Daubers and Barbarians Rush in Where Hogarth Feared to Tread

By Johnson, Paul | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Daubers and Barbarians Rush in Where Hogarth Feared to Tread


Johnson, Paul, The Spectator


When I first visited the Royal Academy in the 1940s it was the heyday of Sir Alf Munnings, the last president who was a painter of distinction, an outsize personality and a national figure. The Academy was a dark, dingy and quiet place in those days. Nothing much went on, or so it seemed. Today it is a hub of fashionable activity. It is always full of people. There are crowded exhibitions, some of them, it is true, of dubious quality and one or two notorious disasters. But there are a lot of them anyway. The Friends and Patrons and so forth are active and munificent. A tasteful room is reserved for the Friends where you can have a nice cup of tea and cakes. Agreed, there was some trouble over money, but all that has now been put right. The bookshop is excellent, busy and coins money. In some ways indeed Burlington House is a delightful place to visit compared with those dark days when Munnings ruled and fumed. The only trouble today is that the paintings which most RAs produce and the ones they select to exhibit in their annual summer show are no good at all. No, that is an understatement. They are absolutely dreadful.

The catastrophe which has threatened the RA ever since it abandoned its trust and sold the pass over `modern art' has now taken place. The annual show had been growing slowly worse for decades. Now it has suddenly tumbled into the abyss. The current show contains no portrait of the smallest distinction, no decent landscape, unless you count Robert Newell's formidable watercolour-gouache of Welsh rocks to be such, no genre painting of the least interest, no Problem Picture you want to scrutinise, no swagger or virtuosity, nothing to astonish by its power or imagination. The RA has always, since its inception, underdisplayed watercolours, the one medium in which England has led the world. But until recently the watercolourists still provided the best, if crowded, part of the show. Now the ones who are any good exhibit elsewhere; they are sick of being associated with trash. There are only three works in the entire show I would give houseroom to and not one I would actually buy. I hate to say this, but the standard of the Summer Exhibition is now no better some would say worse - than the repetitive mass-production on display in the Bayswater Road on Sunday.

There are a few RAs who are still competent, like Ken Howard, but they churn out stuff we have all seen before. Competition to excel or innovate or break barriers is non-existent. Some members have gone dramatically downhill. The RA did R.B. Kitaj no favour by giving him a whole wall to prove that his talent is exhausted, and display his bad temper at critics for pointing it out. Poor David Hockney, whom I admire enormously as an artist and a person, shows a still-life so pitiful in execution that I could not bear to look at it for more than a few seconds. All the foul vultures of appeasement, betrayal and cowardice have finally come home to roost. The RAs, it seems to me - most of them anyway - no longer know how to paint a good picture themselves or how to distinguish between a good and a bad one when produced by anyone else. It is the final nemesis of official English art. If the Queen had any sense or taste, she would withdraw the royal prefix and turn the Academy loose to fend for itself. That is certainly what George III, who helped the founders to set it up, subsidised it, and knew a thing or two, would have done. …

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