Royal Scottish Academy
Until 14 February, 2013
A visitor to the offices of the Royal Scottish Academy, out of sight behind closed doors, may be lucky enough to catch fleeting glimpses of the riches of the Academicians’ diploma works, accumulated here since they were ‘deposited’ in the years since the organisation was founded - amid complex political manoeuvring - at the beginning of the Victorian period.
Here, some of them get a rare public airing as part of a modest, but powerful show. ‘Portfolio’ has been set out to tell a story and this is how it should be read: as ‘slices’ of the RSA’s history. Curated by Honorary Academician - the art historian Dr Tom Normand of St Andrews University and the RSA's Sandy Wood - it forms a visual counterpart to Normand’s Sir William Gillies Bequest Lecture, which he delivered on 7th February.
The purpose of the annual Gillies lecture, which is open to the public free of charge, is to provide a challenging series of views on a theme of the lecturers’ choosing. Since 1978, when the lecture series was initiated, the role-call of names has been impressive, if predictable, with speakers such as Rudi Fuchs, Yehudi Menuhin, John Bellany, Neil MacGregor and James Naughtie
Perhaps more surprising, and controversial, is the fact that only two have been women - cook and broadcaster Prue Leith and the fashion designer Jean Muir. Additionally when one also considers the fact that only 25% of the 110 or so academicians are women, it was not surprising that an audience member (herself an RSA) quizzed Normand about gender balance.
But Normand’s choice of artists tell a different story. Although the selection of around sixty works dovetails neatly with his lecture, he has attempted to right historical wrongs by including a more balanced selection from the period after women were accepted as members in 1944.
Clearly passionately aware of historical injustices Normand comments: “This conservatism and sexism, so typical of the political and cultural context of the period, would stain the academy until the period of the Second World War.”
Thus the work of Phyllis Bone’s large bronze, ‘Shere Khan the Tiger’ (1930), dominates the Finlay Room and is complemented by high quality work by Anne Redpath, Joan Eardley and Marian Leven. Although in such situations it’s not possible to please everyone, the work of Beth Fisher, Jackie Parry and Kate Downie seems conspicuous by its absence. However, considering the space constrictions of the galleries and the narrative of Normand’s publication, the hang represents a fair reflection of how the RSA’s membership began to democratise later in the 20th century; something that continues to be put to rights following the election of four female academicians in 2012 (Mary Bourne, Annie Cattrell, Dalziel and Scullion, Lorna McIntosh).
Normand began his lecture by quoting from Marx as his “guiding intuition:”
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past….”
Which he paraphrases as “Men (we should now prefer to say people) make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing.”
Normand shows us his hand from the outset and so it’s clear where his sympathies lie - or so one thinks: the institution is a monolith, by definition difficult to change because an innate conservatism is a condition of such organisations. In this case elitism and sexism formed part of the mix. However, while acknowledging such issues Normand argues, controversially, that the RSA also contains (in its constitution) a fail-safe mechanism for change. This, he argues, was demonstrated by the election as President (from 1902 to 1919) of the Glasgow painter James Guthrie.
The Glaswegian’s diploma submission, ‘Midsummer’ (1892) - painted in the manner of French Impressionism - came with a health warning from the critics who worried about the effect of the work on the elderly. The painting shows three middle-class women taking tea under a tree in a summer garden. Bands of bright sunlight illuminate their slim waists and curvaceous figures. But Normand’s analysis is more political, arguing that it is representative of the new bourgeoisie taking their rightful place in society.
It’s a telling metaphor that this, and many of the other works here which rarely come into public view, are being seen and discussed. Scottish art history, that most under- documented and timid of disciplines is all the richer and bolder for Normand’s contribution.