If last week’s Scottish independence referendum achieved anything, it raised awareness of Britain and Britishness. But for a few hundred thousand votes, here is a nation that could have ceased to be. But just what is Britishness? A visit to “Genius and Ambition: The Royal Academy of Art, London 1768-1918” at Tokyo Fuji Art Museum offers a few clues.
The Royal Academy was Britain’s attempt to brush up its artistic credentials in the aftermath of its astounding successes in the Seven Years War (1756-63). But after so much hard power, one wonders why Britain felt the need to bolster its soft power.
Whatever the reason, the RA, as it came to be known, was founded as an institution to promote art and govern taste, with a headquarters in London that finally found its permanent home in the iconic Burlington House Building in Piccadilly.
But in order to improve British art, models were required. For an ascendant power like Britain, the grand tradition of Europe, with its roots in the classical past, was thought to be most appropriate.
The first part of this exhibition shows some examples of the rather self-conscious art this produced, such as Charles Beastland’s 1821 engraving of Henry Singleton’s painting “The Royal Academicians in General Assembly.” This shows the members of the RA clustered around a copy of the famous statue “Laocoon and His Sons,” considered the epitome of the classical style.
Early Academicians, such as the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, formulated rules on what was appropriate to paint. Grand historical or mythic subjects were considered the most elevating, with the best example at this exhibition being London-based Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli’s “Thor Battling the Midgard Serpent” (1790), which gives a Nordic twist to the classicist myth.
But while grand themes were encouraged, other subject matter was not neglected. There are plenty of landscapes, portraits, and genre paintings, including the most attractive “Boy and Rabbit” (c.1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn, showing the son of Raeburn’s stepdaughter in a tender pose with his pet rabbit
The exhibition also brings to Japan fine examples of Orientalism, such as David Roberts’ “The Gateway to the Great Temple of Baalbec” (1841), revealing the Victorian fascination with the exotic, something that can also be found in Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s lush depictions of antiquity or Walter Sickert’s “Santa Maria della Salute, Venice” (c.1901), a church building that seems to undulate on the canvas like a reflection on water.
The characteristics of the British aesthetic revealed by this exhibition are seemingly a rejection of parochialism, and a readiness to look far beyond one’s native island.
“Genius and Ambition: The Royal Academy of Art, London 1768-1918” at Tokyo Fuji Art Museum runs till Nov. 24; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.fujibi.or.jp