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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.

Because it depicts the jurying process of the academy's famous summer annual and includes the portraits of a score of academy members, it might have been nice to have begun the show with the spectacular mural-sized "Council of the Royal Academy Selecting Pictures for Exhibition," an oil on canvas from 1876 by Charles West Cope. On the left, the elegantly dressed academicians are seated informally facing a group of standing artists who have brought their paintings in for review. The style is academic realism. The scene is theatrical and heroic and reminiscent of the elaborate compositions favored by the European old masters. A compelling feature of this painting is the plaque on the frame's bottom, where line-drawn caricatures of several of the artists in the painting are paired with their signatures.

The Cope painting is one of several in which contemporary scenes of that time provide the subject matter. Another standout of this type is the moralizing "The Outcast," an 1851 oil on canvas by Richard Redgrave. The painting, which was reproduced as a popular print, shows an unforgiving father ignoring the pleas of his family as he pushes his daughter and her illegitimate child into the dark night. Also filled with psychological drama is Sir Hubert von Herkomer's "On Strike," an oil on canvas from 1891. In this piece, a pensive, striking miner, framed in a doorway, is joined by his despondent wife and daughters.

Old-fashioned realism is just what we'd expect from the Royal Academy of the nineteenth century. But the collection also includes many examples of exoticism, impressionism and paintings related to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Among this last group are some of the best paintings in the show, including "Vanity," the knock-out oil on canvas by Frank Cadogan Cowper, done in 1907 (and thus after the end of Victoria's rule). In it, a beautiful woman, dressed in regal medieval garb, strikes a coy pose, her lips pursed, her eyes nearly closed. Other Pre-Raphaelite pinups include Edward John Gregory's suggestively titled "Apres?" and the notably more reserved "A Lute Player," by Edwin Austin Abbey. Both date from 1899 and are painted with oil on canvas.

There is also a collection of sculptures included in Royal Academy, and they are some of the strongest objects in the exhibit. In particular, the Rodinesque bronzes "Cymon," from 1882, and "The Sluggard," from 1885, both by Frederic, Lord Leighton. These exquisitely done figures are finished in a deep black patina reminiscent of the sculptures of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Even more self-consciously reminiscent of ancient art is the bronze "Tuecer" (1881), by Sir Hamo Thornycroft, which captures a nude archer.

The elevator ride to the first floor gives us a minute to catch our breath after we leave the comforts of Royal Academy and face the brave new world of Contemporary British Artists in the Stanton Galleries. This small show was put together by the head of the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department, curator Dianne Vanderlip, and assistant curator Jane Fudge. Most of the pieces have been culled from the DAM's permanent collection or are on loan from private collectors.

One of the first pieces we encounter is the enigmatic "Three Calls," by one of the biggest names in British art today, Antony Gormley. "Three Calls," from 1983 and 1984, is made of plaster and fiberglass covered with lead sheets and features three life-sized figures looking away from one another. One of the figures sits on the floor with his head in his hands, another is squatting, the third is striding away. The dull gray sheen of the lead adds a dignified element to this signature Gormley piece.

Gormley isn't the only famous artist displayed who uses the figure to create contemporary work; 1992's "Living" is an assembled eighteen-part altered photograph by the serious if fun-loving collaborators Gilbert and George. It is, hands down, the strongest piece in the show. The composition is dominated by the eyes of the two artists, which have been enlarged to a gigantic size. At the top of the piece is a reclining full-figure portrait of one artist; across the bottom is the other. The caption, "Living," is emblazoned in the center of the top. Gilbert and George, who work in a post-pop-art style that owes a debt of gratitude to Andy Warhol, are obviously addressing their own lives in "Living," the topic of which is the pair's survival in a world of AIDS, homophobia and bigotry.

Contemporary British Artists also includes several artists working in abstraction. Carl Fudge's "Terminal Breakdown," from 1997 in vinyl acrylic on wood panel, is an all-over abstract. It was created in a print-like technique based on computer-generated images. The surface of the piece is smooth, with blue lines over a white ground. The blue lines are evenly laid across the surface, but in places, there are seams where the patterns abut one another. This is no shortcoming, since it makes the painting complex and somewhat contradictory, setting the expressionism of the lines against the rationalism of the computer printing process.

Very different are the three severely minimal works done in metallic crayon and pencil on paper by Keith Milow in 1974. Each one concerns a simple cruciform carried out in silver and gold. Milow's work is not unlike minimalists active on this side of the Atlantic at the same time.

One artist who doesn't look so good is the biggest art star included, David Hockney, who's represented by a couple of halfhearted pieces. But to be honest, even Hockney at his best is beginning to age badly.

Royal Academy, which opened late last month, and Contemporary British Artists, which closes after a long run early next month, are--warts and all--both well worth our attention. But hurry, because there are only a few weeks left to take in both shows at the same time.

Art in the Age of Queen Victoria: Treasures From the Royal Academy of Arts, through August 15, and Contemporary British Artists, through July 11, both at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 303-640-4433.


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