The eye of the beholder

Norman Rosenthal was the man behind the infamous Sensation exhibition. But, he says, you ain't seen nothing yet
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Sensation, with Damien Hirst's shark, Tracey Emin's love tent and Marcus Taylor's painting of Myra Hindley was the most controversial exhibition in the Royal Academy's history. Also one of the most successful. So when the Academy announced this week that it was to put on a sequel, Sensation 2, I expected to find its garrulous impresario dying to talk about it.

Impresario, by the way, is his word. It's not a word most curators use to describe themselves, but the Royal Academy's exhibition secretary, Norman Rosenthal, is a showman - and he knows it. "I love art, but I'm not an artist. I'm an impresario. I'm a stage manager. I get it together. Yes?"

And a good impresario wants to shout about his next project. Sensation 2 isn't for another year. At the moment he is working on a major Van Dyck exhibition. And this impresario gives the art history equivalent of "You ain't seen nothing yet".

"When we see the extraordinary Genoese portraits here in the autumn - they are as extraordinary as anything that has ever been done by human beings. Hnnh?"

There's a fair bit of Rosenthal in that. Not just the paradoxical habit of ending his most assertive statements with a questioning grunt that is seeking approval; more the increasingly unusual ability, indeed eagerness, to enthuse as much about an Old Master ("The best way to learn about art is literally to learn the National Gallery") as about Damien Hirst, a favourite of Rosenthal's who caused a bit of a furore when he claimed that Norman had discussed possible membership of the Royal Academy with him. Rosenthal probably did; but then, as he is the first to admit, he speaks his thoughts out loud all the time without always going through the relevant procedures and committees. And it can get him into trouble, as around the time of Sensation when he was called before the academicians like a naughty schoolboy and censured for being publicly rude about some of their number who had criticised Sensation. He had said on television of the septuagenarian figurative painter John Ward: "What is the point of painting a picture unless it is going to change the world? Maybe I am wrong and he is right, and the world will suddenly declare John Ward RA to be a great artist, but at this moment in time I doubt it." Ward, in turn, told the press. "I want his balls." They don't waste words at the heart of Britain's art establishment.

"The members of the Royal Academy are wonderfully nice people," Rosenthal says now. "You have to take these things seriously but with a certain sense of humour. But you have to deliver the goods here. If I had three or four years of flops, I'd be out."

Anyway, Rosenthal apologised and censure is as far as disciplining him was ever likely to go. He is a loose cannon, but one whose touch with exhibitions, or as he terms it, "flash instinct", is so unfailingly sure - and well before the current Monet blockbuster he was changing perceptions of art in Britain - that the Academy simply couldn't afford to lose him. The fustier academicians have to grit their teeth and bear it. And perhaps they quietly admire a man who believes every picture should change the world.

Besides, he is always prepared to justify his unbridled enthusiasms. So I challenge him on Van Dyck. Marvellous artist, but can his paintings really be "as extraordinary as anything ever done by human beings"? As extraordinary as the seven wonders of the world? Rosenthal does not pause. "Yes. These are a single person's experience. A wonder of the world is architecture. But this is imagination that has gone into these portraits, transforming what were probably quite boring people into substance and poetry."

That's passion, but probably ranks only eight on the Rosenthal scale. Force 10 for him was the Sistine Madonna by Raphael in Dresden. "I got up at four in the morning to go there. It was minus 20 degrees centigrade. When I stood in front of it, nothing else existed. I walked out of the room backwards at six in the evening."

For someone with a passion for both the cutting edge of contemporary art and the European Old Masters, the Royal Academy is the perfect place to be as it is the only gallery which embraces the two equally. And Rosenthal says he "wakes up every morning not believing how lucky I am to be here". He arrived at the Royal Academy from the ICA in 1977. And it was in 1981, with A New Spirit in Painting, that he invigorated the art world: an exhibition that brought acclaim to the likes of Baselitz and Schnabel. Along with exhibitions of Picasso's later work and American Art In The 20th Century, and the insights brought by the major shows on photography and pop art, not to mention two Monet blockbusters, he turned what could have been an institution simply showcasing academicians' work into a place where reputations were made and whole movements redefined.

But while Rosenthal looks with satisfaction on a London with unprecedented interest in contemporary art, he remembers that it was not ever thus. "I can remember when only about 300 people in London were interested," he says "It was a tiny audience for contemporary art. Thirty people at exhibitions, and always the same people. Rather like the situation is now for contemporary music, the world of Harry Birtwistle and Tommy Ades."

With a few pals like Nicholas Serota, now director of the Tate and Charles Saatchi, he was instrumental in changing that. "I knew Charles 25 years ago when he only had a small collection and worked at a small advertising agency. Nick put on Joseph Beuys in Oxford and I put Beuys on at the ICA. I called it Art Into Society, Society Into Art. We didn't come together consciously to plot it. But art is a language. And we have striven to get people familiar with the language. There's no great moral imperative about being interested in art. But it's an extremely rich way of getting through life. Better than trainspotting and, in my opinion, better than football."

His power to mould public thinking on contemporary art was not applauded by everyone. The late art critic Peter Fuller, founding editor of the magazine Modern Painters, fulminated about Rosenthal and friends as "the academy of the avant-garde". But Rosenthal rapidly won over the doubters.

For Rosenthal's personal development, the most significant exhibition was on the Spanish painter Murillo. His opposite number at the Prado in Madrid was, and is, Manuela Marques. Their professional relationship became a personal one, but she lives in Madrid with their two daughters aged seven and five, and the couple indulge in a lot of commuting and faxing.

"This is the age of the phone and the fax, and so we can communicate. I go there every two weeks and they come here quite a lot. In Madrid, I go and play in the park with my children. There are all sorts of things I would like to share with her that I can't share. But we speak every day."

They knew each other for 10 years before getting married, a fact he explains with a curiously typical and disarming mix of art, life, love, logistics, and the universe. "I don't like mixing my private life with my professional life. Do you know what I mean? She is very involved with Goya and has strong ideas about Velzquez. Why do people get married? Life is a constellation. And it's very nice."

His relatively late marriage combined with his love of music (he was on the Royal Opera board for a while and is happy to go to a concert every night of the week) keep him aware that there is life beyond art. He expressed it in a typically memorable vein recently: "Art is nothing compared to life. Nothing is more beautiful than a tree. I discovered that in the summer. No work of art can compete with a tree. But art is a fantastic thing because it helps you look at a tree."

Meanwhile, he will give few clues about Sensation 2 other than to say he has "three models going round in my head" but will make no final decision until much nearer the time as such an exhibition "has to be about what is happening". He adds: "I do an exhibition to please myself because if I please myself there's just a chance it might please someone else. Those who don't do it for themselves get it wrong."

And, concluding with a supremely Rosenthal flourish combining art history, fact, philosophy and wild fancy, he adds: "We have had two great innovative exhibitions here which have revealed what art is and what it can be: A New Spirit In Painting and Sensation. Both were put on with great speed. Sensation was put on because we failed to get another show from Berlin. Charles Saatchi and I weren't going to put Sensation together for another three or four years. And I said `now!'. It's like things are meant to happen. I'm not religious in the ordinary sense of the word. But it's mystical. Things are meant to happen."