor who looks a trifle uneasy about the nakedness of his attractive neighbour.
It is all so familiar, a familiarity both dangerous and misleading. The layman reads into the exhibition a significance that was never originally intended by the founder. To be an exhibitor does not confer the title of a good artist. Conversely, to be excluded is not a disgrace. The idea that exclusion places a stigma upon an artist's skill is due to the erroneous belief that to be hung at the Royal Academy carries with it a diploma of artistic merit. This is not the case. A modicum of technical proficiency, at times not always apparent, is more than sufficient to qualify, with the additional good fortune of not being "crowded out" by being the wrong shape, size, or colour scheme. A common fallacy about the Royal Academy is that it is representative of contemporary English art. It is only necessary to scan the names of those associated with contemporary artistic works in this country to realize the omissions. The Academy is not necessarily responsible for these absentees, but an exhibition that leaves out artists of distinction cannot be called fully representative.
A clique has for long considered it the correct thing to be rude to the Royal Academy. In many ways the tilts are justified. Even the friendly critic has to admit an unimaginative solidity that suggests Browning's " 'Garniture and household stuff". At its best the Academy picture is dull and ordinary. Occasionally some intensification of colour and broadening of touch lifts a picture out of the rut of convention. But, on the whole, it is solid, comfortable stuff, fundamentally conservative, and in keeping with the pronouncement of W. R. M, Lamb, its Secretary for over thirty years, . . . "To keep the main body of art alive, through regular intercourse with the perceptions and feelings of ordinary people who must be familiar with the normal forms before they can appreciate the strange fruits of experiment is one great duty of the Royal Academy." The advice has been well followed. The hanging committee might be likened to the bishop who counselled his ordinands: "Always be true to your convictions; in nine cases out of ten they will be right. Never give your reasons; in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they will be wrong."
Such devotion to conviction is laudable in a narrow sense. But it is regrettable that the continuous growth of popular interest in artistic matters should be instructed in such limited fashion. The Royal Academy shares in the work of educating people in a sense of beauty, and of showing that in a nation greatness and ugliness cannot go together. Art does not mean merely the making of pictures and statues for the delectation of the few. The Arts should be regarded as an important and necessary factor in our national life. The layman confesses that he knows nothing about art, but he knows what he likes. The instinct is natural. Everyone is born with the potentialities of artistic appreciation. Degrees vary. Few attain that delicate aware- ness described by Blake as being able "to see the world in a grain of sand. And heaven in a wild flower". And yet the suggestion is there. The colour scheme of a woman's ensemble,, the deft touch in arranging flowers, the lay-out of a garden by a man these are the actions of an artist, only the latter translates his reactions on a canvas.
The layman is conscious of this inner artistic feeling. He enjoys the Royal Academy as the visible expression of this urge. The introvert sees himself as an extrovert. But, knowing nothing of the basic principles of aesthetic evaluation, informed compari- son is impossible. The Royal Academy glorifies the contemporary, and at times the works are pleasing and of high merit, but, judged by the truism that there is only good and bad art, what is hung leaves much to be desired. A ready appreciation of con- temporary art is a healthy sign, but alongside should be placed an awareness of what has gone before, a knowledge of the Masters and the masterpieces that preceded the foundation of English art. Few people have this background. The tragedy is that evidence of this gradual evolution of artistic greatness is in London for all to see, only, like Pilate, the layman hurries past and refuses to look at truth.
The National Gallery is laden with richness. All the stepping stones are there to bridge the centuries. The exquisite "John Arnolfini and his Wife" painted by John Van Eyck with the eye of a miniaturist, takes us back to the fourteenth century. The expressive beauty of the "Virgin of the Rock" reflects the touch of Leonardo da Vinci. Compare it with the icy loveliness of Botticelli's "Madonna and Child". The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were cluttered with artists of genius. The art was unknown in France, Spain and England. The spotlight alternated between Italy and the Netherlands. Michelangelo dominated the scene. Two of his unfinished works are in the National Gallery. Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese are also represented. Raphael's "Ansidei Madonna" that defies criticism ought to be studied. It was bought from the Duke of Marlborough in 1884 for the then record figure of .70,000. These names mark the close of the Italian dynasty. Spain comes next to the forefront, headed by El Greco. The aesthetic-looking "Luigi Cornaro" is a good example of his work. Then such illustrious names as Rubens; Frans Hals; Claude; Rembrandt; Velasquez, court painter to Philip IV of Spain; Van Dyck, the master of graceful refinement, who took the English Court by storm; Jan Steen, boisterous and often coarse.
The forthright advent of the brusque William Hogarth, born 1697, marked the first British painter of note. England had entered the painting world. Hogarth is well represented in the National Gallery. Sir Joshua Reynolds was born twenty-five years later. He was a grave figure of courtly mannerisms. He founded the "Literary Club" with such members as Garrick, Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke, Boswell, Sheridan, Walpole, and Gibbon. He immortalized the appearance and mannerisms of the society of his day in his paintings. On icth December, 1786, the Royal Academy came into being. Joshua Reynolds was asked to be the first President.
The portraits of Gainsborough are unrivalled. He portrayed the gaiety and beauty of English women with a feathery vivacity. His dream-like idyll called "The Mall" drew from Horace Walpole the remark: "It is all in motion and in a flutter like a lady's fan." The essence of daintiness is expressed in Sir Thomas Lawrence's "Pinkie", the nymph-like child study sold for 77,700 in 1926. To this galaxy of talent must be added the pioneer eighteenth- and nineteenth-century landscape painters Wilson. Old Crome. Constable, and Turner. Whistler, of pure beauty. Pre-Raphaelitism and its founders Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Millais, and Holman Hunt. Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse ... the list is almost endless, but in time it halts alongside the present exhibitors as the Royal Academy speeds the Season on its fanciful way.
LONDON SEASON, LOUIS T. STANLEY [As Written]
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