Wednesday, August 18, 2021

525. Immortal Masterpieces and Calculated Stupidity

In a letter to Antonio Cippico on 10 December 1929, Charles Ricketts wrote that he was part of the hanging committee of the Italian exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

'The Hanging Committee at Work'
(The Sphere, 4 January 1930)

Almost four weeks later, the newspaper The Sphere published a photograph of the hanging committee of the Exhibition of Italian Art, 1200-1900. Pictured are, from left to right: Charles Ricketts, Ettore Modigliani (the Italian delegate), Lady Chamberlaine (member of the hanging committee, the selection committee and the finance committee), W.G. Constable (of the National Gallery), Archibald Russell (selection committee) and Major A.A. Longden (the Secretary General of the exhibition). Ricketts and Modigliani were members of the selection committee and of the hanging committee. The photo was taken 'just after Christmas'.

Almost everyone pictured was described by Ricketts weeks earlier in the letter to Cippico, and with only one exception it was downright negative:

I find to my regret that I have to be active in hanging the Italian show; this at some other time would have been one of the events of my life, but the other members of the hanging committee are lacking in experience, vitality, and conviction, Modigliani excepted, whose vitality is too great, and who I fear may resent the slowness of perception and negative energies of his English confrères, and the calculated stupidity of the workman staff of the R.A.
(Self-Portrait Taken from the Letters & Journals of Charles Ricketts, R.A. (1939, pages 418-419).

It is not entirely certain whether the workmen holding the painting at the right height while the others pose for the picture are from the Royal Academy, or whether they were additional forces called in by Constable from the National Gallery. The painting is recognizable as Giorgione's 'The Tempest', then the private property of Prince Giovanelli, now in the collection of The Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice.

Giorgione, 'The Tempest' (c. 1505)
[Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice]

To view this painting, one walked from the vestibule to the Central Hall (where sculpture and tapestries were on display) and then to the left, to Gallery III where the late 15th and 16th century paintings hung (as in the smaller Gallery IV)

The arrangement of the exhibition was a nightmare, partly because of the interference of officials, but also because works were taken off the wall again to be photographed for the catalogue, or glazed. Paintings came from all over the world and those from Italy and Germany arrived at the very last moment. Indeed, Modigliani gave up after two days. (Paul Delaney wrote a vivid account of the whole operation in his biography of Ricketts).

Ricketts continued:

Possibly I am wrong, and may find the contact with these immortal masterpieces a tonic and a stimulus; it should count as something, after all, to help to lift and hang the "Birth of Venus" in its place, and to see that Fra Angelico and Mantegna are comfortable.