The Perfect Place To Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art, Royal College of Art, London

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This exhibition borrows its title from a 2001 installation by RCA alumna Tracey Emin, which, unsurprisingly, is categorized in the Personal Expression section.

Rickety wooden stairs lead up to a bird-house. The viewer is encouraged to look through a peep-hole at what appears to be old family Super-8 footage. Nearby, plants are lined up, ready to be watered. The whole structure looks both precarious and nostalgic – an apt metaphor for higher education today.

Looking back over the last 175 years, the RCA has brought together more than 350 works by 180 former staff and students, crossing disciplines from industrial design to painting.

While Emin acknowledges the encouragement of her tutors, she is ambiguous about her post-graduate experience: “I've always said the best thing about the Royal College of Art was receiving that letter saying that I got in, and after that it went downhill.”

The tension between alienated youth and tradition is the life-blood of art; it has propelled the RCA to innovate – often against its own will – since its inception as The Government School of Design in 1837.

Rooted in training craftsman for industry, the college was quickly infiltrated – some might say contaminated – by fine art. The Victorian view of art as a source of moral guidance was soon threatened in the 1860s by Art for Art’s Sake and exotic imports such as French Impressionism.

The Public Art section of this exhibition is perhaps the most fascinating. In 1963, a research team led by RCA academic Bruce Archer, including nurses and patients, designed the NHS standard hospital bed, complete with wheels and adjustable back-rest. The model is still widely used in hospitals, and appears here alongside swatches of Enid Marx’s 1930s designs for the upholstery of London’s tubes and buses.

The wall text celebrates: “the UK system of state funding for higher education, which has fostered this powerful sense of duty to serve the public sector.” That sense of duty is now under threat. Despite looking like a well-polished jumble-sale, there is a serious political point to the display of these works.

The big names of post-war art – Hockney, Riley, Auerbach – are matched downstairs by YBAs who benefited from, but often rejected, the strictures of their alma mater. Here is Gavin Turk’s blue plaque, paying homage to himself – for which he was famously refused his degree.

The curation is slightly confused, but this is nonetheless a brilliant history lesson.

16 November – 3 January

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