Issue Number: 111
Christopher Le Brun RA, the co-ordinator of this year’s Summer Exhibition, chose to create a ‘Salon hang’ in the Academy’s grandest gallery. He talks to Giles Waterfield about why he wants to fill it to the brim with paintings.
This year’s Summer Exhibition illustrates how radical it can be to explore the past. The painter Christopher Le Brun RA, who is organising the show, explained that the idea for his ‘Salon hang’ in Gallery III – the RA’s grandest space – came out of a heated debate among the Academicians over lunch.
'As is the tradition, Academicians are invited to speak, and we go round the table. The first artist promptly launched a blistering attack on the whole concept of the Summer Exhibition, saying, “It is an absolute disgrace. When are we going to get rid of it? We should be ashamed of it.” He went on in that spirit, with all of us sat stony-faced.
‘The next Academician, an elderly painter who is normally very quiet, was furious. He laid into him with some passion. And the first RA, who thought everyone would have agreed with him, was completely shocked. I was the next to speak and I thought, “Shall I throw petrol on?” Then I thought that the debate underway was good. Sometimes I think like the first artist, sometimes like the second. But it’s important to look at this in a broader sense. With the Summer Exhibition we’ve got something that nobody else does: it’s a tradition of over two centuries, and the sales of the art raise essential funds for the RA Schools. Why not enjoy it, be confident about it and present this vast panoply of art in all its rich complexity.’
This is, in fact, what used to happen in the Salons of the past, which were filled to the rafters with the new art of their day. Until around 1880, in most art exhibitions in Europe the walls were painted dark red or green, and densely covered with paintings to accommodate the maximum number of works. This style of display is known as a ‘Salon hang’, after the biennial exhibitions of new work held in the Salon Carré of the Louvre from the eighteenth century onwards. It was applied in the early Royal Academy exhibitions at Somerset House and later in Burlington House, notably in Gallery III – the largest space in the Royal Academy and historically the Summer Exhibition’s climax.
Though a magnificent visual impression was made, the disadvantages of this approach were often discussed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The tightly packed pictures produced a highly competitive atmosphere in which artists fought for attention: Turner was particularly known for his aggressive attitude, retouching his pictures after they had been installed in order to outshine his neighbours. Artists complained that their pictures could not be appreciated or had been ‘skied’ – hung out of sight at the top of the room. Gainsborough was so upset by the treatment of his delicate works that he withdrew completely from RA exhibitions in 1784. On the other hand, the profusion of works crowding the walls of the Salons gave these exhibitions an inclusive nature, enabling visitors to make their own decisions about what to look at.
By the early twentieth century, the dense style of hanging was being replaced in European and American galleries by the modern, linear arrangement of a single row of paintings on a wall, each surrounded by a large area of (generally white) wall, and twentieth-century works have almost never been hung in the old Salon style.
One reason why the ‘Salon hang’ worked in its day was that almost all of the pictures on show were unified by certain artistic conventions taught at art academies, of which the tradition of figurative representation within a framed space was the strongest. As Le Brun points out, ‘Even the most radical painters in the nineteenth century were in touch with the classical roots of art, but today there is little feeling for these roots.’ The abandonment of these conventions in the twentieth century, and artists’ growing experimentation and individuality now make the close juxtaposition of pictures much harder to carry off.
This year, however, Le Brun is taking up that challenge. He believes that people tend to overlook the impact which should be made by Gallery III, with its vast space, five-metre-high walls and beautiful natural light. This year he is arranging the gallery as a Salon hang, much as it might have been in 1880.
When visitors reach the top of the stairs at Burlington House, instead of turning immediately left into the Summer show, as is the usual practice, they will enter the central octagon in front of them, which will contain large-scale photographic works. On their right, will be a ‘white cube’ space, hung by Michael Craig-Martin RA in the contemporary style of display, which is now universally applied in art museums and commercial galleries – ‘a modern orthodoxy’, says Le Brun. On their left, however, they will see Gallery III, painted in a dark colour, and densely hung with works by Academicians, Honorary Academicians and other artists. The ‘Salon hang’, says Le Brun, ‘makes looking at art a dense and full experience and it makes much more explicit the range of possibilities of contemporary painting. It’s as if there is no mainstream.’
Le Brun and his colleagues are choosing the works for Gallery III with great care: ‘It is essential to treat each painting with respect,’ he says. He entered the selection process with an open mind, but he is conscious that the pictures suitable for this hang are those that can make an impact from a distance (since many of them will be hung high), and which do not demand a close study of brushwork. They may be either figurative or abstract. Some of the works will be on a large scale – paintings by invited artists, such as Per Kirkeby and Keith Tyson, as well as by Le Brun himself – but by no means all. In the traditional Salon hang, it was customary to place one large-scale work in the centre of each wall, and he is following this approach on the longer walls. In the nineteenth century special straight-edged exhibition frames were sometimes used to let the pictures touch one another, but this technique cannot be replicated because many paintings today are not framed at all.
‘Contemporary art is highly complex,’ says Le Brun, ‘in the sense that there is a rather chaotic profusion of parallel and rival traditions, and even at the Royal Academy our approach to painting no longer represents an agreed position. In my Salon hang, it may be difficult to detect any sense of cultural continuity, but there is one. Many schools of art are represented simultaneously. There is a great variety, as well as a generosity in the notion of a room absolutely full of painting. I see it as a feast for the eye, but it’s also a kind of battle of the paintings because you see profoundly different artistic personalities side by side.’
Le Brun is determined that the potential of Gallery III’s grand proportions should be maximised, while always being conscious of the principle of hanging by eye, using visual judgements, rather than hanging by theme. ‘Much contemporary art is seen in a minimal way that is an attempt to determine the response of the spectator,’ Le Brun explains. ‘I see this Salon hang as giving viewers a chance to find their own way through an exhibition, without being over-controlled by a curatorial view.’
In spite of all the difficulties a modern Salon hang poses, this is an exciting experiment: it will be intriguing to see what impact it makes on the orthodoxy of contemporary picture display. And it could probably not be attempted anywhere but in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition: as Le Brun says, ‘The Summer Exhibition is unique – why not use its possibilities to the full? The Salon hang is a very unusual way of seeing art today – and it may not be how artists would normally choose to show their work. So it’s worth enjoying it here.’