London's Gigantic Village Fete

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

London's Gigantic Village Fete


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


Exhibitions Summer Exhibition

(Royal Academy, till 17 August)

These are heady days of reform. The House of Lords is to be shorn of its hereditary contingent, lounge suits have been worn at the Mansion House, there will be a parliament in Edinburgh, the Cabinet use Christian names. Was it too much to hope, many of us art critics secretly wondered, for another archaic - almost feudal institution to be modernised with Blairite brutality? Or, even, a yet more seductive thought, for it to be abolished altogether?

But no, in defiance of the spirit of the times, the 229th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition has opened very much as usual. There is no real reason for its existence: the days when it provided a vital and rare opportunity for major artists to exhibit had passed a century ago. It stands for nothing, a shambling Anglo-Saxon compromise whereby the amateur, the mainstream and the mildly avantgarde all co-exist together under the same roof and nobody shows to advantage. It just carries on for no rational reason except that things have always been done this way - just as the British constitution used to.

The failure of the Summer Exhibition to be reformed or done away with simply proves that art critics do not constitute a minority worth cultivating. The general public seems perfectly happy with the Summer Exhibition as it is - though, of course, one might say the same for the House of Lords.

In fact, on closer inspection, the Summer Exhibition is not quite the same as usual. In places, it is quite significantly better hung, the pictures spread out and given more space. Although, for the most part, the actual content of the show is unaltered.

When trying to come to terms with this vast, intimidating melange of the good, the bad, the indifferent and the unbelievably terrible, one tends, I find, to respond at first to the overall look of each room. So, on entering a room of small to medium nondescript-coloured paintings, one feels a bit weary and hurries on through. In a room full of slightly brighter, slightly larger pieces, the spirits lift - even though they may be no better as art.

In the second stage, willy-nilly, you find yourself liking this and that - though generally not very much. More than a conventional exhibition, it resembles a gigantic village fate. This, I suspect, is why the public enjoys the Summer Exhibition - it gives everybody the chance to be a critic, pick out some item and, possibly, buy it. On the other hand, that also is why critics do not like the Summer Exhibition. Writing something along the lines of, 'I especially took to the third picture in the bottom row on the left in Room IX' scarcely makes for a snappy piece.

Somebody who has little liking for London critics is the painter R.B. Kitaj. Last year he exhibited a piece called `The Critic Kills'; this year he puts that idea into reverse with a picture showing a monstrous critic's head being shot by a firing squad manned by a soldier who looks a little like Edouard Manet, and a little like Kitaj himself. This, together with another painting, and various collaged bits and pieces, takes up a whole wall of the Royal Academy, collectively entitled `Sandra Three' (and priced at fl million). Kitaj's contention is that his wife's death was triggered by the ferocious critical response to his exhibition at the Tate three years ago.

I have a good deal of sympathy for Kitaj in this. His show was certainly treated with quite uncalled for and undeserved venom. On the other hand, I cannot believe - as he seems to - that those attacks were the result of a conspiracy, still less antiSemitism. No conspiracy is probable in an activity such as art criticism, where inability to agree about anything is a key professional qualification. From the receiving end, however, the series of independent, badtempered reviews no doubt seemed like a fusillade of hate.

However that may be, Kitaj's piece strikes an unusually passionate note in the equably dotty environment of the Summer Exhibition. …

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