London Calling

By a lucky accident of scheduling, the Denver Art Museum is presenting a pair of shows that provide visitors with a striking juxtaposition.

On the seventh floor, in sumptuously appointed galleries, is Art in the Age of Queen Victoria: Treasures From the Royal Academy of Arts, a traveling exhibition showcasing British painting and sculpture from the nineteenth century. An exhibit called Contemporary British Artists, on the main floor, picks up the same topic, but it focuses on work done in our own time. The two shows are the latest installments in the DAM's ongoing sponsorship of a British art invasion. And like the earlier English-only exhibits, both shows tend to reinforce, rather than challenge, existing stereotypes.

Royal Academy reveals nineteenth-century British art as the impoverished stepchild of French art from the same period. Contemporary British Artists puts to rest once and for all the notion that London might be the likely successor to New York as the center for vanguard art.

Having said this, there are still many reasons to see these shows--aside from the appeal they surely have to Anglophiles. There are some solid paintings and sculptures in Royal Academy, and while the pieces in Contemporary British Artists are perhaps not among the finest examples on earth, they are still fine enough to elicit our interest.

In a sense, the nineteenth-century exhibit, installed in a number of galleries, is a followup to The Berger Collection, which occupied these same spaces last year. That show, which featured a private collection of British paintings held by a wealthy Denver couple, attracted more than 100,000 people to the DAM during its several-month run in 1998. Attendance for Royal Academy is not predicted to go that high, and it has gotten off to a slower than projected start. Too bad, because it's a lot better than The Berger Collection.

Royal Academy was put together in London by Royal Academy curators Helen Valentine and MaryAnn Stevens, who made selections from the institution's permanent collection. Founded in 1768, the academy is the oldest fine-art institution in Britain. The exhibit mostly concerns objects dating from 1837 to 1901, however, which coincides with the reign of Queen Victoria. The show is premiering in Denver before embarking on a five-city American tour organized by DAM director Lewis Sharp.

Victorian England was one of the most affluent places in the world, and as is always the case during times of plenty, wealth led to the flourishing of the arts. The privately run Royal Academy in London was the unofficial center for Victorian art in England. Though membership in the academy was limited to eighty people with vacancies created only on the death of a member, the institution's role in the art world was expanded by an annual juried exhibition open to anyone good enough to pass muster with the eighty members. (The summer annual is still held, as it has been for the past 230 years.)

Judging was often contentious, as the academy was notoriously reactionary. Lifetime election for academicians inevitably led to an aging membership, exactly the kind of group that was least likely to accept the radical artistic changes of the nineteenth century--for example, the supplanting of traditional realism by impressionism. What this meant was that the Royal Academy was constantly behind the times, catching up with the most important British art movements only after they'd mostly come and gone.

This matters little now, however, because, regardless of how hip--or unhip--the place was, what did get through the door provides us with a big-picture view of nineteenth-century British art, and it's thoroughly laid out in Royal Academy. Better late than never.

The British-based curators, Valentine and Stevens, organized the show according to subject matter. Instead of individually exploring the various styles represented in the collection, they chose groups of landscapes, portraits and genre scenes, regardless of their style. This denigration of art-historical concerns reflects a current worldwide trend among curators (seen in spades on the DAM's sixth floor) in which stylistic distinctions are pointedly blurred. This strategy may at first seem merely inexplicable, but once explained, it seems indefensible. The idea is that standard exhibition practices--such as putting things of the same style together or tracking the development of a style chronologically--might please art enthusiasts but turn off regular visitors. According to this rationale, ordinary people just want to see a bunch of pretty pictures without having to think very much about them. But people uninterested in art are not likely to come to the museum in the first place, so it's unclear why curators are creating art shows with them in mind.

The DAM's Timothy Standring, curator of the Berger Collection and the Gates curator of painting and sculpture, who arranged the Denver version of Royal Academy, does Valentine and Stevens one better--or is that worse? Standring has dispensed with even the fragile structure of subject matter provided by Valentine and Stevens; instead, he has grouped the paintings in an almost free-associative way, linking works according to considerations like the palette used or the compatibility of the frames.

Thus, as presented at the DAM, Royal Academy is a handsome but confusing show that tells us everything and nothing about British art of the time. And it's unclear how appealing Standring's approach is to the average museum visitor, because even experts in nineteenth-century British art will surely have a hard time following the non-narrative, non-historical and stylistically muddled hanging. However, as you wander aimlessly, you will come upon some interesting paintings.

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