Art Review: From Life, Royal Academy ‘A Disappointing, Incoherent Show’


How best to put this? The RA is ending the year on a disappointing note for me for as From Life – this small exhibition in the Sackler Wing that supposedly examines what making art from life has meant to artists throughout history, and how this practice is evolving with the arrival of new technology – has to be one of the most incoherent shows of the year.

In truth, I genuinely don’t understand why the RA decided to not only take this subject on, but to do so in its smallest galleries. The topic of life drawing – its history and how contemporary artists have challenged this, at times, controversial practice – is a huge subject. HUGE. It has spanned the entire length of art history.

So what was the curatorial decision here? Well, it seems to have been to focus on contemporary artists and to consider how the emergence of female artists has reclaimed the objectification of the female nude, how male artists such as Freud have challenged the notion of ‘beauty’ in female nudes by depicting bigger women, the role of male nudes in contemporary art, and the advent of new technology.

Now you’re probably thinking, ooh, that doesn’t sound so bad. Well, hold your horses because the works that have been selected are shockers. Well, most of them.

The show starts off by setting the scene, so the RA has dusted off some huge oil paintings and etchings of life drawing classes from the 1800s at the Academy itself, alongside of which is a whole wall of text explaining that life drawing classes were pretty much mandatory at art schools until about the 1980s when Goldsmiths banned them, concerned with the objectification of women. (They’ve been revived since but rarely as compulsory – more optional.)

If you have the misfortune of attending this exhibition, you’ll saunter through this gallery without much of a second glance. There’s nothing memorable here. Only you’ll be jumping from the forgettable to the outright bizarre as what greets you in the second gallery are the results of a drawing class of Iggy Pop in the nude in New York in 2016, set up Jeremy Deller.

Each of the walls in this gallery – the largest in the show – is covered by the various sketches of Iggy completed by the young artists who drew him. And, I’ll say this as kindly as I can, the results aren’t great. I mean, there’s no undiscovered Michelangelo of the 21st century on display here.

Why is this here? Why has the bulk of the show been set aside to display all of these decent-at-best- sketches of this rock icon in the nude. I don’t get it. If we’re making some kind of comment on male nudes here, well, why choose this particular experiment? Nothing meaningful is being said and nothing marvellous was created.

So, it’s through to Gallery Three and what is a jumble of works. We’ve a whopping 18th century plaster cast of a Roman statue on a plinth next to a couple of immediately-recognisable Yinka Shonibare sculptures – the skin of which has been smothered with African designs. (The Shonibares are lovely works but how many times have we seen these recently??) And on the wall opposite is a couple of prints from Jonathan Yeo where he used current virtual reality technology to create works.

The Yeo works are bland and uninspiring – so much so that you wonder why he bothered. Interestingly, Tim Marlow, the Royal Academy’s Artistic Director, said in his introductory speech at the press view for this show that an angle for contemporary art is where the process has become as much a critical part of the artwork as the final product. Maybe so, but when all an artwork has of interest is the process, surely we’ve got to question this?

Still, let’s be kind and say this is work in progress and move on to the fourth and final gallery.

Now, I will travel miles to see a Jenny Saville so I took a lot of pleasure from seeing her dark and troubling, Entry, 2004-5. Jenny has built her reputation on challenging the way female nudes are depicted, often using fleshier models and covering them with marker pen outlines, as if preparing them for cosmetic surgery.

However, it must be said that perhaps this close-up of a bruised face isn’t quite in keeping with a show that is focusing on nudes. Perhaps this is more the From Life part, that it isn’t so much nudes but life in general. Which may also explain how Gillian Wearing’s wall of self-portraits got into this show. Though if we’re extending that remit out from nudes to life in general, well, where do we stop?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the Saville, as I did the Chantal Joffes nearby and the Antony Gormley statue. Though again, what links these three sets of works is lost to me. They contain nudes, yes, but you could have pulled any set of nudes from a variety of contemporary artists. Why these three? Why these works?

And that, really, sums up my bemusement on this show – of all the works and artists that could have been selected, why these ones? Nothing unites them, the thread that binds this show together is lost to me.

Chatting about this show with a friend afterwards, she asked whether I would bother writing a review – after all, I’m not one who takes pleasure in knocking art and artists down. But here’s the thing; this show has an admission fee. Had this exhibition been free to enter, perhaps I would have put the pen down (metaphorical, obviously, as I’m typing!). However, as this show has, pretty much, the same admission charge as the far more impressive Rachel Whiteread survey at Tate Britain, which I also ummed and aahed over the admission fee for, I feel compelled to review From Life, if only to warn people away from it.

This show isn’t value for money, it isn’t coherent, and the bulk of the works on display are average at best. This is a disappointing and strange show from the RA. I mean this as nicely as I can – please, if you have money to spend on visiting art shows, there are far more worthy exhibitions elsewhere.

Royal Academy of Arts, London, to March 11, 2018
Admission £13.50 incl. donation (£12 without). Concessions available.

Image Credits:
1. Jenny Saville, Entry, 2004â??5. Oil on canvas, 240 x 191 cm © Jenny Saville Courtesy the artist and Gagosian
2. Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller. Organised by the Brooklyn Museum, February 21, 2016. Photo: Elena Olivo, (c) Brooklyn Museum
3. Jonathan Yeo, The Preserving Machine, 2017 © Jonathan Yeo studio
4. Chantal Joffe, Self-Portrait with Hand on Hip, 2016. Oil on board. 201.6 x 90 x 6 cm © Chantal Joffe, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

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