December 19, 2018

From Life: a disappointing exhibition at the Royal Academy where a ticket doesn’t guarantee seeing all the show

The small exhibition brochure for From Life at the Royal Academy is solely an in-depth look at the history of life drawing. One might expect that the show itself would also be an in-depth look at the history of life drawing. But this isn’t the case, though the RA website reinforces the impression with a picture of artists in a life room, links to life drawing classes and the sentence ‘Beginning with historic works drawn from the RA Collection, From Life traces a line from the origins of the RA in the 18th century to the present day’. There are a few historic works and there are many more present day works, but there isn’t much of a line traced between the two.

The 18th century oils in the first room suggest an historical survey is coming, but the work that follows is almost entirely contemporary. The exhibition fills four relatively small rooms and the walls of the largest room are indeed covered with life drawings. But these works are not chosen for their quality or their place in the development of life drawing. They are there because they are part of a conceptual piece by Jeremy Deller. In 2016 he got lots of people to have a go drawing Iggy Pop. Yes, it’s an art work from life, but as the show claims to cover the 18th century to todaygiving such a large percentage of the available space to one piece of work is surely too much. Several works that did help trace[s] a line from the origins of the RA in the 18th century to the present day could have been shown instead.

If the show is too small to devote so much space to one work, it is also too small for the different interpretations of the title that it tries to follow, such as the use of casts and casting by artists. The interpretation widens to seemingly include any works that have developed from the human form, leading to a confusion of pieces that are technically from life, but are related in little meaningful way.

But the biggest problem is that you may well not be able to see the whole show even though you have bought a ticket. Small print on the website mentions that The visitor’s experience of the virtual reality element within the exhibition will depend on availability. As each virtual reality artwork can only be experienced individually, access cannot be guaranteed.  This states the truth, but not the full extent of it. I was told at the door to the VR part of the show that if visitors stayed for their allocated length of time then 12 people an hour could experience the virtual reality. Given the number of people that go to RA exhibitions, (73,000 visited a recent Jean-Etienne Leotard exhibition in the Sackler Wing), most people are not going to be able to see this part of the show. When I visited I was one of those most people. Even though there were two hours until the gallery closed the queue was already too long for me to join.

But what of the elements of the show that do work? Jenny Saville’s work is visceral and includes a fitting sketch of her new-born baby. We see more amateur drawings in Gillian Wearing’s area, but unlike Deller’s work the results don’t take up too much space and they remind of how we do not control how others see us. A video of Chinese students drawing a head of Michelangelo’s David perpetuates ideas of mass-production. Following on from Deller’s work it shows how life drawing has, at least here, lost connotations of genius and become yet something else for the world to churn out. The impact of looking at life drawing in, as it were, the flesh, is taken away and here it becomes something else for us to sadly experience at once-remove on a screen.

From Life is a collection of disparate art-works, some only tangentially linked to the life room. The contents of the brochure shows that an historical survey of the subject was deemed relevant, but as the subject matter is visual it would have benefited from more pictures on walls and less words on paper. If the exhibition was bigger the oblique links could work, but walking around the show feels like flicking channels on a TV and catching only a snippet of each programme before jumping straight to another. And you may well not even be able to see all the works in the show anyway. It makes for an unsatisfying experience.

Until 11th March

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