Royal Academy

25 September–12 December Admission £12; concessions available

THIS PAST month the Gauguins at Tate Modern have been gathering so many rave reviews (see next month’s New Directions) as to put the Academy’s autumn offering into the shade. Don’t let that put you off; the Academy show has more than enough highlights. It even shares a Gauguin with the Tate, so that if you’re unlucky – I was – you can miss ‘Black Pigs’ as they scuttle back and forth down Piccadilly and over the Thames.

The aims of the two shows could not be more different. The Gauguin focuses on one painter with particular themes to be drawn out. The Academy is more as if a generous shopkeeper has let the children have the run of the sweet counter and pick their favourites. There is no theme. There are just fine pictures, drawings and sculptures from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. And this is the more generous since the show was put together at short notice when a planned exhibition from Lichtenstein fell through.

The people of Hungary have lent us some of the best of their national collection, much of it built up by Haydn’s patrons, the Esterházy family. Its strengths are works from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and the quality does taper off at the end of the nineteenth. This is symbolized by the three works which advertise the exhibition. The first is Schiele’s ‘Two Women Embracing’, a frank, if stagey, drawing which does what it says. It is quite small. The women are not beautiful. The point of the picture is the draftsmanship and the choice of subject.

Sex is one of the recurring subjects of the show. One room alone is devoted to big sixteenth-century women, bursting with rude good health, and all their clothes falling off. It is rather like one of those unsuccessful fashion shows which feature ‘real’ models. But next door there is a Mary Magdalene by

El Greco which is breathtaking. The Hungarian national collection has a good selection of El Grecos. Here there is a small St James the Less, the head tilted slightly, the face elongated and spiritual, but with the look of one of those quiet men who will always pose sceptical questions at PCC meetings. It is an intensely alive and real picture, but the Magdalene next door overshadows it. There is no question about Mary’s former life which is the more displayed by a very thin coat of paint over her throbbing left breast. Her head is small, in the El Greco way. Her hair is not a natural brown. She is a gorgeous woman, her pale colour brought out by the light blues and the whites of her clothes which hang on her in geometric patterns as if suspended. The heavy brown of a skull which holds down the pages of her (?) Bible earths the picture which is so much more interesting and compelling than the Schiele.

In fact, the show has a number of interesting religious works. And the first two rooms have nothing but religious works. The entrance is dominated by a Hungarian wooden altarpiece with a carved Saint Andrew in the centre and the kind of Veronica’s hanky beloved of very high church vicars. This is typical of the Hungarian works as a whole which tend to be bright and rounded in a slightly primitive style. So a fifteenth-century statue of Our Lady stands tall and thin and round; later statues of St Roche and St Sebastian are brightly coloured, though secondary compared to the hyper-realists on view at the National Gallery earlier this year.

These earlier religious works are a mixed lot, but a curious ‘St James the Great with a Living and a Dead Pilgrim’ (not a subject I was familiar with), probably by Signorelli, is small, quirky and captures the attention. Near it is another of the poster stars of the show, Raphael’s unfinished ‘Esterházy Madonna’, dwarfed by its frame, yet luminous with subtly graded reds and greys and blues.

These tranquil delights are easy to miss because the view through the opening rooms is dominated by Ribera’s ‘Martyrdom of St Andrew.’ This is a great painting. The saint lies on his cross while a pagan priest holds over him some image and workmen sweat to tie him down. The foreshortening is technically accomplished, the lighting dramatic and the cross beam itself almost butts the spectator. Across the room the pleasant Murillo of Christ and Our Lady handing out loaves to pilgrims is drippy by comparison.

The other important Spanish works are by the great Goya, in particular a water seller (the other featured poster picture) and a knife sharpener. These

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are small but heroic figures, possibly hinting at resistance to the Napoleonic occupation. The paint is thick. The colours are bold but work together. They draw the eye.

There is one final Spanish picture worth noting, from the very end of the exhibition, a small pencil and wash by Picasso of a mother and child, made just at the end of his blue period. It is quite unlike most of Picasso’s work in its naturalism and in the way the figures are accepted for who they are, rather than being forced into the prism of Picasso’s greatness.

Bythat stage in the showthe timelines have become a little distorted and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the huge number of works on display. Some are so small and isolated they have to fight to breathe, notably Constable’s ‘1814 Celebrations at East Bergholt’ which looks forward to his ‘Opening of Waterloo Bridge’, and a sketch by Bonnington for ‘Seascape’ now at the Wallace. On the other hand, a view of the Campagna Romana by Claude stands out among second- and third-rate imitators and a small, grey picture of a man by Hals more than holds its own against bigger canvasses by the force of its bravura brushstrokes and a general air of experienced cockiness.

Among the other two hundred exhibits Lásló’s Pope Leo XIII makes a good case for the artistic patronage of the Borgia popes, and looks curiously unreal next to the last portrait from life of the great clerical adulterer and pianist, the Abbé Liszt. And then there are excellent drawings by Leonardo and rather less successful ones by Dürer. And charming drawings by Rubens and Rembrandt. And a quite bizarre picture of Apollo as a bathing attendant while the muses cavort, backs to us, in a local river. ‘Skylark’ has a similar theme.

It just about shows a skylark in a bright sky, with very green fields and a very naked, well-rounded girl, looking upwards. There are also pieces by Monet and Pissarro, Toulouse Lautrec and Tiepolo, Cuyp and Ruysdael. And an unknown seventeenth-century artist’s picture of a girl showing her face to us as she lies down on some red and gold brocade – unusual but lovely.

An interesting and in places very wonderful show.