Summer Exhibition 2010
Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly 14 June–22 August 2010
Admission £8, concessions available
This year’s Summer Exhibition must be the most critically savaged in recent memory, or at least since last year’s. But aided by an army of bloggers and furious letter writers it has been strongly defended by the Academy’s Chief Executive Charles Saumarez Smith. He says the general public knows at least as much about good taste as the critics do. And it’s true the reputation of critics has not really recovered since they pilloried the 1863 Salon des Refusés which included Whistler’s Girl in White and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. So it’s no surprise that in a democratic age people should be told that their opinion is worth as much as the critics’.
That was not the view of the late not very democratic Anthony Blunt. He reckoned there were only three people in England who could tell a painting was any good without knowing who had painted it, and he didn’t include himself in those three. Blunt might have relished the irony that the Academy which for so long held out against Impressionism and other modernisms should now hug all modernisms in a populist embrace, and at a time when the critics have the self-confidence to criticize the current orthodoxy on its own terms.
I had the good fortune to go to the exhibition through corporate entertainment. This brought out how cleverly the galleries are designed to be turned into hospitality rooms and made for a progressively mellower viewing. And it showed what interested people. Despite the large numbers of financial services folk, it was clear the crowd had come to find something to enjoy. So the architectural models were almost entirely ignored – which was a pity – and the two rooms of small pictures and prints were crammed. One video installation attracted a lot of interest – it featured a naked woman. The largest
and most expensive pictures attracted little attention; David Mach’s Silver Streak, a seven-foot-tall gorilla made up of metal coat-hangers, attracted a lot.
The perennial problem, or delight if you will, of the Summer Exhibition is the huge number of works on display. At just over 1,200 this year’s is four times the size of last year’s ‘From Russia’ exhibition, and there you got most of the great names of early twentieth-century European art. So the visitor needs to discriminate ruthlessly. One way to do this is to go to where everybody else isn’t, which makes it easier to see the works but which might confirm the crowds have got it right.
My own approach was two-pronged: a swift reconnoitre making notes of what interested me and then a review of the famous names as picked out by the critics to see what sort of strike rate I’d got first time around. This proved how right Anthony Blunt could be, but I picked out a Hockney portrait and some Hockney photographs. Tony Bevan’s huge self-portrait after Messerschmidt (the sculptor rather than an aircraft), Gillian Ayres (pictures various) and John Bellany’s Celtic Allegory have stayed in the memory.
Rather more hasn’t stayed in the memory. Foremost here is Tracey Emin’s But I Think I Love You, which is those words painted onto a sheet. The Academy has been criticized for including this £150,000 piece in the show, but we shouldn’t be too hasty. Directly above the Emin is Cowboy Joe by Angela Lizón, price £3,800. This is a blue-toned, soft focus oil of a cat in a cowboy hat wearing a sheriff’s badge. This hang leads us to ponder the relationship between über kitsch and the work of Tracey Emin.
As we might expect with a show called ‘Raw’ there are many works which grab the attention. Perhaps too many, because they drown out the quieter pieces, for example, Tess Jaray’s delicate abstracts. Readers of New Directions might be interested in two large designs for mosaics by Leonard McComb, one of St Anthony, the other St Francis. Since they are designs for Westminster Cathedral we may see more of them. They were the only seriously religious pieces I noticed, but with so many exhibits it is easy to miss things.
There are a lot of ideas on show but I did not leave thinking many of these artists have a vision to share. As is deliberately the case with much contemporary art ideas are more important than the engagement between technique and medium.
This is the issue over which Damien Hirst came a cropper in his Wallace Collection exhibition last year. But as Aquinas saw, you cannot divorce medium and message, nor should you wish to.
The show contains good and bad and truly dreadful. Best seen as a corporate entertainment.
SARGENT AND THE SEA
Royal Academy of Arts
10 July–26 September 2010 Admission £10, concessions available
I think it was that classic of Eighties semiotics The Sloane Ranger’s Handbook which said there were as many sharks in the art market as there were in merchant banking. Which was prophetic – the contemporary art scene was just about to bring us real sharks. Today the sharks in formaldehyde have gone the way of merchant bankers, but the art world carries on with its
colourful mix of hucksters and honest traders. Even the upmarket world of exhibitions has its fair share of duds, carefully spun to entice the ladies from the provinces (the ladies from the provinces are the butt of so many art critics this summer that I include them here for form’s sake – they take no further part in this review though there were a lot of them at the show when I went).
‘Sargent and the Sea’ has been well spun. But there are good works here and anybody with an interest in Sargent will want to see the few seascapes which he did. Of course, there is usually a reason why some works of a noted artist’s oeuvre are little known, whether it be those intimate works which stayed with the family, i.e. minor pieces which didn’t sell, or juvenilia which are just that. So caveat emptor when you are invited to rarely-seen works by the artist as a young man during the quiet of a long hot London summer.
If you do choose to buy in, the exhibition contains note books, worked up drawings and some paintings which are mostly small scale. There are seascapes taken from an Atlantic crossing, Breton peasants on their way out to the fishing, scenes from the beach at Capri and Naples (and a lot of nude children), port scenes from the Mediterranean and Whitby, and scenes of Venice. A few of the exhibits were shown soon after they were painted. Neapolitan Children Bathing was exhibited to great acclaim in the States, though, as is the way with Reynolds’ children, you wonder whether the artist would pass a CRB check. Some of the fishing scenes were exhibited at the Paris Salon and they marked Sargent’s arrival on the international scene.
There are some interesting works here. There is a drawing of rigging loaned from Boston which is both exact and charming without tipping over into the hackneyed. It is well worth a look.
Then, in Atlantic Storm, we are on board ship, looking down towards the stern while by implication the bow is lifted by huge waves behind us. The picture shows Japanese influence with its high horizon and great blocks of colour. In fact one of the interesting discoveries for me was the number of occasions Sargent used colour in almost abstract blocks, notably in a picture of his mother on the same Atlantic crossing. Somehow these works do not quite gel, they are unfocused, but they have a refreshing sense of experimentation.
More successful experimentation came under the influence of the English watercolourists and Whistler, following whom Sargent changed from the French technique of applying opaque paint over a dark ground to the English technique of applying thinned paint over a light ground. The result was a more even tone better suited to capturing the effects of light. This shows well in a very Whistlerian view of boats off Whitby. However, Sargent continued to experiment and the exhibition ends with another shift in technique, this time to pure watercolours for canal views of Venice. These pictures once again lack focus and, surprisingly, a sense of atmosphere.
The Venice pictures are a disappointing end to the show. Before them the actual centre of the exhibits are pictures of Cancale in Brittany. Here Sargent is on the safer ground of the human figure. He gives sturdy fisherfolk almost classical poses and through preliminary sketches we see how local women in clogs and bare legs are transformed into the heroic rural poor – a case of realist style at the service of fantasy.
My own favourite from the show is an oil of a small boat in an inlet off Capri. The picture is not quite finished and the view from a height looking down could be taken from a thousand travel brochures. But what the travel brochures never achieve is the extraordinary limpid blue of the water and the sense of the boat hanging still, just out from the shore. The strength of the colour and the suspension of the boat as if it were weightless are all the reason you need to see this show.
Audio CDs of retreats and teaching courses on St Peter, The Four Last Things, The Miracles of Jesus, The Gospel of John, The Blessed Virgin Mary, Priesthood and St Paul from
Robbie Low is a communicator. Readers of this magazine will remember the ‘Robbie Low interviews’ and many other articles in years past. Robbie can certainly write; in an earlier life he was an accomplished actor and in his twenties worked in the world of the parliamentary lobbies. Following his move away from Anglicanism seven years ago, Robbie has passed through the crucible of family bereavements and reception into the Roman Catholic Church and has now taken up a new ministry as Parish Catechist; last year he and his wife Sara opened a small retreat house in Fowey
Through them comes Robbie’s conviction – not least in a full expression of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is an evangelical zeal here that is a genuine concern for the salvation of souls and urgency to make up for time lost or wasted. These are considerable pieces of work – amounting to over 130,000 words.
These talks are the fruit of a lifetime of wide reading. There is careful attention to the biblical text, its historical context, its linguistics and historic interpretation. There is much here to inform and illuminate. But the whole collection is grounded in pastoral experience and practical application. Robbie’s humour breaks through; his dramatic ability is used to both moving and comic effect. There are asides of acerbic political analysis and a wide range of literary connections.
Robbie has the opportunity now to meet the need he always knew was there – for a solid, eloquent, convicted, full expression of orthodox faith and practice. Many will benefit from this valuable ministry. Sound teaching expressed in an engaging way and you can even listen to it in the bath! For the more prosaic they would make excellent parish study courses.
All these courses are available in box sets of two CDs and four CDs (£5 and £9 respectively, plus p&p) from
BBC 2 Television BBC Comedy
We are nearing the end of the six episodes promised of Rev, the new sitcom. It is sometimes referred to as The Rev, but I feel the omission of the article, by leaving open the original meaning of ‘Reverend’, suggests the wry humour that characterises the programme. It is much watched by clergymen and others, and it is a pity, though inevitable, that it cannot be broadcast at peak time, instead of after the watershed for ‘adult’ entertainment.
It tells us about the arrival of Adam, a young incumbent, in an inner-city parish, and relies for the bulk of its humour on realism, spilling over into pleasant excess. It vividly portrays the problems of the young man’s life: the discontinuity arising from telephonic and front door summons, usually when some pleasure is in prospect but snatched away.
Associated with that are the invasions of privacy, the limitations on outside help from such as the terrible Archdeacon and the clap-happy neighbouring incumbent, and perhaps above all the sheer weariness.
The first episode had an effective piece of plotting in which the friendly and adhesive addict Colin, a seeker after spirituality in more senses than one, is revealed as spending his spare time throwing empty bottles at the church’s stained-glass windows. In a later episode there is another, involving the recovery of a lost chasuble from a Rastafarian. Colin is omnipresent, and appears to constitute about one-sixth of the tiny, friendly, but bewildered congregation. We see the ruthless venality of parents seeking their first choice of school, associated with the parish’s shortage of cash, all portrayed without too deep a descent into farce.
It is a profitable lesson we learn, not for the first time, that priests and their wives are human beings, with sexual frustration sometimes a factor, as any bishop and the News of the World will confirm.
The standard of beauty of the ladies who appear willing to assist the vicar by all means in their power is distinctly above normal, even when on business he finds himself in a strip club. This underlines his determined chastity, which is seen, not only as a function of his physical tiredness, but also as a result of his talks with God in church.
The restrained performance by Tom Hollander as Adam reminds us that God loves the holy fool. Other original performances come from the parish’s patronising but helpful Reader, and the ordained religious broadcaster, full of doubts and whisky, who preys upon the wide-eyed innocence and ambition of Adam, and is movingly led by him to kneel before the altar and say the Office.
Rev is ‘a taste of real life’. We should always be deeply suspicious of that phrase, but must surely enjoy the excellent plots, the good characterisation, the wit, and the accurate observation. None the less this is not a documentary. We should agree with the BBC that it is a comedy, which like all the best comedy beautifully exposes human pretensions, is very funny, and deserves to be rewarded with a good laugh.
The BBC, seldom our favourite flavour where religious programmes are concerned, are to be heartily congratulated on such a well-researched, accurate and cogent piece of work.
SPCK, 166 pp, pbk
978 0 281 06040 5, £9.99
The impact of Christianity lies in the ripple effect of transformed lives and communities.The common factor associated with this dynamic is the experience of Jesus. This is the premise of John Pritchard’s book, which sees ‘who is this Jesus?’ as the big question to get people engaging with. Living Jesus recognizes the confusion of many in the face of the immense diversity of religion. Bishop John sees Jesus as one who can simplify the religious quest, deepen spiritual life and unify with minimal exclusion. The book starts by a critical celebration of different popular visions of Jesus: gentle, judge, professor, politician, etc. It moves on to affirm the Jesus found in Christian tradition: ‘generous evangelical, earthy catholic, Spirit-led ‘charismatic’, thoughtful liberal’.
The Gospel of Jesus is described as a slow-burning fuse with explosive consequences, as in its impact on slavery. Like other religions Christianity has become ‘the fall-guy for blind nationalism, when religion is the label but not what’s in the tin’. The book has many such images that help counter negative perceptions, along with positive affirmation of Jesus as centre point of history and the world’s hope to the end of time.
The living Jesus written of is not just one to be found but one who is in a quest to find us all. In communicating this the writer comes across as one possessing spiritual authority. The chapter on Jesus as partner in prayer highlights the reality of Jesus in both spiritual consolation (in-sight) and desolation (night-sight). The author’s pastoral experience of being with those in pain and suffering nervous collapse himself are deftly woven into the narrative. Living Jesus concludes by celebrating the positive role of the arts in Christian tradition and by providing a reasoned examination of the place of Jesus in relation to other world faiths. The book’s achievement as an invitation to think around Jesus is consolidated by a concluding series of biblically based group Bible studies.
The Revd Dr John Twisleton, Rector of Horsted Keynes
REASON, FAITH AND REVOLUTION
Yale University Press, 185pp, hbk
978 0 300 15179 4, £18.99
ABSENCE OF MIND
Yale University Press, 158 pp, hbk
978 0 300 14518 2, £16.99
The Yale University Dwight H. Terry lectures on ‘Religion in the light of Science and Philosophy’ have been given by some of the great thinkers in the field; Carl Jung, Paul Tillich, Jacques Maritain, Paul Ricoeur. Those for 2008 and 2009 were given by Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic with a Dominican cast of thought, and Marilynne Robinson, author and writer about the world we live in today. Both criticize modern atheists, be they what Robinson calls ‘parascientists’, or what Eagleton labels ‘North Oxford’ – Richard Dawkins falls into both categories. And both writers point out that the emperor of atheistic fashion has no clothes – gleefully in the case of Eagleton, rather more ponderously in that of Robinson. Neither writes Christian apologetic.
Of the two books, Robinson’s is the easier to summarize and her work has already been enthusiastically endorsed in a helpful review by Dr Williams in the Daily Telegraph (at the time of writing, still available on the net). She describes the devaluation of human experience which is part of modern atheism.
What began as an attack on religion, she argues, has become a highly successful attack on metaphysics, the humanities and the interior life.
The success of accessible atheist writers like Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker is undeniable. It has fostered a belief that with modern science has come a new epoch in history and, to put it in British terms, the ‘Brights’ are the future. But Robinson says this belief is sophistical. The rhetoric has obscured the extent to which modern scientific atheism is neither modern nor very scientific.
Its novelty is rooted in Comte’s nineteenth-century Posivitism. Its confidence in the sure and unchanging achievements of science is out of date. Science has made genuine advances but today it describes a universe which is often strange and contradictory, and in that sense has not so much broken free from the old paradigms of human experience but actually fits rather well beside them.
Robinson goes on to defend human experience against Freud in a chapter which locates his extreme suspicion of human nature within the growing anti-semitism of early twentieth-century Vienna. Far from providing an acultural explanation of human nature, Freud is shown to be a man of his time whose explanatory method – it really is all about sex – is so widecast as to explain nothing.
The hermeneutics of suspicion receives another mauling as anthropological studies of the Bible are shown to be blind to the achievements of earlier scholars while overstating the impact of new understanding – what she terms a ‘hermeneutic of condescension’ (any Anglican parallels?).
Her promotion of the value of the interiorly known (poets really do know things which scientists can’t know) against the hermeneutically critical – and as she notes, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche contradict each other, so at least one of them needs substantial correction – is centred on a defence of altruism against neoDarwinian evolutionists. She suggests that by moving beyond the strict limits of Darwinian theory into the much more complex area of human behaviour, Dawkins et al. have moved into parascience – they have used the evidence-backed theory of evolution to make conclusions about matters to which neither the original theory nor its evidence applied. The debate about the existence of altruism is the classic case of this.
Altruism doesn’t make much sense in terms of competitive evolution and the examples Robinson quotes from the parascientists against the existence of altruism are shown to be baseless. Particularly entertaining is her suggestion that the famous meme, if it exists, removes the explanatory force of the genes which gave them theoretical life.
That defence of altruism provides a limit to the parascientist’s advance out of evolutionary theory into other walks of human life. Robinson then presses home her point when she echoes the late Anthony Flew to argue that an acorn is not an oak tree; we cannot reduce everything we do today to what we think our ancestors did in the past. Human experience is rich and it is valid.
Flew used that argument against a populist from an earlier generation, Edward de Bono, who inter alia argued that paintings were no more than territorial markings, the equivalent of a dog cocking its leg. This goes to show how old the new arguments are, and how impervious even to well-argued non-Christian counter-arguments. And this may explain Terry Eagleton’s cheerfully brutal polemic, though it is just as likely Eagleton is simply enjoying himself.
He is a very rude man, and I’m sure he gets some things wrong, but that is more than made up for by the zest and wit with which he lays into Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the like. Perhaps because he isn’t a Christian and doesn’t feel any cultural cringe or the need to be nice, Eagleton is quite happy not only to say that Dawkins et al. use arguments they would never dream of accepting from first-year students, but that these men are arrogant and in some respects morally suspect. And Dawkins’ prose style has declined as his ego has increased.
Eagleton shares many of his arguments with Robinson but his book is a much more entertaining read. It fizzes with new ideas in every paragraph which can slightly obscure a very good description of classical Christian theism. While Robinson looks at the effect modern atheism has on the narrowing of the human spirit, Eagleton chooses to focus on the political injustices amounting to crimes against humanity supported by the North Oxford liberal bourgeoisie (though he is careful to exculpate Richard Dawkins here – while poking fun at his dreary modern-day Ten Commandments). As he sees it, these superior people think they are self-sufficient and they do not see that there is much wrong with the world. It is a case of he who has few sins to be forgiven…, a point which has implications for Christian mission.
That is one example of Eagleton’s sharp understanding of modern western society. He also gives an excellent account of radical socialism as the politicization of ‘love thy neighbour’.
Like Robinson, he shows how rationalism has deep foundations which are not amenable to reason, but he then goes on to argue that unless this is understood, it will not be possible to face up to the fact of (US) neoimperialism or the reaction this has produced with radical Islam.
He also seizes on the failures of Christianity. He believes that in the debate with atheists Christians are their own worst enemies. They have a way of life which is valuable and not to be ignorantly scoffed at, but they have failed to live up to their radical calling. Jesus died on the cross and, at least at that point, his mission was a failure. So, Eagleton argues, martyrdom, or, at the very least, shame and marginalization are the hallmark of authentic Christianity.
Now, of course the issues are complex, and of course we have a history of Christianity which makes our current situation different from the first centuries, but when did you last hear, when did you last preach about Christian martyrdom as part of our Christian vocation (doubtless there are ND readers who will tell me they do so every Sunday)?
It is crude and unfair, but Eagleton surely has a point. Even the most traditional-minded of Catholics rarely say anything about so central a feature of the Gospels and the Apostolic Tradition. As for those Churches which see their justification in chaplaincies to the secular power…
Owen Higgs ND