Thomas Sutcliffe: When art unnerves me

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The Independent Online

Judging from the reviews I've seen so far, critics are simultaneously in agreement and disagreement about From Russia, the Royal Academy's new exhibition of art from four great Russian collections. They agree that this is a remarkably varied exhibition, in terms of style and quality, but they disagree about the highlights and lowlights. One critic is disappointed by Matisse's The Dance – in terms of the pre-publicity, an undisputed star of the show – while several others single it out as being worth the price of admission in itself. And though they concur about the odd disorderly mélange that the exhibition delivers to its visitors – a potpourri of the masterly and the derivative, the brilliantly conceived and the aesthetically wrong-headed – they all have their own individual lists of which pictures might count as saving graces. One would hardly have expected anything else, of course: it is only a fantasy of connoisseurship that would lead one to expect the wheat to be sorted from the chaff with perfect consistency, undisturbed by vagaries of taste or temperament.

What really struck me about much of the coverage, though, was the confidence with which the professional critics writing about it felt they could distinguish between the mediocre and the masterly. Again, you really wouldn't expect anything else. It is their job, after all. And I don't mean for a moment to suggest that such discriminations are artificially worked up or insincere. The emperor is wearing a new suit – and there are interesting and informed things to be said about its cut and materials. It's just that walking round the exhibition the other day I found myself unnerved by the juxtaposition of good and bad paintings rather than, as has often been the case in the past, exhilarated by it.

Mediocre paintings can be psychologically crucial to a good exhibition, even if few of us would spend valuable time or money seeking them out. They do an invaluable job of highlighting mastery, for one thing, and the real thrill of a show can often depend on the gap between the paintings, in the unavoidable sense that you've shifted up three gears just by shuffling three feet along a wall. But undistinguished paintings or works of art do something more vulgar as well. They pry a crack in an exhibition's armour of invincibility, that intimidating sense that everything is looking down its nose at you. I suppose there are art-lovers selfless and humble enough to crave an experience of undiluted greatness, but I confess I'm not one of them – and inferior paintings (or just paintings that are conspicuously less good than those on either side of them) are often crucial to refresh one's sense of self-respect, the feeling that you have a part to play in this ceremony other than unquestioning worship.

But, as I say, walking round From Russia I found the disparity between the works having a different effect. For some reason the paintings that didn't work seemed to be undermining the ones that did, rather than reinforcing them. This was crystallised for me in a room devoted to Cubo-Futurism, an unusually slavish side-stream of the Russian avant-garde that set out to hybridise French Cubism and Italian Futurism. Looking at one painting I found myself thinking: "Well, that's just hand-me-down Picasso", only to discover, on getting a little closer, that it actually was a Picasso. And having thought the thought I couldn't help but wonder whether, label aside, I could really have told the difference between one and the other – or, more significantly, the difference between a French imitator of Picasso and a Russian one. How much projection is involved in deciding – without uncertainty – that this picture is imitative and that is in the mainstream?

This was partly just down to exhibition fatigue, but it was a little dispiriting, even so. And though I would count it as a failure on my part, rather than the exhibition's (I don't doubt that more thoughtful lookers could either have established why this Picasso was better than the paintings that surrounded it – or, alternatively, identified why it was one of Picasso's weaker paintings), it also seemed to touch on one of the show's undermining revelations about the distinction between great art and the also-rans. It isn't always enough to be talented, this show reminds you, you also sometimes have to be lucky to be in the right place at the right time. An accident of history or geography can leave you playing a permanent game of catch-up or gift you with a position in an artistic slipstream that allows you to travel further than you otherwise would have done. And, quite arbitrarily, protect you from the accusation of imitating your peers – or yourself.