One of the pleasures of academic art is in its annual repetition. Ruskin realised this nearly a century and a half ago, even though he was no friend of the Academy or its values. He liked the feeling that some artists would never change, and especially he preferred them not to change if he had first encountered their work in his youth. I have the same attitude toward Robert Medley, the subject of one of this year's memorial walls. Medley (born 1905) first began to exhibit at the end of the 1920s. At one point he was associated with the poetry and politics of the Auden group. He was never a radical, though, nor a thinker, just a professional painter content to make art his life's work.
Like many other Academicians, Medley was repetitious partly because he had learned how to cover up his native weaknesses. Perhaps this was so of Roger de Grey, the last President, who deserved a longer retirement to spend at his easel. He's to have a retrospective next February. Meanwhile, his Marennes looks a solid picture, obviously painted in elderly but confident mood. De Grey was not a man to be dominated. Once he had to say goodbye to Mrs Thatcher in the Academy's forecourt. The PM spied a piece of litter in the form of a half-smoked cigar. She crossly told the President to pick it up. "Pick it up yourself," he said, and returned to his domain.
The forecourt (as de Grey pointed out to Thatcher) belongs not to the RA but to the Crown and is maintained by the Property Services Agency, a quango she once thought of privatising. There's a scheme, still vague, to expel cars from the forecourt and thus make it into a decent environment for leisure or art. Now the RA has put four big pieces of sculpture there, in front of the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds. It's an interesting experiment that unfortunately does not work. Reynolds, looking as ever more like a conductor than a painter, presides over dull music.
All these pieces are out of scale, to each other and to their surroundings. Thus Barry Flanagan looks merely eccentric, Michael Kenny gauche, Allen Jones over-inflated and William Tucker lumpen. Flanagan is the only natural sculptor among them, as we know. However wayward his inventions, or nowadays however routine, he has the gift of announcing that anything modelled from his hand comes straight from the imagination. Not so with most RA sculptors. I most of all regret the piece by Tucker, since he has a fine and serious mind. His later work always makes me think that he should turn to writing. He's the best writer-artist living today, yet publishes next to nothing.
I'd like a reprint of his The Language of Sculpture (1974) and a new book, if that's possible. Tucker is an Academician who could help the RA to understand the nature of three-dimensional art. This year Burlington House has made an especial effort with sculpture, yet one is still depressed by the results. Nor is there a prospect that sculptors seen in the Academy in 1995 will shortly make public works that will satisfy generations to come. Eduardo Paolozzi's familiar Newton after Blake for the British Library is a piece of monumental overkill with no apparent experience of learning or reflection. Alas, it will evermore be associated with the nation's collection of books. It's often pointed out that Paolozzi does not understand Blake's attitudes to Newton. Has anyone yet suggested that this hyperlarge statue might be a self-portrait?
More effective as putative public sculpture is James Butler's Sketch Model for Memorial Sculpture of Reg Harris. Here's an Academician who knows how to respond to a commission intelligently. He must have derived Harris's look from photographs and these have led him to think of the sprinter's crouched body and oak-tree legs more than his unremarkable face. Harris was indeed most remarkable for his physique, its capacity for explosive effort (a bicycle sprint lasts no more than 11 seconds) and his ruthless desire for any opponent's death. Butler portrays Harris on a sloped base. This represents not a hill but the track banking, and this now becomes a metaphor - an abbreviated backdrop for the champion's own inevitable demise.
Talking of sport, I wish William Bowyer would give us more of his cricket paintings. His landscapes and townscapes are as good as ever but surely his heart is at Lord's. Does the MCC offer special arrangements to keen old gentlemen from the RA? They certainly ought to. The worldly rewards of being an Academician are not extensive, though they do get the opportunity to show and sell every summer. They're also allowed to park for free in the forecourt, which may be the reason why this useful quadrangle will only slowly become a sculpture garden. Anyway, highly purchasable works from RAs include paintings by Gillian Ayres, Fred Gore, Adrian Berg, Donald Hamilton Fraser, John Hoyland, Mary Fedden and Elizabeth Blackadder. The "Picture of the Year" award, for reasons I cannot understand, has been given to Norman Blamey for his The Settle, a portrait of the artist's son.
My own prizes, awarded for general clubmanship and unfailing amiability, go to John Loker, Noel Forster and Alistair Grant. Regrettably, Forster and Loker show traces of worry and seriousness in their work. Chapeaux bas messieurs, therefore, to Grant for his Le Matin, Paris Plage. He's an effortlessly French painter in a way that contemporary French painters somehow never are. I wonder why Grant has never been made an Academician. Perhaps it's because he is now (having retired from the Royal College of Art) painting with a freedom and spirit of happy daring that, within the RA, is not quite acceptable. Or perhaps Grant is not an RA because he's so clever. They don't like that either. All this is a puzzle to me since I don't know why anyone joins anything, apart from the Chelsea Arts Club. Still, I would rather be elected to the RA than to Mensa!
! '227th Summer Exhibition': Royal Academy, W1, 0171 439 7438, to 13 August.Reuse content