Johan Zoffany, Society Observed: at the Royal Academy, London.


Quite a quick post today.  I am still working on my hand-stitched pieces and don’t have much very exciting to photograph.  So, I thought I would recommend an exhibition I went to this week at the Royal Academy in London.   I was in London for a meeting and found myself at a loose end with the Royal Academy close by and so I went in.  I knew nothing about Zoffany to the point where I would have said he was Italian (he was German) and the RA is my least favourite of the big London galleries/museums because it is always feels like a club for connoisseurs that deigns to let a few people in occasionally.  There is a fairly ruthless stance on not labelling stuff, and often the cases are so dimly lit to preserve the precious objects which means that with the crowds you can’t really see much,  but on this occasion, I thought it was great.  It was like watching a really good documentary about something with the actual pictures in front of you – I had the audio guide which was a good idea.  Anyway, Zoffany turned out to be fascinating.  I love the picture at the top as an example of a collection.  Even the dog in the corner, which is cut out of this image,  seems to have a well-informed opinion on Classical sculpture.  I find collecting an interesting area and this would make a fantastic illustration if I ever did anything on it for publication.

I am not sure whether I would have liked Zoffany.  He was very badly behaved towards women including a short period of bigamy and a ‘wife’ in India he left behind when he want home.  He was sent to Italy by the queen to tell her about the pictures in the Uffizi, at that point still a private residence.




He couldn’t resist showing a group of men staring at a nude’s bottom (on the right) and a gentleman in the middle turning away from a reclining Venus and pointing towards a marble statue of two nude men wrestling.  The Queen apparently never commissioned him again.

But the piece that I found was the most bizarre and interesting was quite a small panel of the Flight to Egypt on one side and a self-portrait on the other.



He is putting a monk’s habit on, which isn’t an act of piety, it’s an act of dressing up for a night on the town as a licentious cleric.  There are three condoms in the picture – two on a hook on the wall behind him and one draped over the pudenda of the reclining Venus in a picture to the extreme right of the painting, cut off in this reproduction.  I just thought it was extraordinary – sacred and profane in the same piece, and very profane.  The contraceptives juxtaposed with the carrying of the infant Jesus to safety.  And presumably you could turn it over on the wall when the vicar dropped round.

Anyway, the exhibition which has some wonderful painting and is stuffed with interest about a lesser-known artist is on until the middle of June.  Highly recommended.




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