Thursday, March 15, 2007

Citizens and Kings (but no citizens)

Am I wrong in saying you go to an exhibition not because it has a pretty title but because it has pretty pictures? You're there for the art, not the signage.

So what does it matter if a show's name amounts to the grossest case of mal-titling since Midnight Express turned out not be about trains? The pictures are no worse, the curating is as precise, the catalogue as expensive.

This is exercising me because the Royal Academy has staked a lot on a title and lost.

Its latest easel-busting show is called Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830. The problem is that it lacks citizens.

Does it matter? In this case, yes, since the title reflects the exhibition's thesis: that the royalty and aristocracy who consumed so many gallons of paint in early Enlightenment portraiture were replaced by the lower classes - you and me, buddy.

The truth is, however, that the exhibition's title is an oxymoron: portraiture by its very nature at this time excluded average citizens, the sans culottes in the streets and the musket-wielders on the battlefields. Who really had the time or the money to appear in portraits? Not the workers, for sure.

The only citizens who feature in this show are the upper bourgeoisie, and that is not enough to justify the title's revolutionary implications. The title argues that portraitists started capturing new, lower ranks of life, but the art contradicts this.

The pivot on which the show is meant to turn from king to commoner is David's Death of Marat (1793) (right). Jean-Paul Marat, a radical, violent, anti-royalist Jacobin, is shown as a Christ-like martyr to the Revolution after his assassination by royalist Charlotte Corday. (His pose evokes Christ coming off the cross.) The shocking use of dark space, fully covering half the canvas, sets off the corpse, as does the almost heavenly light shining on it.

The portrait achieved rapid replication and was distributed among the Parisian crowds, the equivalent of Anna Nicole Smith's corpse shots appearing on the web, although Marat inspired revolution, not revulsion.

But Marat was hardly the average citizen, the man on la rue who would benefit from liberté, égalité, fraternité. His career had been as eminent scientist and doctor to the aristocracy, making him more like a powerful faction-leader than a brother to the masses, as the portrait tries to show.

What follows afterwards is no better: apart from some rich merchants and upper-middle-class families, any real citizen is conspicuous by his absence.

I won't even attempt to judge this show on the quality of its paintings and sculptures: they are beyond reproach. Ingres, David, Goya, Lawrence, Reynolds (his Mrs Siddon as the Tragic Muse is above) are the period's painterly superstars and all feature heavily here.

Ingres' Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne (1806) (left) and Callet's haughty Louis XVI (1789) are epic examples of how to suck up to your patron as well as master-classes in portraiture. Ingres has a vivid, dominant Napoleon command the scene, underlining this with the V of the sceptre and spear framing the Emperor and focusing your eyes.

There are other gems, such as the Hogarthian scene of the RA's own academicians congregating and carousing, and Angelica Kauffman's Countess Skavronska, which plays with gender roles and has a joke at the same time. The Countess has a sword and helmet, which would be unusual for a woman - except we are now under Catherine the Great - but she is also the niece and lover of Potemkin, Catherine's military chief. Is Kauffman making a saucy allusion to her romance, a comment on women's power, or both?

There is rather a lot of - well, dross is too harsh a word, so let's say filler. After being beaten over the head by nine rooms of portraits, you're ready for a revolt yourself. It's obviously impossible to sustain the power of the first few rooms - dynamic kings, aristos, intellectuals - forever, but by the eighth family scene and the fifteenth Classical allegory, it is hard not to wish for a tighter show. Then again, tight is not a word applicable to the RA and NG's shows of late.

If I seem overly critical, it is not because of the art. I could happily walk round these paintings all day. The problem is that when you try and assemble an argument out of them which they just don't support, the entire show rather collapses and it may as well just be a stunning permanent collection.

There is so much to say about these pictures, but by framing it as citizens and kings, the RA goes for the simple and misses.

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