From the archives
The selection for the Royal Academy summer show has always provoked debate. Writing in June 1933, Herbert Furst rebuked the institution for its lack of radicalism – retracting his position the following year when confronted with Stanley Spencer.
Robert O’Byrne, Friday, 1st June 2012
This month the Royal Academy’s ‘Summer Exhibition’ opens to the public (4 June - 12 August), as it has done annually without interruption since 1769. And if the RA’s event has proven a hardy perennial in the British cultural calendar, so too are the questions asked around this time of year about the institution and its purpose. In the June 1933 edition of Apollo, for example, Herbert Furst tackled precisely these themes as he tried to make sense of the summer show and its disparate contents.
Seeking support in the endeavour, Furst found an unlikely ally in one of George V’s sons, the Duke of Gloucester. Historians portray the Duke as fundamentally decent but dull, a man more engaged by matters military than aesthetic. Nonetheless he had recently been guest of honour at a Royal Academy banquet, where he uttered a series of aphorisms that suggest the input of a speechwriter. ‘There is skill in art,’ pronounced the Duke, ‘but not necessarily art in skill.’ In addition: ‘There are some pictures which are really only remarkable for the fact that the paint has kept its colour for so many years.’ Delivered in a sufficiently brittle tone these remarks might have come from a play by Noel Coward, an intimate of the speaker’s mondaine younger brother, the Duke of Kent.
Furst, evidently an ardent royalist, declared the Duke’s aperçus had shown ‘an uncommon common sense about art,’ not least his argument that artists should be encouraged ‘to provide food for human imagination.’ As far as Furst was concerned, the Royal Academy and its members had singularly failed to meet this commitment in 1933. ‘It is precisely such an institution,’ he ordained, ‘which should encourage and exhibit works of national interest and significance. It is here, too, that the experimental artist who tries out new forms of expression, or the pictorial poet who lets his imagination soar, should find opportunities.’
This seems an inordinate responsibility, made all the greater by further comments in which Furst, without providing names, advised readers that ‘at least two important imaginative pictures’ had been refused inclusion in the 1933 summer show.
‘It is difficult, in the circumstances,’ he declaimed, ‘to imagine any other reason for this than the exercise of a kind of censorship, a curb on the “Freedom of Speech” which is a privilege that the artist, like other citizens, in this country at least, is entitled.’
While appreciating that the era in which these words were written witnessed the rise of Fascism with its attendant suppression of free speech, even so their author can be accused of engaging in hyperbole. Limitations of space have meant the Royal Academy, and other similar bodies elsewhere, always decline at least as many submissions as they accept. According to the RA website, at the moment the summer show receives over 12,000 works for consideration, of which approximately one tenth are chosen. Does this make the institution guilty of ‘a kind of censorship’ or regretfully selective in what it chooses to exhibit?
Surely the latter is more likely to be the case, and Furst himself displayed the same selectivity
just a year later when reviewing the RA’s latest summer show for Apollo. Amongst the artists whose work he chose to notice was Stanley Spencer, by then an Associate of the Academy. Furst evidently disliked Spencer as much as he admired the Duke of Gloucester, describing the painter as ‘surely the most remarkable man living, for he is apparently able to take leave of his senses and to let them carry on without him when he likes.’ Spencer’s pictures in the 1934 exhibition were judged to be ‘quite as astonishing as some works of nature, in fact I am rather inclined to rank them as such; but they certainly have no business in the Academy.’ Although Spencer was surely the embodiment of ‘the pictorial poet who lets his imagination soar’, Furst was now happy to propose the same form of censorship he had so deplored 12 months earlier. He must have been cheered when the artist resigned his Associate-ship in 1935 after the Academy’s hanging committee rejected two pictures.
That year Furst’s views on the Royal Academy continued to be as muddled and quixotic as before, but he got it right when suggesting the organisation and its members were, like lawyers or parliament-arians, obliged to behave in a fashion ‘prescribed by precedence’. Little has changed since then. For an example of how to behave in the face of criticism, the RA could do worse than look to someone responsible for the maintenance of another national institution: the Duke of Gloucester’s niece who this year marks the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne.
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy