Raaa for the RA!


Blogging down one’s thoughts can sometimes end in bogging them down. Political events, ideological disagreements, rants, apologies, defensive screeds and coverage of techno launches, political scandals and general media excitements have often been the meat, drink, potatoes, peanuts and popcorn of my blogging space, which is fine and well and high and dandy and adorable in its own way (one hopes) but it leaves little time for dilating on the subjects which really move and enliven me. So here is the first of a series of blogulosities in which I try and share a personal delight.

I shall begin with a passion that has been with me since … well, since I was young enough to look and wonder I suppose. Like many of my generation I was made a prisoner for life from an early age by the remarkable Ernst Gombrich, whose The Story of Art Pocket Edition is probably responsible for opening more eyes to painting and sculpture than any other book published in the English language. If you aren’t familiar with it, I am not sure there is any work I could recommend more highly. If you are on a Gombrich spree you might like also to get hold of his A Little History of the World, which will make you and any children you have handy writhe, ripple and froth with pleasure.

Since reading The Story of Art I have loved looking at pictures. At school I took History of Art (or ‘history o fart’ as I would write on my exercise books because I was exceedingly sophisticated and amusing) for A level and did seriously consider the subject for a degree either at one of the universities or perhaps the Courtauld Institute. The Courtauld, if you don’t know it, has a spectacular and woefully undersung gallery at Somerset House in London, which houses stunning impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, as well as owning perhaps the best art image collection in the world, the Witt Library.

When I was seventeen, on the run from the police and in possession of someone else’s credit cards (don’t ask, you’ll have to read Moab is My Washpot or The Fry Chronicles to know more. Many sensible people acquire both books and find that good luck and bedroom success attends them for ever afterwards. That may be a coincidence, but it seems unlikely) I would, pompous twazzock that I was, perch myself on a barstool in the American Bar of the Ritz Hotel and converse with the barman there, who happened to be an enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable amateur art historian. His bible was the three volume The economics of taste: The rise and fall of picture prices, 1760-1960 by Gerald Reitlinger and he would mix my Old Fashioneds, show me slides of paintings (he kept an enormous collection under the bar counter along with his maraschino cherries, orgeat and swizzle sticks) and preach the gospel of Reitlinger.

Looking at pictures

To stand in front of an artwork can cause bursts of excitement and surges of pleasure and thumps of intense feeling that are not unlike those an adolescent experiences when glimpsing someone who stirs desire in them. It pleases me that every year more and more people go into art galleries and museums to look at collections or special exhibitions. All over the country we are spectacularly blessed. Places that show photographs, sculptures, decorative objects, textiles, porcelain and paintings exist in almost every major town and city in Britain. Many are free and almost all offer good discounts for those who most need them.

For any of you plagued by memories of having to troop listlessly after your parents or school group leader as you were shepherded from one masterpiece to another and forced to listen to well-meaning but often confusing, stultifying or irrelevant explanations and interpretations from tour-guides and experts, I have nothing but sympathy. We have all been there. If that has put you off galleries and exhibitions in later life then you have the unimaginable pleasure ahead of discovering what it is like to look at pictures in your own time, at your own speed, just as you please. The beauty of art galleries when you are no longer in a tourist group or family is that you don’t have to go “round” – you can pop in to see just one room, or even just one painting. There are no rules and no “correct” way to look.

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9 comments on “Raaa for the RA!”

  1. nonoyesyes says:

    What a BRILLIANT idea! :)
    Loved the blog Stephen; thank you.

  2. Fryphile says:

    I adore what you have to say about art, especially the sting of uncertainty when it comes to interpretating what we see. Dear Donald Trefusis said something very similar in dongle-form about a year ago. Do you remember? Wise man, that Trefusis. It all reminds me of Steve Martin’s marvelously magnificent film “LA Story” and the scene when he’s extemporizing while looking at a painting. Pity Youtube is unable to offer the clip, but reliable and infallible IMDb has it in word form:

    “I like the relationships. I mean, each character has his own story. The puppy is a bit too much, but you have to over look things like that in these kinds of paintings. The way he’s *holding* her… it’s almost… filthy. I mean, he’s about to kiss her and she’s pulling away. The way the leg’s sort of smashed up against her… Phew… Look how he’s painted the blouse sort of translucent. You can just make out her breasts underneath and it’s sort of touching him about here. It’s really… pretty torrid, don’t you think? Then of course you have the onlookers peeking at them from behind the doorway like they’re all shocked. They wish. Yeah, I must admit, when I see a painting like this, I get emotionally… erect.”

    Turns out he’s looking at a painting of a red rectangle.

    I’d love to visit the Royal Academy if I’m ever Londoning again. Much love x

  3. Christine Pennock says:

    As I did Fine at for my degree I do love visiting the art galleries and exhibitions and I total agree with Alan Bennett that over every art gallery /institution should be displayed “You don’t have to like everything you see. I don’t personally believe all the twaddle that is written about works of art today. I think some of the pretentious twaddle puts people off. Just find what you like in the work of art . It could be just the Frame! so be it.

  4. tracey mitchell says:

    so my comments fallen into the eternal void of awaiting moderation again??? sheeese i didnt think i was that controversial, guess id b just as well giving up lol

  5. tmidir says:

    I think the Royal Academy certainly deserves support from wonderful people like yourself Mr Fry, but please everyone don’t forget about those less fortunate but more local places of art , culture and history that are often forgotten in the scrumdown for funding. It must be nice having so many cultural choices living in the metropolis of Londontown, but up in the cold wastes of the north, there are just as many wonderful, historic and inspiring institutions that also need support and appreciation. The focus is on money, but investing through just taking the time to visit an art gallery, historical site the theatre or a concert is in itself an investment that reaps its own rewards both for the observer and the institution visited. Art is a small word with a big meaning, it is what you experience it to be. So share the love and give your museum a hug as well.

  6. Avath says:

    It’s things like this that really, really made me wish I lived in London. As it happens, I do not live anywhere near London. Well, I live in Sweden so I guess I could be further away. You make it sound so damn romantic, Stephen, to wander up to this historical building to drink in the art of so many talented people. I see myself slowly walking from painting to painting admiring colours and details, wearing my favourite purple dress, with my hair tied back in a classic, yet relaxed, bun and a whimsical polka dot umbrella grasped in my hand. What would really happen is I would show up in my jeans with my torn up sneakers and my hair hanging lanky and wet over my (purple!) cardigan. I would strain to see anything, anything at all through the waterdrops on my glasses. I would slip and slide in my disgusting shoes, trying to get to the next painting and not just falling flat on my face and being the new live comic art attraction.

    But ahh. It’s in magnificent London, so even the wet and freezing fantasy sounds amazing.

  7. erin_vertizart says:

    Over here, in the land of Oz, we have a permanent exhibition in melbourne. Every time I need to get inspired I go and see a painting by Tom Roberts, called Madeame Pfund. The tonal values of the skin are amazing, and it always makes me want to paint. It would be wonderful if more creative characters such as yourself could get behind such things. There is nothing quite like discovering a technique to get you so excited that you feel like contributing to this wonderful world in some small way.

    Some of your shows have finally hit australian shores on free to air. Looking forward to seeing the show from the sydney opera house. Last Chance To See is also making its way.

    WOnderful to hear your thoughts as always Mr Fry. x

  8. erin_vertizart says:

    Completely off-topic Mr Fry, but I would very much like to say, having the means here to do so, that if you do glance across this comment… I am listening to Moab at the moment. And I have been umming and ahhing over writing my own piece, which involves the emotional side of a particular rare illness. I have to say, that hearing so many echoed sentiments within myself, through hearing that it feels as if I am taking part in a shared experience. And that feeling is very special and something you have created, and gives me an extra push to write my own piece, in the hope that someone else may feel that rush of inclusion that makes you catch your breath. Thank you for facilitating that, and creating something so moving and special.
    x erin.

  9. goldenfleece says:

    Dear Mr Fry,
    Am currently reading your lastest book and wanted to introduce you to a new word…you mentioned the words ádministration trivia”, i, have read off a fabulous Australian Blog, by the magnificent Mystic Medusa, the next word …”administrivia”..thought you might like that one..and PLEASE come back to Sydney, we didnt know you were here till we heard you were sold out (at the Opera House) .. what about a black cab round Australia ! get a bit of sun on and all..a warm Christmas? .. Very much enhoying the new book .. love the Golden Fleece xx

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