Raaa for the RA!

In a speech for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which I published as a blog a month or so back, I talked about how deeply embarrassing and unsettling the whole business of confronting an artwork can be. How do we respond? What are we meant to know? Suppose there are such things as taste and judgment or necessary knowledge that other people have but I (or so I tell myself) don’t? Who is more pretentious, the one who praises the strange, the modern and the difficult or the one who loudly condemns them to show that he, for one, isn’t “fooled”? How can we rid ourselves of the kinds of self-consciousness that make us ask such silly questions in the first place?

We have all experienced embarrassment, self-consciousness and anxiety when looking at a piece of art. The word “art” is so overloaded anyway, burdened as it is with the highest metaphysical, aesthetic, cultural and social meanings over and above the general meaning of “paintings and sculptures and whatnot”. Few words, when given a capital letter, become so tendentious and vexing as Art.

I don’t want to overstate the “problem” of gallery visiting. We should forget all that and think of the pleasure that is to be had, the pleasure in feeding the eyes and brain with the colour and mass and weight, the emotional drama, wit and narrative, the excitement and the sheer beauty that only artists can offer. The first duty to art that we have is to trust our own responses. We should remember the suggestion Alan Bennett had that over the doorway of a great gallery should be written the words, “You don’t have to like everything…”

The RA

The Royal Academy, London

Two years ago I was touched and flattered to be asked to join the board of trustees of the Royal Academy, which has long been one of my very favourite places on earth to visit. Do you know it? The Academy was founded in 1768 and moved into Burlington House, its current Palladian home, about a hundred years after that. You enter a gateway on the north side of Piccadilly and a courtyard opens up, focussing on a central statue of the Academy’s founding president Joshua Reynolds, palette and brush in hand, although it is likely these days that the area will be dominated by whichever current exterior contemporary installation might be surrounding the old boy. You pass up some steps and into perhaps the most elegant and impressive viewing galleries and exhibition spaces in London.

Burlington House

Burlington House

What do I love about the RA? Well, the name is a clue. It is an academy. It is owned and run and governed, not by us trustees, but by the painters, sculptors and architects who make up its membership, from Gary Hume to Elizabeth Blackadder, from David Hockney to Tracy Emin, from Anish Kapoor to Norman Foster. But it is a true academy too: the RA Schools is the oldest art school in the country. Turner, Constable and Blake were taught there.

By virtue of its nature the Academy will always and by definition engage with, display and promote the works of living artists, but because it has the best rooms in the world and an unrivalled history of putting together exhibitions it will always be a place to come and see some of the most exquisite and extraordinary art objects the world can offer – in recent years previously unseen treasures from China, Turkey, Russia, the Middle East and, at the time of writing, Hungary. As it happens the Academy also owns and displays the only Michelangelo sculpture in Britain, alone worth the hundred yard walk from Piccadilly tube station… It’s called the Taddei Tondo, and is a kind of carved circular tablet of marble depicting the Madonna, the baby Jesus and the infant John the Baptist. It will make your heart skip a beat to think that someone can make such a thing armed with nothing more than a chisel…

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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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