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London's Royal Academy surveys 20th-century British art. Includes artists long ignored but underplays role of abstract painters

If you want to know what art in Britain has been like so far in this century, the Royal Academy on London's Piccadilly is the place to go. The Academy's large-scale exhibition, ``British Art in the 20th Century: The Modern Movement,'' is the second in a series of exhibitions looking at modern art in different countries. Last year it was German art. Next in line is Italian. After that, it is hinted, may come the art of France.

On the face of it, these intriguing and thought-provoking shows are attempts to define national character in terms of a country's 20th-century art. And they certainly can be enjoyed on that level.

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Yet in another sense they seem, somewhat ironically, to represent some kind of continuing atonement by the academy.

This institution, founded by artists for artists, goes back to the 18th century of Sir Joshua Reynolds. But by the start of the 20th century, it had largely mislaid its original purpose.

Many of the artists in the current exhibition persistently ignored, and were ignored by, the academy - at least until the late 1970s. Now these exhibitions, which are really trend-followers, are trying hard to look like trend-setters.

Nevertheless it is probable that a large number of Britons who respect the academy are encountering for the first time in this exhibition some of the century's notable artists - artists that they wouldn't go to see anywhere else. If so, these shows deserve praise.

There is, however, more to them than that.

The organizers of this show, like those for the German one last year, have a bias that they seem quite open about. They deliberately emphasize artists and works that, as Andrew Causey describes them in his catalog essay, have ``an interest in human life in the modern, urban world.''

The implication of this is that abstract artists - artists who have liberated their art from subject-matter - are somehow not interested in human life and cut themselves off from the real world.

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This criticism of abstraction is popular in the visual arts just now, so the exhibition does contrive to be fashionable in its choices.

At the same time, its emphasis on the figurative - particularly on painting and sculpture that explore the age-old subject of the human figure in all its facets - is in line with the Royal Academy's traditionalism.

Thus it can seem up-to-date by staging these shows, but without having to abandon its deep-rooted opposition to the more adventurous forms of modernism.

To be fair, one must admit that the show doesn't entirely overlook such outstanding British painters as Ben Nicholson or Bridget Riley or sculptors like Anthony Caro and Phillip King, all of whom have extended the formal language and meaning of abstraction in art in unprecedented and radical ways.

But in this context their work looks peripheral, if not oddball. While it may be true that they have swum against the British currents emphasized in this show, they have actually been part of a much wider stream of modernism outside these isles. And even here, surrounded by unsympathetic figurative paintings, their uncompromising radicalism more than holds its own.

Although a more balanced view of British art in this century could have been presented, this lopsided approach has its virtues.

Certain artists - and after all Britain has always spawned individualists more easily than movements - stand out interestingly.

Mark Gertler and Matthew Smith share a gallery that contains intriguing surprises: Smith at his best is like a 20th-century Paolo Veronese (though at his worst he was a shameless imitator of Matisse), and Gertler found unusual ways of acknowledging the modern while admiring the old masters.

Stanley Spencer, with his mixture of the visionary and the literal, was both an academic painter and a weird dreamer, here looking remarkably British. Lucian Freud's paintings share with some of Spencer's portraits an unsparing intensity that acts like a gaze that's hard to avoid.

Sculptors Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (one wonders sometimes if most ``British'' artists aren't really resident foreigners) look in this context like pioneers of much that followed.

Their most obvious heir, Henry Moore, is the only artist to be given a gallery to himself, the works beautifully displayed and carefully chosen to give some less familiar glimpses of his immense contribution.

But among more recent artists who might be expected to fit into the show's thesis, Patrick Caulfield, whose paintings have developed a remarkable modern classicism, is seen in only one early picture.

John Walker, who has moved from a kind of painterly abstraction into a richly inventive tussle with the figurative, is represented by only two paintings.

In neither case is this enough to give much idea of their capacities.

In contrast, considerable space is afforded the expressionist paintings of Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, whose wrestlings with clotted oceans of paint disclose half-buried figures that seem more profound in meaning than they probably are.

And the familiar anguish of Francis Bacon's pictures is here in all its dubious glory.

Odder still is the omission of the young sculptors and painters of this decade who have rejuvenated just the sort of narrative, human-interest, or Neo-Expressionist art that this show celebrates.

Surely their burst of energy should have been included.

After closing here in London on April 5, this exhibition will be seen at the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, West Germany, from May 8 to June 9.

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