Cold Call: Sally Chatterton rings Norman Rosenthal

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The Independent Culture
NORMAN ROSENTHAL, the exhibition secretary of the Royal Academy, is no stranger to controversy. He was curator of the immensely successful and wildly polemical Sensation exhibition. That particular show prompted not only outcry among both establishment and public but also the resignation of four academicians. He has been formally rebuked for publicly insulting a fellow academician but never sacked, probably thanks to his flair for picking the exhibitions which will attract the crowds and pundits. Nevertheless, I suspect the RA now has him on a shorter leash, as he was cautious about his most recent triumph - a Monet blockbuster which has had the Friends of the Royal Academy fighting on the street to gain admittance - and didn't insult a soul.

In an attempt to incite outspoken comment, I say, "I know the Royal Academy's accounts have been healthier. Surely a Monet exhibition, which will pull in the crowds, is just a lazy and cynical way of running a gallery."

"Monet is a wonderful artist just like Van Dyck or Kandinsky. And great artists have a way of pulling in the crowds."

But why not a different great artist? After all, one of the last blockbuster exhibitions you showed was Monet. In the early Nineties.

"Well, `Monet in the 90s' was a very popular exhibition so it seemed perfectly logical to do `Monet in the 20th Century' which, even for specialists, is a revelation. Monet is a very popular artist. He deals with very serious issues of life and death and reflection and nature."

You've had to turn away Friends of the RA from the exhibition; doesn't this indicate that you've overreached yourselves, overhyped it?

"Art is actually about publicity anyway. It's about reaching into people's minds."

But why be a Friend if you can't get into the exhibition?

"We have 70,000 friends - if 7,000 choose to turn up on the same day, with the best will in the world we can't let them in. It's just a fact. You can only have so many people standing in front of a picture. Art's strength and weakness is that it can't be adequately reproduced."

What is the point of art, for you?

"Art is wonderful. It's a great way of enjoying being alive. There's no moral imperative like art. It's enjoyable. And the point of life is, as far as possible, to enjoy life."

Where do you see current or modern trends taking art?

"It's difficult enough to recognise where art is now... I don't know. Art is about keeping your eyes open. Looking at art helps you enjoy trees and rubbish tips. There are amazingly beautiful things in the world. The RA is here to propagate those arts of design - drawing and delineating the world."

The RA has been criticised for consisting of fogeys and not being representative of art and artists - would you agree with this?

"The members elect one another and represent a broad range of artists and art. You don't expect 25-year-old kids to be elected."

Turner was admitted aged 24.

"The members are generous people who understand art. They don't represent anything but themselves."

Now that you've helped the RA through its harder times, will you stay much longer?

"I flatter myself that I've made a bit of a difference. And I do love the ephemeral nature of exhibitions. It's never boring, always different."

Is there an exhibition you hold particularly dear?

"I love them all equally. When you look at art it should seem like the only thing in the world. At the moment I'm in love with Monet."

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