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There’s a wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy, running until the end of January. I’d never heard of the Glasgow Boys before, but I was struck by one of the posters on the tube, and found the time to go this week.

These comments are from the Royal Academy website, where you can also find the opening times, etc.

The Royal Academy of Arts presents the first major exhibition in London for over 40 years to celebrate the achievement of the Glasgow Boys, the loosely knit group of young painters who created a stir at home and abroad in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

The exhibition features over 80 oil paintings, watercolours and pastels from public and private collections by such artists as Guthrie, Lavery, Melville, Crawhall, Walton, Henry and Hornel. Together they presented a new art, which had a major impact at home and abroad in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The resultant works were, from c. 1880 to 1900, among the most experimental and ambitious to be produced in the UK.

Taking inspiration from such French Naturalist painters as Bastien-Lepage and also from Whistler, the Glasgow Boys produced some of the most revolutionary painting in Britain, drawing praise in London, Munich, Vienna and further afield. Their symbolist pictures were admired and emulated in secessionist circles in Germany and Austria.

The exhibition maps the Glasgow Boys’ responses in both subject matter and technique to developments in art which were taking place in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s. These artists sought to liberate their art from the staid, dark toned narrative paintings being produced in Glasgow and Edinburgh in order to explore the effects of realist subject matter and the particular effects of light captured through working out of doors, directly in front of the motif.

The themes of the earlier works were certainly naturalistic, but many of the figures had a formality and stillness that reminded me of the paintings of Piero della Francesca.

Here are people caught up in the most ordinary activities (waiting for a ferry, digging potatoes, walking home from the fields), yet somehow involved in a hidden ritual, a carefully choreographed dance – as if their inner poise resulted from an assurance that they had a place in a larger order. Something contemplative about them. I don’t think this is just the artist (or myself) romanticising rural life. I think it’s about a human dignity that has been rendered visually through the individual compositions.

And I loved the colours. As maymay1 commented on the Guardian website (see below): “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many beautiful shades of green.”

There are interesting reviews here from the Guardian, and the Telegraph; and you can see a slide show here of eight of the pictures.

It’s well worth seeing.

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I don’t like the concrete worms and the piles of pigment, but it’s worth paying the entrance fee at the Royal Academy just to see four of the installations at the Anish Kapoor exhibition.

Madness: A huge, fetishistic cannon, like something out of a Terry Gilliam film, fires twenty pound shells of red wax across an exhibition space into the next room. The wax gloops down the wall and creates its own work of art below. The crowd waits in anticipation for the next explosion – the hiss of compressed air reminds us of roadworks and operating theatres. Then the bang; the brief moment of after-silence; and the gasps and giggles and conversations. It is just great, mad fun. It feels slightly anarchic, teenage. Then you realise that the antique-looking door-frame through which the pellets fly is a false one put in to protect the real one behind; they couldn’t take the risk of blowing up the real Royal Academy. The disappointment and the simultaneous delight in discovering that it is all a sham. The same as realising that Doris Salcedo’s crack in Tate Modern’s concrete floor was really a construction in an artificial platform.

Anish Kapoor by gerard@neogejo.

Magic: A mirror – nothing more. 20 feet long, 8 feet high, slightly curved. But curved so cleverly, and polished so lovingly. If you stand 12 feet away, you are upside down; but you can see all those at 8 feet, who are the right way up. Walk closer, and you invert. If you stand 20 feet away, and look at someone just 3 feet from the surface, their face is so large and clear you feel you could reach out and touch it. Every shift in posture or position brings a new image, a new perspective. Everyone is looking at everyone else, without self-consciousness. Smiling. Frowning. Shuffling along to get the effect, even dancing. Where else do you dance with strangers in the clear light of day?

Mysticism: A wall, hollowed out and painted yellow – nothing more. But the precise curves and pigments, and the lack of definition, make it impossible to focus on anything properly. It’s not just the uncertainty of whether it is concave or convex. It’s the fact that you seem to be looking, at one and the same time, into a place of infinite distance, and into a presence that is just before your eyes, even a part of you. It suggests the mystery of knowledge, of what it is to know anything – which brings into your own experience what is really apart from you. It hints at a deeper mystery, a mysticism, of how something or someone Absolutely Other can remain other and still approach us in our physicality, our humanity.

Anish Kapoor by huhuguy.Something of all three: And the showpiece and central folly manages to combine some madness, some magic, and also something of the mystical. A vast block of red wax, thirty tonnes, the size of a railway carriage, moves almost imperceptibly along a track laid across five rooms; gets to the end; and then turns around. Of course it’s mad. There is a lot of magic too. Not just in the questions raised (how does it move? is anyone controlling it? will it collapse?), but also in the visual experience of trying to track the movement of an object that seems not to be moving – like the Millennium Wheel. The mysticism took me by surprise – and it was in the attitude of others rather than my own personal response. As the wax got near the final room, scores of people were there waiting. The innocent excitement of the hall of mirrors had disappeared, and there was a solemnity in the air. It was like waiting for a God to arrive. A sense of religious awe – even homage. As if we were investing an event with meaning even though we had no understanding of what it meant. Fascinating and disconcerting.

Yes, you should go and see the exhibition. And if you don’t want to pay just go for the reflective spheres in the courtyard.

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