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1953 "Solid Centrism" and Modern Realism

The 1953 Summer Exhibition featured paintings by a number of artists working across the spectrum of contemporary realism, including Stanley Spencer, Gilbert Spencer, John Nash, John Minton, and Ruskin Spear. Stylistically, their exhibits ranged from the “naturalized Impressionism” of Spear to the more radical modernity of Stanley Spencer.1 The Royal Academy’s inclusion of these painters paralleled the increasing critical prominence of “Modernist Realism” in the post-war period.2 Critical debates about this realism, conducted by writers such as David Sylvester and John Berger, effectively politicised the style by using it as a basis for their discussion about the potential cultural functions of art after the Second World War. The display of contemporary realist works in the Summer Exhibition, therefore, provides an opportunity to investigate the Academy’s shifting relationship to contemporary modern art in this politicised environment. There is evidence to suggest that the Academy was aware of the importance of these debates, particularly manifest in its increasing engagement with diverse public audiences through its partnership with the Arts Council.

Explore the 1953 catalogue

Rodrigo Moynihan’s Portrait Group (1951), acquired under the Chantry Bequest in 1953, is a prime example of the Academy’s tentative embrace of contemporary realism (Fig. 1). Portraying teaching staff at the Royal College of Art, including John Minton, Colin Hayes, Carel Weight, Rodney Burn, Robert Buhler, Charles Mahoney, Kenneth Rowntree, Ruskin Spear and Moynihan himself, this work sits at a mid-point on the realist spectrum. On the one hand, it draws on a tradition of “naturalised Impressionism”. In its painterly handling, affected colour pallet, and general naturalism it compares somewhat to work by Spear, for example, his Park Scene (1950), likewise exhibited in 1953 (Fig. 2). On the other hand, Moynihan’s painting looks towards the hyper-realism of some types of “modernist realism”, particularly that of Gilbert Spencer and John Nash. In its conventional handling of paint, it betrays some affiliation with the Euston Road School and the work of William Coldstream. Its position roughly in the centre of the realist spectrum aligns with what the historian Margaret Garlake sees as the Academy’s own “solid centrism” in the post-war period.3 Focused on perpetuating established tradition in painting, she argues it “represented a datum point” for British art, and in terms of style can be typified as “centrist”.4 For Garlake, this position was political, because in the context of post-war Britain, the Academy acted as a “repository of national virtues”.5 From this perspective, centrism perhaps stands for a national tendency towards pursuing a middle course.

Yet, the Academy’s inclusion of contemporary realism invites us to think more deeply about its proximity to concurrent debates on “modernist realism”. The historian James Hyman has argued that British art in the post-war period witnessed the emergence of a new mode of realism focused on representations of the human body, humanist in essence, and concerned with allusion to the body’s physical properties with the aim of “revealing the human condition”.6 Stylistically, this incorporates a range of radically modern art, from Lucian Freud’s intense visual scrutiny of the human figure, to Francis Bacon’s radically allusive representations of physicality.7 In political terms, Hyman argues this realism was neither explicitly conservative nor left wing, but occupied a radical position based on the exploration of the human condition in post-war society. This view derives from Sylvester and Berger’s discussion of realism in their mid-century criticism. Sylvester, an ardent supporter of Bacon, advocated radical figuration. Concurrently, Berger, likewise looking at figurative painting, sought a mode of contemporary art that embraced a form of “social realism” that would marry with his left-wing politics.

Significantly, Berger used the Academy to illustrate and critique the conventional nature of much contemporary British art. He saw the Academy, which he called “the Old Academy”, as a boundary point for contemporary art.8 Similarly, contemporary modern art, what he termed “the New Academy of tried abstraction”, was seen as a comparable boundary point, with both forms of art characterised as conventional and “Academic”, “corrupt[ing] every possible contemporary tradition”.9 This criticism, motivated by his political stance, shows a rethinking of the traditionally conservative Academy’s assumed oppositional relationship to contemporary art. By aligning the Academy with modern art, it effectively repositions the Academy as “centrist”, as opposed to conservative.

There is some evidence to indicate that the Academy was consciously encouraging this repositioning. With the departure of the conservative Alfred Munnings as president and the appointment of Sir Gerald Kelly in 1949, the Academy’s exhibition roster indicates a tentative broadening of the establishment’s focus, typified by the important Ecole de Paris 1900–50 show in 1951.10 Different audiences were also being targeted. The catalogue for the 1950 Summer Exhibition shows admission rules aiming for inclusivity with discounted tickets available for schools, institutional members, guilds, and working men’s clubs, thus targeting a diverse audience diverging from the Academy’s traditional middle-class patron. At the same time, catalogue publications from the 1940s onwards frequently include a foreword addressed to a broad audience, evidence of an increasing awareness of the need to engage with the public.11 This aim is epitomised in the Academy’s collaboration with the Arts Council, which had been formed in 1946 from the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). Since 1942, the Arts Council and its forerunner had mounted a national touring exhibition selected from the Academy Summer Exhibition. In 1953, seventy-one works were exhibited, a mix of paintings and drawings by key figures from the Summer Exhibition, including realist pieces by Ruskin Spear and Gilbert Spencer. The pamphlet for this touring show foregrounds the public-facing intentions of the Academy, with President Kelly’s Foreword claiming the Academy:

is one more example of a British institution working for the public good to the best of its ability unaided by the state … keenly aware of the great responsibility towards artists and the public which its constitution and privileges imply.12

This shows the Academy’s self-conscious repositioning as a “centrist” and publicly minded institution. It also indicates an awareness of the political nature of the Academy’s activities in light of contemporary debates about the role of art in post-war British society, debates which centred on contemporary figurative realism.

  1. Margaret Garlake, New Art, New World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 63.↩︎

  2. James Hyman, The Battle for Realism: Figurative Art in Britain during the Cold War, 1945–1960 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 3.↩︎

  3. Garlake, New Art, New World, 63.↩︎

  4. Garlake, New Art, New World, 63.↩︎

  5. Garlake, New Art, New World, 63.↩︎

  6. Hyman, The Battle for Realism, 91, 93, and 103.↩︎

  7. For a summation of Bacon’s aesthetics, see Hyman, The Battle for Realism, 100–103. For a survey of Freud, see Sebastian Smee, Lucian Freud (London: Taschen, 2015).↩︎

  8. John Berger, “The Young Generation”, New Statesman and Nation 46, no. 1168 (25 July 1953): 101.↩︎

  9. Berger, “The Young Generation”.↩︎

  10. Garlake, New Art, New World, 24.↩︎

  11. See, for example, A Selection from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 1953 (London: Arts Council, 1953), featuring the Foreword, “The RA Summer Exhibition 1953” by Gerald Kelly, 4.↩︎

  12. Kelly, “The RA Summer Exhibition 1953”.↩︎

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Explore the 1953 catalogue