Head down to Piccadilly and then stroll along to Burlington House only to discover the erection of an unhappy interloper sited awkwardly within the central space of its beautifully proportioned car park piazza. Yes, once again, the Royal Academy’s decorators have come up with another entertaining way to clutter up the courtyard entrance to their Palladian spread and also successfully block the view of their first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose sculptural form would otherwise be seen to be standing proudly on a pedestal welcoming visitors to his recently refurbished mansion. Evidently the architects in charge of the 250th birthday renovation project forgot to allocate any rooms for the current President to use as his live-in residence and hence the necessity for the external siting of this additional lodgment facility.
Well, that was my first thought but a closer inspection reveals that this creepy creaking curiosity, this seriously distressed, clapped out clapboard construction that I think might best be described as a sort of Neo-Gothic-American-Vernacular-Post-Modernistic pastiche is, in fact, all just a facile wooden façade. It’s not a new home at all but a simple studio prop propped up by scaffolding poles – less an architectural accommodation than an artistic conceit of the conceptual kind. At which point I feel the urge to ponder what exactly might be the conceptual foundations upon which rests this elaborate edifice. And, frankly, they seem to me to be structurally shaky with its creator, Cornelia Parker, apparently unable to suggest much more than the fact that the construction looks a bit like the house where Bates and his mother lived in the Hitchcock film Psycho which, in turn, was inspired by a building from an Edward Hopper painting entitled House by the Railroad. Oh well, at least it provides a suitably eye catching background for a selfie-shot, which is perhaps the most important criteria for judging the success of any large scale public artwork these days.
As for the main reason for my coming to the Academy today, that’s the exhibition in the Sackler Wing where, having bounded my way up the frosted glass backstairs, I arrive panting in anticipation. Although, since some of the items in the current display, might be considered to be situated at the more boldly lubricious end of the artistic spectrum, where anatomical life studies having teetered through tasteful forms of erotica finally cross over the threshold into the prurient pathways of pornographia, I decide to pause, regain my breath and generally compose myself before barging my way into the show. And even though I’m known for my broad-minded attitudes towards the more expressionistically explicit areas of figurative representation and well acquainted with the works of both Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, to whose drawings this exhibitions is specifically dedicated, some of the work on show still make me gasp – though not so much for the content as the form. The thing is, I’d forgotten just how stunningly impressive a draughtsman and colourist Schiele could be, and not just when capturing the curves and angles of one of his sprawling models but also when carefully delineating the petals on a blooming chrysanthemum head or recording the patterned topology of the fields spread out across an autumnal Austrian countryside.
Klimt, of course, was no slouch either when it came to dashing off a drawing, and an early study of a reclining Romeo confirms he had a real technical mastery of the academic style. But, with the exception of this particular sketch, there’s simply nothing else in the later, more looser symbolistically developed work, that comes across as anywhere near as powerful as the stunners on show here from his colleague and erstwhile student Schiele. Although, it has to be said that while the exhibition is staged almost as a competition between the two famous Secessionists – with sequential suites of sketches by one of the pair being followed by an alternate contrasting selection from his opponent – there’s no even playing field here and the game is very much rigged in favour of Schiele. The point being that just about all of Klimt’s studies here were made as preparatory works to be used in the subsequent production of his large scale paintings and murals. Hence, all the drawings are much looser, less well-defined and overall sketchier than those of Schiele’s which were designed to be considered as fully finished works of art in their own right. Schiele also gets to add colour and, not unsurprisingly, his gouaches leap off the page in a way that none of the other pencil and crayon marks by either artist can.
As per my earlier allusions, the graphitic content is mainly centered on portraits of friends, relations, partners and lovers, all in varying degrees of costume, dress and undress, and some still quite surprisingly explicit Although, in the case of Schiele, it’s hard not to think that the most pliable and favourite of all the models he ever pored over was himself and that he got just as much egotistical self-enjoyment from stretching and straining his own digits, gristle and muscle as he did when recording these intense contortions of pent-up expressionistic energy.
In summary, the exhibition confirms just how powerful figurative art can still be and just what a master Schiele was when it came to putting lines on paper. As for Klimt, a quick look at some of the merchandise accompanying the exhibition – not so much the various postcards but more the general coffee table picture books – confirms that painting in oils was his more preferred mode of decorative revelation and, indeed, a rematch in that media might even favour him above the mighty Schiele.
Elsewhere at the Academy, the main exhibition space is devoted to an investigation of the arts of Oceania through what seems to be a fairly comprehensive, not to say exhaustive, selection of items gathered together from all the various islands and archipelagos that speckle the waters of the mighty Pacific. It’s not really a region of the world about which I have any great knowledge and I confess that I would be as utterly unable to pinpoint the locations and boundaries of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia – the geographical regions which apparently combine to form Oceania – as I would to recognise the religious significance, sociological relevance or cultural importance of any of their cultural artefacts that make up the current displays. And for me this is a bit of a problem. With such an overwhelming lack of basic background contextual knowledge, empathy or understanding it just makes it very hard to have anything approaching a rational or appropriate appreciation of anything on display.
Which is not to say that all of the wooden effigies, carved canoes, rows of paddles, masks, headdresses, totem poles, wall hangings, spears etc etc etc are not uninteresting or unimpressive in their detailed decoration and bold ornamentation, but I think it’s near impossible for a lay person, such as myself, to offer any reasoned evaluation other than to say that some things here look more pretty, strange or interesting than others.
And so on to another show that’s set to reveal more aesthetical inexpertise on my part and render my commentary even more amateurish than usual. The reason being that the large show at Tate Modern is a retrospective look at the work of Anni Albers, who the curators describe as, ‘one of the leading innovators of 20th century modernist abstraction’. And while I have no quarrel with this description nor any desire to question the importance of her artistic status, the medium through which she chose to express her novelistic practices was not painting, collage or sculpture – the traditional formats through which the canon and history of Modern Art has traditionally been defined, and which I like to think that I have a reasonable level of knowledge – but weaving. And, I suppose I tend to think that the fruits of the loom, alongside those of the kiln, fall into the same general category of applied art, where the crucial point of the design element is to add ornamentation to an item of utilitarian purpose. In other words, it isn’t really art.
At which point I think I can already hear the howls of protest that my definition of art is appallingly, old-fashionedly restrictive. And, further, that the reason for the exclusion of textile (and ceramic) works from the so-called fine arts, and the concomitant relegation of craft works to a secondary position within the hierarchy of the plastic arts, has nothing to do with the quality of the work or the skills required from those producing it but merely reflects the patriarchal prejudices of our unequal societal set up. And, frankly, I have a lot of sympathy with that analysis but in the very same way that I can stare at the carved head of a pagan god from an island sited somewhere round the other side of the world and feel utterly unmoved, unqualified and unconfident of passing comment on its value, beyond saying that it might look pretty, so it is when I look at the swathes of swatches of all the neatly threaded patterning that now fill Tate Modern. Walking through the many rooms of the Albers exhibition just reminded me of those occasions when I’ve been required to trudge through department stores full of curtains or cushions, mumbling my agreement that I really do think that one set of stripes or dots looks nicer than another lot.