Britten’s War Requiem finds new life with ENO’s staging

At the Coliseum to watch the first UK staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on its opening night, I was curious to see how Turner prize-winning photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans would tackle this work as set designer.

War Requiem’s reputation has soared since 1962, when it was first performed in Coventry Cathedral. As a choral work, it now enjoys the same popularity as Handel’s Messiah.

The horrors of war remain a compelling theme with modern audiences and Tillmans, who is German and a pacifist, leapt at the idea of staging Britten’s work. It is one thing however to be an edgy artist such as Tillmans, and to stage an opera (plenty do), but War Requiem is hard to define, it is a hybrid choral work drawing its text both from church liturgy, the Mass of the Dead, and Wilfred Owen’s war poems.

So what does ‘staging’ really entail? Isn’t there enough movement and richness in the text and musical score for us to conjure for ourselves the full terror of death and war? The male solo parts are so achingly beautiful and poignant. And if the libretto wasn’t enough, ENO has enlisted 120 singers in the chorus, 3 top soloists and an 85-strong orchestra to hammer the message home. And yet I do understand ENO’s wish to bring another dimension to the work.

I had watched a 1964 black and white BBC film of War Requiem on YouTube. Presented by Richard Baker in clipped British tones at the Albert Hall, it brought back to me how stiff a concert performance could be. The soloists, choirs, musicians all in their appointed place on stage; singers standing to attention when it was their turn perform. I also watched a more recent Festival Hall production, which felt more fluid, less regal and stiff.

ENO’s War Requiem gets off to a terrific start in the opening movement. The pages of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 anti-war book, entitled ‘War against War’ are projected onto two LED screens with the chorus in darkness behind them. The children’s choir starts up – and at the same moment, illustrations of tin soldiers and toy guns appear, the equivalent of today’s computer war games. David Kramer, Artistic Director, dramatises this point later on in Offertorium, when the soprano, the wonderful Emma Bell, is seen leading a young boy to a grave. A funeral is taking place. He breaks away from his mother angrily to play on his iPad, which he inevitably bashes with his little fist.

But back to the opening. The screen slowly parts and little by little the chorus come through to centre stage singing ‘perpetual light shine upon them’ while the audience is presented with photographs of dull-eyed soldiers with monstrous facial disfigurements – a soldier with a badly grafted nose, another with a gaping hole where his mouth should be. But then the projections cease, the chorus plays dead, and the tenor, David Butt Philip, starts singing Owen’s words taken from ‘Anthem for doomed Youth’. Here the poetry does the talking and we are able to fully focus on his extraordinary expressive voice. David Butt Philip was the star of the night for me.

And this is what Tillmans meant in a recent Times interview. He was keen ‘to leave room for the sung word’. For almost a third of the time, Tillmans sensibly chooses to have a blank stage, most notably in the middle section of the last movement, Libera Me, when the ghosts of a British and German officer meet. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, sings Roderick Williams in his gentle baritone.

Although Tillmans is careful not to intrude on our musical pleasure, at times his imagery feels arbitrary, like Tillmans’s photographs of battling football hooligans which although powerful images in themselves, bring nothing new to the equation.

Tillmans is more effective when he focuses his canny photographer’s eye on nature. Branches split in two in the style of Paul Nash, or a giant white chrysanthemum, which might represent a mushroom bomb or be a symbol of regeneration.

I loved the final scene: a lofty, open window suffused with bright green light with a tree filling its frame. Stage lighting moves the audience’s eye to a grave on the stage. The change in emphasis charters the changing mood of Britten’s musical finale.

Equally impressive was the calibre of the ENO chorus. Not only was their sound rich and nuanced but the cast moved and lay down well creating the most ghostly of tableaux. One particular picture sticks in the mind; their piled up bodies in the Srebrenica scene. A flyer commemorating the 1995 massacre is projected on a panel. Or in Libera Me, lying down in the snow. Beautifully lit, they brought to mind the painting ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent.

Less well achieved was the Abraham parable section. Too many cast members swirling around on stage. The dramatic moment of Abraham raising a knife to his son is somehow lost in the crowding. There seemed to be timing issues at this point between the singers and orchestra but this is the only time I felt things might have been a little out of synch in an otherwise fluid staging.

Despite this very minor quibble, I left the Coliseum feeling that the bar had been greatly raised in this staging of War Requiem and that the work had received a new lease of life thanks to inspired direction and stage design.

So does this mean the end of plain old concerts? I doubt it. Certainly I applaud ENO for presenting a musical work in a new light, but equally I believe audiences should be given space to ponder the music. Imagination is a dwindling commodity in this world where everything needs to be explained. It will be a sad day when it becomes redundant.


War Requiem has a further 5 performances on 22nd, 27th, 29th November and 4th and 7th December at 7.30pm.
English National Opera

KH

 

 

The shudder that counts: ‘Salome’ at ENO

In the week of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing in the US, and the ongoing MeToo movement, which both raise potent and complex questions surrounding male power and control, toxic masculinity and the male gaze, and whether women “ask for it” by behaving or dressing provocatively, English National Opera’s 2018/19 season opened with Richard Strauss’s dark and disturbing psycho-drama Salome in a visually striking and elegantly-sung new production.

The narrative is well-known, from the Gospels and the play by Oscar Wilde, from which came Strauss’s influential transformation into an opera, premiered in Dresden in 1905 in that heady, decadent era before the outbreak of the First World War. At its premiere, the opera perfectly caught the spirit of its time – the era of Freud and Jung, Beardsley’s Yellow Book, and the art of Klimt and Schiele – and was an instant success. This new “feminist” production, directed by Adena Jacobs, also catches the zeitgeist. Freighted with contemporary sensibilities and preoccupations, the opera offers a warning about the dangers of toxic masculinity and unchecked female desire. The spare modern setting with references to contemporary life, pop culture and gender fluidity further underline this.

Right from the outset, we know that “terrible things will happen”. In fact, we never actually see the head of John the Baptist (or Jokanaan as he is in Wilde’s and Strauss’s versions), but we know it’s coming. It arrives not on a silver salver but casually chucked in a plastic bag such as the type in which one might carry a takeaway curry. Earlier in the play, a pink horse, its cascading entrails represented by pink and red flowers, is brought on stage. Decapitated, it provides a metaphor for the final denouement.

Strauss’s music is haunting and sensuous, pungent and perfumed, and because the work is organised in one act, with an almost continuous flow of action, one has the sense of the tension-laden drama creeping inexorably to its brutal conclusion. Under the baton of ENO music director Martyn Brabbins, the orchestra shone, bold and beautiful.

Salome herself, sung by Allison Cook whose light soprano seems just about perfect for this role, is a pouty teenager who insinuates her way on to the stage and into the action as Narraboth (powerfully sung by Stuart Jackson) extolls her erotic girlish charms. Largely presented in darkness, Narraboth and his cohort are in a roped off area, as if waiting to spy a celebrity at a red-carpet event or queueing to enter an exclusive nightclub, while Salome remains quiet and aloof in the darkness, the light occasionally catching her pale blonde Ariana Grande-style ponytail.

The voice of Jokanaan is heard first via a loudspeaker. David Soar’s baritone is rich and declamatory, and when the scene shifts to the cistern in which he is imprisoned, strikingly lit from above suggesting a prison grille, we get a close up projection of his mouth forming dark prophecies and stentorian outpourings. Presented initially in monochrome, it changes to colour as the heat of Salome’s desire increases. It’s moist and plump and when the camera turns 90 degrees, it looks like a vagina….. All this, appropriately, while Salome sings of her lascivious desire to kiss Jokanaan’s lips. Narraboth, meanwhile, is voyeuristically filming the proceedings on a hand-held video camera, hardly able to contain his base urges before he kills himself.

salome

The ensuing banquet scene presents Herod (Michael Colvin) as a bumptuous prancing clown, luxuriating in Narraboth’s gore which puddles on the stage. While he drunkenly cavorts, his wife Herodias (Susan Bickley) looks on, haggard and tight-lipped with disapproval. In contrast to the salacious action on stage and the decapitated My Little Pony with its spewing entrails, a giant image of a beautiful blindfolded boy – somewhat androgynous – fills the backdrop. Caravaggio-like, it was, for me, one of the most striking visuals of this visually-arresting production.

Salome’s girl-gang of maidservants perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. Béyoncé lookalikes – all swinging ponytails, golden leotards, face masks and chunky trainers – their dance is a mixture of aggressive pelvis-thrusting body-pump and sensuous masturbatory writhing. While this goes on, Salome tugs her long hair away, revealing a boyish cropped cut, perhaps signalling her appropriation of masculine powers.

And so to that denouement……You know full well what’s in the plastic bag – it has a horrible dread weight about it, palpable even from the Dress Circle. It’s like that scene in the film ‘Seven’, when Kevin Spacey appears before Brad Pitt with the closed cardboard box… We don’t need to look inside to know that something terrible, horrible, and disgusting is in there. The fact that Salome hardly looks at the bag containing the Baptist’s head lends an equal sense of disgust, as if she is cannot bring herself to look at the thing she thought she most desired. This recalls her first encounter with Jokanaan, where, despite her lascivious obsession, she never actually looks at him directly. The kiss, when it comes, is not placed upon Jokanaan’s dead lips but those of Herodias, Salome’s mother (who wanted Jokanaan dead all along). So “the shudder that counts” (Wilde) – maybe it was all in Salome’s head?

Salome continues at English National Opera until 23 October


FW

(Header image: Allison Cook as Salome; Jokanaan in his cistern by Catherine Ashmore)

 

Last chance to see ‘Augustus John: Drawn from Life’ at Poole Museum

Venture out of the metropolis for the day (or longer) to the small seaside town of Poole, next to Bournemouth, for a small but perfectly formed exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture by Augustus John, at one time considered one of the most famous British artists of the twentieth century, though his sister Gwen is now considered the greater talent.

John had a connection with Dorset from his time as a student at the Slade School of Art in London and in 1911, he set up home at Alderney Manor, in Poole, before moving in 1927 to Fryern Court, near Fordingbridge, on the Hampshire-Wiltshire-Dorset borders. This remained his main residence for the rest of his life.

The exhibition at Poole Museum is the first major exhibition focusing on John’s work since ‘Gwen John and Augustus John’ at Tate Britain in 2005. It’s curated by David Boyd Haycock, who has also curated a companion exhibition in Salisbury on John’s contemporary Henry Lamb, and which opens in Poole in 2019.

Already famous by the time he moved to Dorset, John sought solace and inspiration in the countryside around Alderney Manor. The pinewoods and beaches found their way into his paintings, rendered with a vibrantly-hued palette redolent of the south of France and the work of the Fauves. The portrait ‘Dorelia Among the Pines’ could easily be set in Provence.

Other works in the exhibition feature John’s children, rendered with tender affection. The drawings reveal John’s greatest artistic skill – as a draughtsman – and his famous sketch of T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) is here along with a rapid pencil drawing of Lawrence made in Paris*, strikingly spare and personal. John’s oil portrait of Lawrence in his Arab robes is also included.  (Visitors may be inspired to follow the “Lawrence Trail” – as we did – a short drive from Poole to Lawrence’s house Clouds Hill near Wareham, and thence to his grave in the pretty little village of Moreton; take in the Laurence Whistler engraved glass windows in the church as well.)

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T.E. Lawrence
by Augustus John
pencil, 1919 (National Portait Gallery)

This is a very fine exhibition, at least equal to a similar presentation at the Courtauld Gallery in London, revealing a more personal, intimate facet of John’s work at the mid-point of his career, while also confirming his status, at the time, as a leading artist.

We will be returning to Poole Museum in 2019 to see the Henry Lamb exhibition.

*Recently acquired by Poole Museum

Augustus John: Drawn from Life is at Poole Museum until 30th September


FW & NM

 

Header image: Augustus John, An Hour at Ower, 1914 © The estate of Augustus John / Bridgeman Images

 

Fortune’s Favours: ‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ at the Wallace Collection, London

Two people I would very much like to have been born as – either one of those majestic 19th-century American wives, the type who married multi-millionaires and set about shoe-horning culture and art into their husband’s lives, whether the husband liked it or no; or, Sir Richard Wallace. If neither of those is possible, I’d like to be reincarnated as the director of the Wallace, one fine day. I once had the delight of listening to Rosalind Savill talk about her years in charge there, and no talk by any ex-director could have been more unexpected or inspiring. The affection with which Dame Rosalind regarded her ‘charges’ in the collection, as she spoke of making them ‘happy’, is something Sir Richard, the collection’s founder, would have understood perfectly.

How to typify the Wallace? Can you, indeed? In spirit it’s maybe close to the passion of a collector such as Sir John Soane, who also founded his own public museum (there is something very English about this kind of obsession – think of the Ashmolean in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge). It’s something like the Frick in New York, only bigger, better, wider-ranging. There’s not an item in it that doesn’t have some claim to be exceptional – rare beyond belief if not unique, superlatively made, exquisitely beautiful. Just a few snapshots: the paintings include Hals’ Laughing Cavalier and Rembrandt’s portrait of his one surviving son, Titus, which is literally so lovely and painted with such love as to bring tears to the ears; the furniture includes masterpieces of the cabinetmaker’s art that would have had George IV weeping too, with envy. There are exquisite objets d’art from almost every country on earth, including in the current exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of Wallace’s birth, a gold mask from the Asante kingdom of Africa, which must have survived God knows what rude passage to find a resting place here, seconds from Oxford St. There is porcelain, armour, weaponry, maiolica, glass, bronzes and jewels. If you took the top 10% say, from the V&A, the Metropolitan in New York, the Frick itself and the Louvre, you might make a rival to the Wallace, but not otherwise. It takes more than money to be a collector at this level; it takes knowledge, taste; the passion that, now so few make or inherit money on that insane 19th-century scale, has transmogrified itself into the sensibility of the best museum curators or directors. And they still want the things in their charge to be happy.

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I think anything collected by Richard Wallace must have been very happy. Wallace had something of a charmed life of his own, to begin with. Born in 1818, and educated by the 4thMarquess of Hertford at his own expense, Wallace was then employed by the Marquess as his private secretary, and on the Marquess’s death in 1870 inherited a sizable chunk of the Hertford fortune, and all the Marquess’s own art collection, thus confirming every single suspicion that had ever been entertained concerning Wallace’s own likely parentage. Not that he and the 4thMarquess were that similar – the Marquess was the kind of skinflint-ish collector who one imagines rubbing his hands together as he locked his collection away and pocketed the key, hissing ‘Mine, mine, all mine!’ while Wallace himself was open-hearted and open-handed too. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, this globally minded soul contributed 2.5 million francs to relieve the suffering of the wounded and of those Brits the siege had trapped.

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The bicentenary exhibition is down on the Wallace’s sunken ground floor, past what may be one of the pleasantest places to sip coffee in London (yes, this really is a rather nice museum with an ace caff attached). It’s not large, it’s not boastful, but it is endlessly intriguing. It’s set up as a sort of catwalk of the pieces Wallace himself most loved and prized, including a diddy little French gold and enamel cutlery-set, too pretty to be used for eating anything beyond the odd macaroon, which Wallace bought as a very young man, then had to sell after he had over-reached himself as collector and before he came into the Hertford fortune, and hunted down anew and bought back, twenty years later. One of the joys of a collection such as this is the chance to play detective, linking together the separate treasures within it and providing your own psychological infill. The exhibition concludes with the last piece Wallace every bought, in 1888: a 17th-century bronze of an acrobat, 40 cm high, walking on his hands, muscles in his back tensed and ridged as he tries to bring his waving legs under control. He might be falling headlong; he might have conquered and suspended time. As the embodiment of the collector’s mentality, it’s all that needs be said.

JCH

‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ is at the Wallace Collection until 6 January 2019.

Rembrandt: Titus, the artist’s son, c.1657

Asante trophy head, 18th or 19th century

Barthélemy Prieur, An acrobat, c.1600

All images © The Wallace Collection

https://www.wallacecollection.org

LOST HISTORY RECLAIMED: William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load’

The first shot of World War I was fired in present-day Togo, in Africa. Did you know that? Nor did I. We know the name of the man who fired it – Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi, who was part of the British West Africa Frontier Force, fighting in what was at that time a German colony. Maybe a million Africans served under the British in World War I, and maybe 350,000 under the Germans, but we know hardly any of their names at all. They were carriers and porters for the most part, as un-individualized and to those they worked for, as easily replaceable as the mules and horses they worked alongside.

This is the starting point for William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load,’ a simply astounding piece of work that mixes his art with shadow-play, defunct documentation, African dance, early jazz, Dada-ist insanity and historical fact; plus the bodies and voices of an ensemble team of musicians, singers and dancers. At Tate Modern, the gloomy length of the stage gave it something of the feel of a mystery play as well – one moment, one image, succeeding the last in a manner that suggested the ticking-past of images on some lost newsreel of ghosts. ‘The head and the load are the troubles of the neck’, goes the African proverb that gives this piece its title; you might substitute ‘The white man and his wars are the troubles of the African.’

Kentridge was born in South Africa, white and Jewish, which placed him in the position of outsider, of observer, from the start. His spiky, graphic style takes genres apart. Is what you are looking at print-making, or an image in evolution into something else? Is it a print, at all, or is it an arrested animation? Also, Kentridge hates white paper. His images are made on newsprint, old textbook pages, out-of-date maps. In this show his spiky marking become the bodies of the Africans herded out of Africa and, shipped across Europe to end up in the battlefields of Belgium and France; background to the dancers acting out their suffering, the speeches demanding emancipation from those who returned home, the primitive technology that tried to literally shut them up and mow them down. I can’t imagine anything that would have made being there more hellish than arriving in the mud of Flanders as an African conscript, nameless – the names were deliberately unrecorded, in case one of them should perform some act worthy of a medal – and for the most part, bootless, too.

Tate.org man as speaker head and load

Print-making uses repetition; so does ‘The Head and the Load’, in a way that partly suggests the stalemate of the Western front, but also to drive its message home. You listen to a chorus long enough, are presented with the same statistics frequently enough, watch the pathetic attempt of two exhausted, ragged, wounded men to get back to safety down the length of the stage, and whether you like it or not, you are shamed into an emotional involvement with what you’re seeing. Occasionally the voices onstage – and what voices they are, what power, what richness – morph as you listen. A siren becomes a scream of anguish and of outrage, a screech of Dada-ist poetry the stutter of a machine-gun. To come out of a performance ashamed of the colour of my skin was a novelty, but this is what ‘The Head and the Load’ accomplishes, moving the audience to a standing ovation and in some cases, actual tears. The show moves to New York in December, to the Park Avenue Armory. Hats off to the Tate for having got it first.

armoryonpark.org, December 4th-15th 2018

Images © Stella Oliver

 

JCH

EAST MEETS EAST END: A NEW DIVAN AT WILTON’S MUSIC HALL

Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper lurked and where on Cable St Mosley’s Blackshirts were given many bloody noses by what you might now call the Antifa, but which in 1936 probably looked more like a good old-fashioned East End mob, is one of those astonishing East End survivors of Blitz and redevelopment; an entrancing and wonderfully looked-after love-letter to the days of Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd. It has been a background artiste in so many movies that it has literally added them to its fabric: its downstairs bar is built out of leftover props from Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. On the 20th June this year it was the setting for Toward A New Divan, A Celebration of East and West through Music and Poetry.

The original, old, ‘Divan’ was the brainchild of Goethe, no less, and is a collection of his poems inspired by the works of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. The 200th anniversary of its completion is approaching in 2019: to mark this, the Gingko Library, who are one of the most innovative putters-out of content in this area of East inspiring West and vice-versa, have created a New Divan: works from 24 of our planet’s leading international poets to continue the dialogue Goethe began. With the support of Amal – A Said Foundation project, Wilton’s is where it was launched.

Now the combination of music and poetry can be blissful, or it can be exhausting. On Thursday it was exhilarating, high-spirited, unexpected and delightful. There were just enough poems, including one by Hafiz himself – exquisite in the original Persian, memorable in its English translation – to whet the appetite and make one long for publication of the book; the real stars of the show were the musicians of ’Tafahum’.

Tafahum may be unique: Western strings, woodwind and keyboards matched with Eastern percussion, an oud (the Eastern precursor to the guitar), a qanun (like a harpsichord without the keys, laid across the lap and played by plucking the more than 70 strings), and a ney (that breathy, almost hoarse-sounding, Middle Eastern flute, that is to music from this part of the world what ras-el-hanout is to its cuisine). Their inspiration comes from everywhere – one especially charming piece, ‘Three Fishes Laughing’ was inspired by the perfect E natural note a tube-train makes coming into Highgate Station. Honours were shared between Tafahum’s two composers, Benjamin Ellin (‘a Northern lad’, as he described himself) and Syrian-born Loual Ahlenawi, virtuoso of the ney. Professor Mena Mark Hanna had already described – and illustrated, with a bit of impromptu and very tuneful plainsong – what Western music lost when on first contact it began westernizing and then making archeology of Easter music. Tafahum is part of the antidote to all of that, and part too, of a dialogue between the arts of East and West that has never been so vitally necessary. Goethe would have been captivated – the Blackshirts, spinning in their graves.

The New Divan, edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson, will be published in 2019, with events at the Hay and Edinburgh festivals, among others.

JCH

 

A Great Spectacle: a revved up RA Summer Exhibition & opening of new gallery spaces

Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1

The RA Summer Exhibition, 250 years old this year, is as English as strawberries and cream, Wimbledon tennis, and wasps at a summer picnic. It’s a key part of the summer season and is the world’s most democratic art show: any one can submit work, from professional artists to Sunday painters. Twenty years ago, my mother achieved a long-held dream and had three prints accepted for the Summer Show (this coincided with the birth of my son, her grandson, so it was a particularly special summer for her!). I’ve been going to the Summer Exhibition, initially with my artist mother, and latterly with friends and my co-reviewer NM for years now. It’s a curious beast – the format is essentially unchanged, but in recent years the exhibition has been coordinated by a leading artist, who, along with the hanging committee, brings a personal vision to the show. In fact, the unchanging format of the exhibition always leads NM and I to ponder “what will this year’s show be like?” as we make our way to Burlington House.

On the occasion of the exhibition’s quarter-millennium birthday, this year’s coordinator is Academician, Turner Prize winner and lovable National Treasure Grayson Perry, and his love of colour and keen, but largely benign, eye on the paradoxes of modern society and its social mores, has resulted in a significantly zhuzhed up show. It’s vibrant, witty and joyful, with much to amuse and delight, and also give pause for more serious reflection on where we are today: there are two works concerning Grenfell Tower and a Brexit piece by Bansky in the same room (its walls painted sunshine yellow) as a rather pompous picture of Nigel Farage (beneath – perhaps significantly, depending on how you wish to read it – a picture of a dog vomiting). These on point juxtapositions combined with a show pulsating with vivid colours, textures and vibrant imagination make this the best Summer Exhibition I have seen in years.

 

 

 

Added to that the 250th anniversary marks the opening of expanded galleries, and the Summer Exhibition takes the visitor on an intriguing meander through some of the new spaces. The RA acquired the building on Burlington Gardens which used to house the Museum of Mankind, an elegant Victorian pile, and it’s been transformed thanks to architect David Chipperfield into a pale and interesting gallery space, and increasing the RA’s footprint by 70%.

An elegant bridge joins Burlington House with the Burlington Gardens building. Visitors descend via the original garden steps, uncovered and set alongside cool shiny terrazzo. In this exhibition space, there are paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures (including two fascinating anatomical sculptures) from the RA collection, works not previously displayed, to remind the visitor that this is also an art school – an academy. A large, uber modern picture window offers a glimpse into what was once an unseen yard, now attratively laid out by landscape architects Wirtz: when finished, it’s going to be really wonderful. From here, you can also appreciate the rear of Burlington House and the scale of the building, before proceeding into the expanded gallery space. Visitors can appreciate not only the well-proportioned public rooms, but also the “below stairs” details such as the 18th-century brick vaults, which have been beautifully restored. The loos are pretty stunning too – sleek steel cubicles set in a room to delight any bricklayer worth his salt (I know my builder, Hugh, would appreciate the craftsmanship and skill of his 18th-century counterparts).

Back to the Summer Exhibition, and not content to be confined to the main gallery, the show spills out into the courtyard of Burlington House, with a giant sculpture by Anish Kapoor, and beyond – onto Piccadilly and the surrounding streets. Look up and you’ll see colourful flags designed by leading Academicians fluttering in the summer breeze (read more here). It’s clear that as coordinator of this year’s show, Perry has done wonders for it – no longer a rather worthy trudge through contemporary art, it’s now a vibrant celebration of creativity and imagination and I hope this sets a positive precedent for future years.

Recommended

FW

 

Poor David Griffiths, he only wanted to see his respectful portrait of Nigel Farage hanging in the 250th Summer Exhibition. According to his website, Griffiths is ‘one of Wales’ most well-known portrait painters…trained at The Slade School of Art… under the direction of Sir William Coldstream, Sir Ernst Gombrich and Sir Anthony Blunt’. Impressive credentials indeed. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get some national coverage. So why did they have to go and stick ‘Farage’ underneath a picture of a dog throwing up and next to a giant fibreglass sculpture of the Pink Panther?

The Royal Academy, it would be fair to say, has evolved since the days when a former president, Sir Alfred Munnings, offered to horsewhip Picasso in the name of art. You couldn’t argue that the RA, one of our most prestigious cultural institutions, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. All the same, Grayson Perry was an inspired choice to chair this year’s selection committee, because if you need someone to blow away the residual cobwebs, Perry’s the man. Only don’t expect him to take things too seriously.

Perry, with characteristic pizzazz, has used the raw material of the ‘send ins’ (including, it must be admitted, some right old tat) to deliver a droll commentary on the world of art, and indeed the world generally, in 2018. There’s sterling support for this project from Perry’s co-curators, including Phyllida Barlow, Conrad Shawcross and Cornelia Parker, and an impressive line-up of guest artists, among them Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman and Anselm Kiefer.

Don’t miss the Sackler Gallery, on the second floor, which this year has been made over to printmaking, and where among other things you’ll will see an intaglio print by Queen Sonja of Norway no less. This I find deeply symbolic. Thirty years ago, the best we could hope for from royalty would have been a fussy little Prince Charles watercolour accompanied by much bowing and scraping from Sir Hugh Casson. But – guess what? – Queen Sonja actually has talent. She’s also, for good measure, a member of Europe’s funkiest dynasty: last year she and King Harald celebrated their 80th birthdays with a surfing holiday in South Africa.

NM

Chris Orr MBE RA /The Fauves Picnic/Silkscreen 55 x 75cm John Bodkin / Dawkinscolour

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 12 June – 19 August

Full details

 

Header image: Michael Landy RA, Closing Down Sale, Mixed media and audio (Image courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, © Michael Landy)