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Monet, Hockney, Van Gogh: remember these RA blockbusters?

Published 13 May 2018

As our transformed campus lays the foundations for another 250 years of blockbuster art exhibitions, Artistic Director Tim Marlow takes stock of some of the RA’s most popular shows since 1768.

  • From the summer 2018 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    What do the following all have in common: the Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of St John Klimakos from Sinai’s monastery of St Catherine, the Linton Panel rock painting from South Africa, the terracotta eagle warrior from the Templo Mayor in Mexico and the ancient Greek bronze Dancing Satyr with alabaster eyes found off Sicily?

    Or, if you prefer, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Titian’s visceral masterpiece The Flaying of Marsyas and Cimabue’s restored Crucifixion from Santa Croce? I could add Goya’s Maja, clothed and unclothed, Matisse’s The Dance, Pollock’s Blue Poles and Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Then, there are the horses from Basilica St Marco in Venice and Constable’s Leaping Horse, not to mention a whole herd of horse paintings by Alfred Munnings. How about buddhas and bestiaries, gods and goddesses, Stone Age hand-axes and contemporary naked five-aside football matches? I could go on… and on and on… but as you’ve probably guessed, they have all been exhibited at the Royal Academy over the years, highlights of an exhibitions programme that is unrivalled anywhere in Britain, at the very least.

  • Like the origins of the institution itself, the establishing of a regular series of loan exhibitions at the RA was long and labyrinthine. The Summer Exhibition began at the start of the RA’s life and has remained a constant ever since, but it wasn’t until 1870 that the Winter Exhibition was staged. This mixture of Old Masters and what the RA’s Annual Report called “specimens of works of deceased British artists” came by way of the British Institution and the Burlington Fine Arts Club and is eloquently explored by MaryAnne Stevens and Robin Simon in their impressive new history of the RA. For the previous 100 years, the RA had been fiercely committed to contemporary art and there remained strong resistance to exhibiting the art of the past, but the move to Burlington House and the construction of Sydney Smirke RA’s epic, top-lit suite of galleries offered an opportunity that, thankfully, was not to be missed. In the opening room, from 3 January 1870, the public saw paintings by Velázquez, Holbein, Rembrandt and Rubens. Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks was there too, alongside the RA’s own Leonardo cartoon, tragically to be sold in 1962.

    Interspersed were homegrown works by Reynolds, Wilson, Cotman and plenty of others, part of the RA’s mission to raise the status of British art and artists. In addition to the 161 works by aforementioned masters of British and European art, there were 74 paintings (or “specimens of works”) by recently deceased Academicians C.R. Leslie and Clarkson Stanfield. A total of 52,660 visitors came in eight weeks and the loan exhibitions programme was up and running.

    The aims of this and all subsequent exhibitions have remained essentially the same: to help educate artists, to broaden public taste and to elevate the status of art and artists in Britain. There was also the issue of funding an independent charity and with a profit of £1,884 generated by the first loan exhibition, the beginnings of a new financial model also began to take root.

  • Installation view of the RA’s ‘Exhibition of Italian Art 1200-1900’ in 1930

    Installation view of the RA’s ‘Exhibition of Italian Art 1200-1900’ in 1930

    Royal Academy of Arts

  • As I look back over the past 150 years of exhibitions here, what stands out is the sense of the RA being able to programme anything, so long as it’s good enough. Nowhere has shown quite the range and quality so consistently for so long to so many visitors. The interwar years seem pivotal, with a minimum of three shows a year beginning in 1920, and the staging of a whole host of monumental exhibitions surveying national schools. Over half a million visitors saw the great Exhibition of Italian Art, 1200-1900 in 1930 and it is still the fourth most visited exhibition in our history. Flanders and Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and France all had their moment and Germany was on the cards until war broke out in 1939. British art was given profile and opportunity, but the parameters went far beyond European art. Over 3,000 works were on display in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in 1935-36, the majority of them shipped by the Royal Navy. Some 401,768 visitors came to see them, although just under 40 years later, The Genius of China attracted 771,466 visitors. This makes it our best attended show although, forgive my tendency to list, at 6,651 visitors a day, it comes in at number four in terms of daily average.

  • If you’re interested, and obviously I am, Monet in the 90s, from 1990, is number three with an average of 7,003 people per day. David Hockney RA’s A Bigger Picture from 2012 is at number two and Monet in the 20th Century from 1999 tops the list with a staggering daily average of 8,698. Am I envious? Of course. Will this ever be repeated? Sadly no – not because we lack the ambition but because health and safety regulations have changed somewhat and I think we would be closed down if numbers reached that particular peak.

    The first exhibition I ever saw at the RA was the Stanley Spencer RA retrospective in 1980. I was a schoolboy down from the sticks, so everything in London was met with a wide-eyed incredulity and uncritical enthusiasm. But I remember the combination of quirkiness and grandeur in seeing those intensely personal visions on the walls of such great galleries. I wish I’d seen A New Spirit in Painting in 1981, but it was Exhibitions Secretary Norman Rosenthal’s phenomenal series of 20th-century surveys, of British, German, Italian and American art, that made the programme so compelling under his watch. From that time on, I’ve not missed an exhibition at the RA.

  • It’s not that everything has been to my taste but there’s something about the history and momentum, the quality and the vision, the place and its spaces, that have made exhibitions here unmissable. It’s a view I know many of you share. It also makes my job as Artistic Director a privilege and a pleasure, but a daunting one too. How do you follow all that has gone before? The answer is, I hope, ambitiously, collegially, surprisingly, opportunistically, critically… and in ways I don’t yet fully understand. But for tasters: this autumn we stage the first major survey in Britain of the art and culture of Oceania; the RA is now dedicated to a major annual architecture exhibition; and you will see a commitment to making regular landmark exhibitions with living artists in the RA’s great spaces, not least Marina Abramovic Hon RA in 2020, who will be the first woman to take on the entirety of the Main Galleries. As you may have read, she’s having one million volts pumped through her as part of her working preparations, which – if you’ll excuse the pun – implies that our future exhibitions programme will be as super-charged as it’s possible to be.

  • Tim Marlow is Artistic Director of the Royal Academy.


    • Join the Art Party

      19-20 May

      Explore and celebrate the new RA at our free weekend-long opening party, with workshops, tours, displays and late-night performances and DJs.

      This weekend of creativity marks the opening of a transformed RA, with free displays of art and architecture all across our new cultural campus, designed by David Chipperfield RA.

      Courtyard

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