Royal Academy – The Sackler Gallery
Until 11 March 2018
The Royal Academy Schools is not only the oldest art school in Britain, having taken in its first pupils in 1769, it is still one of the few art institutions that hold life drawing classes. As the Academy celebrates 250 years since George III used a personal act to promote the arts of design through education and exhibition, it looks back on the significance and development of drawing directly from the human body; a discipline sadly not taught in the manifold colleges around the country. Having drawn in the life drawing room at the RA on a number of occasions, one immediately absorbs a sense of both place and history, surrounded as one is by plaster casts of Greco-Roman sculptures, busts, skeletons, life-size horses, and even a cast of the crucified body of a flayed murderer, known as an ‘écorché’. Amongst some of the earlier students were Sir John Flaxman, the Neoclassical sculptor and draughtsman, J M W Turner, Sir John Soane, who became professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, Thomas Rowlandson, William Blake, Sir Thomas Lawrence, John Constable, George Hayter, who became Queen Victoria’s Principal Painter in Ordinary, Sir David Wilkie, a Scottish portraitist, William Etty and Sir Edwin Landseer, who combined both the graphic and the plastic arts, and was a great favourite of the royal family.
When Zoffany painted the entire Academy, he portrayed them all sitting around chatting, while the first Keeper of the RA Schools, Michael Moser, posed as the model. His daughter Mary, along with Angelica Kauffman, a Swiss Neoclassical history painter, were founder members of the RA, but due to modesty and moral propriety, they were not depicted as part of the group in the presence of a naked man, but portrayed as paintings hanging on the studio wall. After Moser’s death in 1819, no further women were elected as full members of the Academy until Dame Laura Knight in 1936. No female students were enrolled at the Schools until 1860, when L Herford was admitted, the then Keeper thinking they were electing a male student, not realising ‘his’ name was Laura.
This part of the exhibition is of historical interest, but the rest of it is a bit of a shambles adding little to the debate about whether it is right to have life drawing taught at art schools, or not. One entire gallery is devoted to the work of twenty or so students from the New York Academy of Art instigated by Jeremy Deller, drawing the scrawny rock star musician Iggy Pop. The results range from bad, to worse, and one wondered what else the RA had to offer. Well, more work from RAs it transpired, including Gillian Ayres, Humphrey Ocean, Chantele Joffe, Jenny Saville, Yinka Shonibare and Antony Gormley. There is a shabby excuse for a drawing by Lucian Freud, which is almost an insult to visitors forking out fourteen quid, while Jonathan Yeo’s 3D self portrait leaves one wondering why, other than to publicise Google’s program ‘Tilt Brush’.
The explanatory graphic panels are painstakingly hand-drawn in graphite, rendering them all but unreadable, and the same applies to the picture captions, which become more irritating as the Exhibition grinds on. Even the little booklet handed out has an annoying cuteness, with its ‘handwritten’ text and over-designed and unnecessary half -trimmed pages. To cap it all, there is a VR experience in the Tennant Gallery on the first floor, which adds nothing to the visit, other than valuable time taken up with queuing. The whole conceit is of one of the slightest exhibitions ever staged in the Sackler Gallery, home to many fine shows in the past. These Include Daumier’s ‘Visions of Paris’, ‘Watteau drawings’,’ George Bellows’, ‘John Zoffany’, ‘The Glasgow Boys’,’ the Scottish colourists’, ‘Sargent and the Sea’,’Vilhelm Hammershoi’ and ‘William Nicholson’, all gems in their own right. This is a tired, piss-poor travesty in comparison, particularly in the RA’s 250th anniversary year.