- Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836 [exhibition], and: Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836 (review)
- Eighteenth-Century Studies
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 35, Number 4, Summer 2002
- pp. 601-608
- View Citation
- Additional Information
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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.4 (2002) 601-608
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Art on the Line:
The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836
Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836. Courtauld Institute Gallery, Somerset House, London (18 October 2001-20 January 2002). Catalogue: David H. Solkin, ed. Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Courtauld Institute Gallery, 2001). Pp. 290; 70 color and 180 black-and-white illus. $65.00 cloth.
Modern modes of displaying art have wavered between historical re-creation and conceptual contextualization. Within art history, re-creations of the past and its environs, usually associated with the museology of the late nineteenth century, have now—with the development of digitized virtual realities and postmodern proclivities for the simulacrum—come back into favor. And in the museum, movements away from the blank, modernist wall have led to the dominance of a nostalgic, if not really historicist, form of display. In an ambitious exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, David H. Solkin, with the assistance of Anne Puetz, has produced an exciting show that touches on these broad issues and in so doing invites spectators to muse upon both the history of display and the status of historical knowledge in exhibition spaces.
The exhibition Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836 has brought together a stunning array of hundreds of objects in different media first shown at the Royal Academy's summer exhibitions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and set them in the physical context of their original display—the public rooms of Somerset House (Fig. 1). What is more, the works are arranged according to early modern taste, covering the walls from baseboard to eaves. Yet while this exhibitionmanages to capture the excitement felt by the throngs who poured into Somerset House in [End Page 601] [Begin Page 603] Georgian and Regency London, Art on the Line is not a positivistic simulacrum. The works displayed are not from one summer exhibition but from exhibitions held over more than half a century. This re-creation—mediated by chronology and some modern thematics—is not, therefore, a simple reproduction of the past. Nor is it a historicist manifesto prescribing a mode for displaying art. It is, rather, a very successful way of reviewing the historical development of the major public venue for the display of art in London; it prompts both specialists and the general public to think about the institutions, the personal and public politics, and the sheer theater of exhibiting art. As such, Art on the Line helps reveal not only how the Royal Academy crafted a space and an audience for British art, but also how artists responded to these novelties: The exhibition directly addressed, for example, how they adapted to the demands set within this competitive public space and how they catered to a broadly conceived spectatorship that demonstrated—through public and private criticism—a sensitivity to hanging, lighting, scale, color, and composition. Art on the Line probes the intricacies of the novel and performative relations between artists, patrons, and the public, setting such examinations within well-defined temporal and spatial parameters. The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial book, edited by David Solkin, with seventeen well-illustrated and beautifully written scholarly contributions on a wide range of topics. Both the exhibition and the book will be discussed here.
In 1780, twelve years after London's Art Academy was founded under royal patronage, the doors to the annual summer exhibition opened at its first proper home, the recently built Somerset House. Within two months no fewer than 61,000 visitors flooded into the building, turning "the Exhibition" (as it was simply called) into the most exciting art event the nation had ever seen...