ART News


26th January 2022 | Guest Writer: Marianna Capelli
No one is immune to outside influences. As we go through our lives, we can find comfort in thinking we are the designers of our destiny. However, it is impossible to detach ourselves entirely from society and its expectations. This is particularly evident when it comes to creative professions. Historically, artists have been subjected to the influence of a canon, creating discourse around it according to their obedience of disobedience to such rules.[1]

Creatives have also been denied agency over their work. Apparently, masterpieces have nothing to do with the humanity of their makers: they are inspired either by deities, muses, or they are vessels to innate intellectual forces, like the Genius or the Master.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, known as the Taddei Tondo, circa 1504-05. Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
The Great Master is an idealised figure in Western art history, arbitrarily put on a pedestal by the critics and, in turn, the spectators. It is a highly problematic concept, which promotes the cult of the individual. Art is no longer inspired by the gods, while the artist, conversely, assumes a supernatural status. As might be expected, this idea draws particular attention to male artists from a higher social class and of privileged groups, to the detriment of their women, lower class and minorities counterparts. So, how can you become a Great Artist? You must copy Great Art. By copying pre-existing masterpieces, you can analyse and understand the Master’s methods of production, and maybe you too will join the fortunate few in the annals.

This is exemplified by the exhibition ‘The Making of an Artist: the Great Tradition’ at the Royal Academy in London. Curated by Sir Christopher Le Brun (President of the RA), it has recently re-opened to the public and will be free to visit in the RA’s Collection Gallery until the end of 2022. The display features a selection of former (almost exclusively male) members of the Academy, such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Angelica Kauffman, Henry Singleton, John Francis Rigaud, Benjamin West, John Flaxman, Sir James Thornhill, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Charles Robert Leslie and John Constable.

Cast of Belvedere Torso, early 19th century, plaster cast, 127 x 78 cm. Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: Paul Highnam.

Founded in 1768, the Royal Academy of Arts is a leading institution in art education, art collecting and the art market. The choice to show ‘The Great Tradition’ is not a casual one. Institutions like national museums and galleries are widely influential in art production and arguably the teaching of art. Considering the Royal Academy’s authority, they play a big part in the current approach to art education in England, in particular when it comes to copying exercises.

Giampietrino and Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Copy of Leonardo's The Last Supper, circa 1515-20, Oil on canvas, 302 x 785 cm. Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

'The Great Tradition’ presents the reinterpretations of ancient Greek and Roman themes and stories, and copies of masterpieces “based on the knowledge of the works of the high renaissance masters, Raphael, Leonardo and above all Michelangelo”.[2] The display is not limited to studies of the male nude (like the cast of the Belvedere Torso,) and famous copies (like the one after Leonardo's The Last Supper), it also includes natural landscapes (Constable and Turner). Possibly, Le Brun wanted to portray the passage of time, from the RA's foundation to the arrival of Constable to the Academy.

John Constable, The Leaping Horse, 1825, Oil on canvas, 142 x 187.3 cm. Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London.

I am not implying there is something inherently wrong with this exhibition. Seemingly, the intention is to explore the RA’s origins and the work of its past students. The imitation and copy of artworks from the past are excellent methods to grow in one’s practice and to appropriate styles and tools from other more experienced professionals. However, having such clear points of reference inevitably creates a sense of tradition and, consequently, a hierarchy of “insiders and outsiders” in art.[3] Yet, its contextualisation is questionable: it once again reinforces the image of the Great Master, the existence of one Great Tradition and of Great Art. Such strict tradition promotes only one kind of art; it can dim alternative art forms and discourage experimentation. In this way, it promotes homogeneous art scene, once again erasing non-mainstream creatives’ contributions. The idea of a canon is obsolete in 2022, and contemporary artists should not be subject to such requirements.

JMW Turner RA, Dolbadern Castle, North Wales, 1800, Oil on canvas, 119.4 x 90.2 cm. Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Another evident issue of ‘The Great Tradition’ is the almost complete lack of works by women: there is only one token woman artist, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807). The presence of this single painting reiterates that greatness is a male prerogative and further idealises Kauffman as an exception to the rule. Like most of her female colleagues, Angelica Kauffman was not allowed into the life-drawing room and studied casts and Greek-Roman sculptures. The exclusion of women from art education was worryingly prominent at the time. Therefore, their work was often considered amateurish and rarely included in the canon. The exhibition features Design, a ceiling painting commissioned by the Royal Academy based on her observations of the Belvedere Torso. Design challenges the usual depiction of the muses, giving us a dynamic and determined figure, who is the subject and not the object of the painting. The woman is not posing for an external gaze but sits absorbed by her drawing of the Torso. This work could have been a reference for a significant discussion on roles in art production and representation - a missed opportunity, in my opinion.

Angelica Kauffman RA, Design (detail), 1778-80, Oil on canvas, 130 x 150.3 x 2.5 cm. Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: John Hammond

Institutions, and especially big institutions like the RA, should consider contextualising exhibitions in a less anachronistic manner, perhaps by recognising the limitations and contradictions of the canon (i.e. Great Artists vs Art) by updating their way of representing the past through a modern lens. Keeping records of artistic traditions of the past is crucial to remembering where art and Great Art begin. At the same time, we cannot let ourselves lose track of the art that does not fit into the historical archives. If we keep imposing such outdated standards onto art, we will fail once again to give the proper importance to underrated artworks and artists, leading to the demise of truly great art.

You can still catch 'The Making of an Artist: the Great Tradition’ at the Royal Academy of Arts Collection Gallery until the end of 2022.

[1] A canon is a specific set of rules deciding what is deemed acceptable representation in art.

[2] Le Brun on Sir Joshua Reynolds, large print guide to the exhibition, last checked January 2022,

[3] Salomon, Nanette, 1991. “The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission”. In The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by Donald Preziosi, 344-355. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About the Writer
Marianna Capelli was born in the middle of nowhere, Northern Italy. She moved to London in 2015 to study Asian Art History and Mandarin Chinese at SOAS University of London and fell in love with the contemporary art world.

Temporarily back to the provincial life, she spends her days burying her nose in a book (or multiple books, mostly). The rest of the time, Marianna likes being opinionated about things and writing about art, culture and everything queer.


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