The Academicians, the Decapatated Women, and the Chinese Guy

The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany

Painted by Johann Zoffany,  a German born painter who studied in England before moving to England where he became known for painting small group scenes [1], The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, based on Raphael’s School of Athens,  portrays “a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Academicians, shot through with humour and affection: a tribute to the brotherhood shared by artists involved in this fledgling institution. Rather than showcasing an artistic community at work – educating or being educated – it explores the individual character of the various protagonists, as they talk, listen, contemplate, or simply strike poses” [2].   This painting is in contrast to other paintings that focused on the academicians at work, in a space of learning.  Despite the models being in the room, the portrait is attempting to show the academicians as they were.  Based on the class conversation we had, if that was a stated goal of the painting, I assume that the people were placed together in specific ways.  However, being so far removed from the context makes it impossible to know what relationships are being highlighted.

 One of the things I found interesting about this painting, as was noted in the book, and source [2], is that the two women members of the Academy, even when being portrayed in a scene that is outside of the confines of education, are allowed to exist only in a “virtual” form.  Mary Mauser and Angelica Kauffman are portrait paintings on the wall, in profile and three-quarters view.  The decision to include nude male models makes the scene to indecent for the women to be present [2], but I can’t help but wonder if their inclusion would have ignited debates over the souls and work lives of women artists.  While I understand the discomfort with their presence relative to their time and place in history, what I find peculiar is how the other virtually present women’s bodies are placed, in addition to Mauser and Kauffman losing their bodies.

The walls in the room are covered in bits and pieces of women’s bodies.  There are also some additional women’s heads without bodies.  I am not positive but I think the full body sculptures are all men, meaning all the women in the painting are portrayed as though decapitated.  There is one image of the female form that I find particularly disturbing, despite the headless state of all of them.  Given that the reason the two women who were part of the academy cannot be portrayed is that there are nude models present, I am not sure what having a model in the process of disrobing next to a mutilated female form laying on the ground underneath him while one of the academy members stabs her just above her pelvis with a walking stick is saying.  I find this mini-scene within a scene particularly jarring because it is one of the two areas of the painting where the gaze of a person, the male model, is pointed outward, towards the viewer.  The only other person who looks out of the painting is the virtual presence of Angelica Kauffman.  Given that it is his presence along with his colleague behind him that are literally cutting the women out of the painting, and Angelica is one of these cut out women, I cannot help but wonder if this configuration of bodies and body parts is intentional (though I cannot figure out why the body is being stabbed).

The second part of the image that caught me off-guard was the inclusion of  Chitqua (Tan Chet Qua) (active 1769-died 1796), Chinese artist. Sitter in 3 portraits [3].  The reason I find his inclusion so striking is because when I imagine what a Royal Academy gathering would look like, more than the absence of woman, the inclusion of people who are not of European ancestry was not what I was expecting.  After doing a bit of web research I’ve learned that my initial thoughts might be correct.

The only gate-crasher to this party is the Chinese artist, Tan-che-qua (fifth from the left), who happened to be in London at the time. Apart from curiosity value, his inclusion here may be a reminder of the writer of the Royal Academy’s Professor of Poetry, Oliver Goldsmith (?1730-74), who published a series of letters, with the title The Citizen of the World, supposedly written by a Chinaman visiting England [4].

While this quotes allows for the Chinese artist to be a “Gate Crasher”, it also places Chinese thought and art in dialogue with European art and thought in a way I was not aware of at this period in time.  I think this is important, especially given the context of this course because, while we’ve discussed gender at length, I think this might be our first racial encounter, outside of the White Boyz, we’ve had.  His inclusion, along with the international makeup of the sitters, (10 of 34 were not British [5]), forces me to re-frame how I imagine the Royal Academy.

Sources:
1. http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=3584
2. http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/ra-magazine/spring-2012/johan-zoffany-finding-the-founders,342,RAMA.html
3. http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw00357/Key-to-The-Academicians-of-the-Royal-Academy?LinkID=mp04991&role=sit&rNo=2#sitter
4. http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery/object.asp?object=400747&row=0&detail=about
5. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=419266&sectioncode=26

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