The early 1600’s in Britain are best known for the political upheaval surrounding the English Civil War rather than an illustrious arts scene, however the Royal Academy of Arts’ current ‘Charles I: King and Collector’ exhibition certainly questions that. Twelve vast gallery spaces across Burlington House are dedicated to showcasing the kings’ collection, and the walls of each gallery are painted a vivid shade of regal blue or red and act as the perfect backdrop for works by Anthony Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Pieter Bruegel, Andrea Mantegna and Hans Holbein amongst others. These works have been sourced from the Royal Collection, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Frick Collection in New York and various private stores, and reunited for the first time in over four centuries, having been sold off following Charles I execution in 1649. The show flows easily, manages to feel relaxed despite its grandeur, and the works bounce off each other; evident in the opening gallery where a portrait by Van Dyck of Charles I from three different angles is positioned behind a marble sculpture of the kings torso, marrying the two together. The sheer scale of several paintings, four enormous tapestries from the Mortlake workshop and the nine canvases depicting the ‘Triumph of Caesar’ by Mantegna shown side by side in one space is truly staggering. Status affirming images are common, but this exhibition does more than simply portray Charles I as king, and there are numerous family portraits and intimate scenes between himself and his wife Henrietta Maria on display. The final gallery focusses on Van Dyck and Rubens, two artists who owe their careers to Charles I who commissioned several works, including the ceilings of Banqueting House by Rubens which are likely to have been the final images the king saw before being beheaded outside it.
Painting over 90 canvases is a large project to undertake, let alone complete in just over two years… but that is exactly what David Hockney achieved in recent years, and 82 of these portraits and 1 still-life are currently on display in The Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy. Each portrait shares the same dimensions, is painted in acrylic on canvas, has the same background colours of a turquoise and light blue, and show the subject seated in the same chair – making it obvious why Hockney views them collectively as a single body of work. The portraits are densely hung side by side in three galleries at eye level, and the uniformity of both the paintings and their installation is very intense yet left me cold. Lamentably as I moved from one portrait to the next I started finding the exhibition repetitive, failed to notice subtle differences in posture, facial expression and attire, and was relieved when one of the sitters failed to show up to their appointment forcing Hockney to deviate and paint a still-life of some fruit! Having garnered some more information from the visitor handout I decided to have a second look and certain elements of the project became more interesting; none of the portraits were commissioned so each one is of a family member, friend, fellow artist or associate, and each portrait was executed within three days (the longest amount of time Hockney felt he could ask of anyone). I also enjoyed Hockney’s lampooning of selfies and his refusal to paint any “celebrities”, reaffirming the importance of the painted portrait over a photograph taken on a mobile phone. The project is unarguably an impressive feat and armed with more context it was certainly more engaging on a second loop around the galleries, however on an aesthetic level the exhibition still failed to excite or inspire.
Lamentably June’s weather may not be yielding any indication of summer, however The Royal Academy’s annual ‘Summer Exhibition’ which opened on 13th June has denoted the beginning of the season in the art world. Now in its 248th year, the exhibition is something of a London institution and is certainly worth a visit. As you turn off Piccadilly and enter the gallery’s courtyard, you are greeted by Ron Arad’s monumental sculpture ‘Spyre’, an 18 metre tall moving cone with a camera at its apex constantly filming the surrounding area from different angles which is then projected onto Burlington House. This impact is echoed in the stairwell featuring photographic images by Jane and Louise Wilson, and again in the opening gallery (The Central Hall) which includes a huge yellow neon sign ‘Forever’ by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, a hand painted photograph on canvas of Marie Antoinette by Pierre et Gilles, and a stone Petrified Petrol Pump by Allora and Calzadilla amongst others. This years’ show is co-ordinated by Richard Wilson RA, and with a staggering 1,240 works on display it is as vast, densely hung, varied and subjective as ever. The open submission nature of the show ensures that all mediums are represented from watercolour, to etching, engraving, printing, sculpture, installation, photography and digital, from both established artists and emerging talent. The standout piece for me is Katlug Ataman’s digital installation ‘The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci’ created from 10,000 LCD panels which hang above head height, each containing a portrait photograph of someone the Turkish philanthropist knew prior to his death fifteen years ago. Anything controversial is collated in Gallery IX including Michael Stokes explicit clay sculptures, Rachel Maclean’s digital orgy prints, and The Kipper Kids provocative photographic images. I liked the fact that Wilson does not seem to want to provoke or generate conversation by being deliberately shocking, instead he consciously explores the theme of artistic duos in this years’ show. So if London’s skies are going to remain grey I’d suggest heading to the RA for a burst of colour, lightness and humour to fake summer at their aptly titled exhibition!