From Life review – lacking a vital spark
Source:theguardian Author:Laura Cumming Date: 2017-12-21 Size:
You cannot draw, and yet you are an artist. Might this ……

Jeremy Deller’s Iggy Pop Life Class, 2016: ‘the results are striking for their weakness’.Photograph: Royal Academy of Arts

You cannot draw, and yet you are an artist. Might this be a contradiction in terms? It would have been, a century ago. Even comparatively recently, art students were required to study anatomy, sketch classical casts in the sculpture court and stand for hours drawing professional models as twilight fell in the studio. To draw was to see, to understand, to learn. Drawing was the vital underpinning of every other art. For the artist, wrote John Berger, drawing was pure discovery.

But this great skill was gradually required less often. Conceptual art, performance art, land art, video, installation, digital and film art: they all made drawing (supposedly) redundant. Photography, what’s more, appeared made to catch the living figure. By the 1990s, the life class was fading out of art schools and Goldsmiths had even banned the practice, lest it objectify the female model. Those of us who wanted to draw or paint the human body were better off in a local evening class.

This is the unspoken premise of From Life – that there is a before and after for this kind of art. Thus, the first gallery is devoted to antique paintings of students in breeches and wigs drawing nude models by candlelight. Sometimes their drawings are visible, and show the same moderate degree of technical ability as the painter himself (it’s always a man). Sometimes the model looks like a Greek warrior with a modern head farcically attached. In one picture, of a drowsy Georgian life class, a student is making stealthily for the door. He is our surrogate, for we too, it’s implied, might be looking for a way out of this old academic practice.

Drawing from Life at the Royal Academy (Somerset House), 1808 by Richard Harraden, after Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin. Photograph: Royal Academy of Arts, London

Life drawing is hard, compulsive, demanding – enthralling. A beautiful nude drawn by Humphrey Ocean as a student of Ian Dury at Canterbury College of Art in 1971 shows many cancellations and corrections. It took four days, and taught Ocean not to keep straightening things out, and thus compound the lies of his eye and pencil. Michael Landy, starting off a sketch with this very anxiety, sits nose to nose with Gillian Wearing, his partner, trying to map her appearance with faithful accuracy. The line is tense with effortful concentration, and so is her face. He wants to get it exactly right; she wants to stop being so minutely observed.

When does drawing from the life shade into portraiture? The central work in this show – it takes up nearly a third of the space – is Jeremy Deller’s Iggy Pop Life Class, 2016. Deller invited the lean and leathery star, always in violent motion on stage, to lie still for a while and be drawn by a variety of artists, both amateur and trained, over the course of one day.

The results are striking for their weakness. Some show no grasp of anatomy, others can’t get the figure down from three dimensions to two; almost all depict this limber sprite as if he weighed 20 tons. And scarcely a single artist manages the faintest hint of a likeness, except for the very few who try to get at his contained energy with a kind of primitive expressionism. The project is a portrait of a life class faced with such celebrity it can hardly get past the knowledge of a thousand photographs to observe the real man himself. But this is also history, Deller implies. In the catalogue, the Turner prize winner says he has never even been to a life class.

Things appear to improve in China, in Cai Guo-Qiang’s frantic film of students working up their drawings of Michelangelo’s David in replica. These chalk sketches are perfectly competent, but they all look remarkably alike. Perhaps this is what academic drawing looks like in China, the viewer might think. But of course these artists are working on an object, not a person – a plaster effigy rather than a living presence. Colour, musculature, spontaneity, the breath of life – none are here in this art.

Should art from the life be lifelike in any case? There’s another question. This show includes three of Antony Gormley’s interminable self-portraits. Here’s the casing of his body cast, standing open and empty as if the spirit has flown, and a kind of cubist self-sculpture, asking how far one can depart from resemblance and still be a likeness (any distance in his case: one would recognise his self-regarding project anywhere). And here he is again as a set of twinkling computer-generated lights, a crowd-pleaser fit for Christmas.

Chantal Joffe’s Self-Portrait Naked in Garden, 2016. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

For actual spirit, who wouldn’t rather look at the strange truths of Chantal Joffe’s self-portraits, so gangling and awkward. Joffe can draw; it is there, holding everything together, in these images of a woman almost falling apart.

At which point this show collapses too. It hauls in a pair of Yinka Shonibare’s mannequins, dressed in his usual west African batik, for no obvious reason (except that he is an RA, and this event is part of the RA’s 250th anniversary celebrations). It dwells on the technology behind Jonathan Yeo’s bronze self-portrait, derived from Google’s 3D Tilt Brush software, a sculpture almost as stilted and dead as his paintings. It presents a whole wall of Gillian Wearing’s pseudo self-portraits at 70, a poor reprise of Cindy Sherman’s masquerades. Worst of all are the virtual reality films where you can stumble among Shonibare’s mannequins via a headset; as remote as possible from both art and life.

This is not art from the life so much as an exploration of portraiture in the age of mechanical reproduction. (If you want to see the real thing, go to the graduation shows of colleges that still have life classes, such as the Slade, the Royal Drawing School, Plymouth and the Ruskin.) But this shambolic exhibition can’t work out what it really wants to ask about the contemporary status of this ancient tradition in any case. What it accidentally reveals, however, is just how close today’s RAs often are, in their formulaic repetitions, to the rote academicism of their forebears.

[Editor] 姜鑫