Royal art bastion glows X-rated hot 'Sensation': A refrigerated cast head filled with the artist's blood and a pickled shark are among the artworks scandalizing traditional patrons of Britain's Royal Academy of Arts.

Sun Journal

October 02, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- The Royal Academy of Arts is normally a serene place, its ornate galleries filled with old masterworks and elegant sculptures that appeal to an avid though generally elderly audience.

Not this fall, though.

The academy has opened its doors to the young stars of the British art world, and they have turned this institution upside down with a temporary exhibition called "Sensation." They are showing off pickled animals, mutilated mannequins and a portrait of a convicted child killer, created from a child's handprints. There is also one X-rated gallery, deemed unsuitable for those under 18.

The 110 works by 42 British artists are on loan from the country's most noted collector, Charles Saatchi, a modern Medici who earned his fortune in advertising. Thanks to the attention of the media and artists filling the role of agents provocateurs, "Sensation" has been transformed into the controversy -- and hot ticket -- of the season. The show has been derided by some critics, lauded by others and gawked at by the public, including a healthy influx of students.

Even the opening was unusually dramatic. The most controversial work, the mug shot of the so-called Moors murderer, Myra Hind-ley, was defaced by irate artists who tossed eggs and ink at the portrait. The painting by Marcus Harvey was removed for repair, its return expected in two to three weeks. Meanwhile, ink stains remain on the floor. Harvey plans a new work: Hitler with a child.

For the Royal Academy, a bastion of the British arts establishment, the show has been both profitable and taxing. The public waits in line for hours, eager to buy $11 entry tickets and the $32 exhibition catalog. Meanwhile, the British media continues to lambaste the academy's taste and even its morals. Three royal academicians, members of the prestigious institute, have resigned in protest over the show.

The Sunday Times of London said the Royal Academy has "merely achieved the shock of the schlock." The Observer countered that the show was a "triumph" for the collector, Saatchi, and a boost for the Royal Academy. "As each new generation comes of age, it becomes academic," the paper concluded. "Sensational news. Vive the latest."

The Royal Academy was built not to celebrate modern art but to cultivate and uphold British tradition.

Its royal roots and grand address just off Piccadilly Circus give the place a stuffy, establishment image. So does its history. The academy often set its face against the winds of modernism. One of its presidents, Sir Alfred Munnings, famously criticized Picasso's work in the presence of Churchill.

Founded in 1768 by King George III and governed by artists, the academy was created as a storehouse for great works and a school for gifted students. To become a royal academician was to arrive at the pinnacle of the British arts establishment. Among those who earned the title were John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough, J. M. W. Turner, Lord Leighton and Stanley Spencer.

There are 80 royal academicians today, each selected by other members in annual elections, and include painter David Hockney and architect Sir Norman Foster.

The academy houses an art school, a library and a permanent art collection. And it features an annual exhibition, held every year without interruption since 1769. That annual summer exhibition is routinely derided by critics and beloved by the public. It features works by the academicians, but it also encompassed hundreds of pieces submitted by amateurs.

So the new show, "Sensation," isn't merely a departure but nearly a revolution.

In turning to the collection assembled by the ad-man Saatchi, the Royal Academy has helped turn a spotlight on a reclusive figure. Saatchi, 53, is said to have one of the largest private holdings of contemporary art in the world, a collection valued at more than $200 million. What he likes, he buys in bulk.

What Saatchi apparently likes best is so-called BritArt, created by a brash collection of young artists who know how to sell themselves and their works.

"In America, some people collect young artists," says David Gordon, the Royal Academy's secretary. "But it's quite rare to find anyone collecting in the way Saatchi has. He simply collects a larger number of works than anyone else.

"Artists need collectors. Saatchi is a major collector. So, we decided to go for the whole hog and make it a Saatchi collection."

This is art meant to leave an audience dazed, confused and outraged.

" 'Sensation' makes a different, more radical, more controversial exhibition than people normally associate with the Royal Academy," Gordon says. "We are confronted with people who don't expect this type of exhibition here. They're shocked."

But Gordon won't back down to the critics: "I think we have done our job spectacularly well in engendering a debate on contemporary art. Is it art? Is it good? What is it all about?"

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