RA Summer Exhibition 2020

This is a painting by Davina Jackson called Memories of Summer. It is currently hanging in the Royal Academy, London. A morsel of delight within the groaning buffet table of strange delicacies, dismissibles and downright disasters that line the walls and fill the floors of the RA’s grand rooms each year.

I am here with my friend, Livia Paggi, who is busy transitioning from happy-go-lucky art magpie (that’ll look nice on my wall) to serious art collector (that’s an important piece). I love the fact that I’m allowed on these trips – despite having absolutely nothing to add when discussion turns to the significance of a work. These omissions of mine are partly due to my embarrassing lack of knowledge about the art market which itself is due to willfully resisting anything to do with the art market. Together, these add up to a blissful ignorance that has the advantage of leaving me unburdened by the weight of theory when deciding what I like But it has some obvious dis-advantages.

Livia selects this beautiful gem by Davina Jackson as the stand-out work of the exhibition. Struck by the quietness of this sepia world, and the invitation to gaze over the pinky tablecloth into the distance, along with the two elusive figures, she asks why we are both so drawn to it.

To this I can only think of two rather obvious replies. First, it’s the prettiest to look at. It has an elegant chalky charm in the Farrow & Ball vein. Yet, because the drawing is so masterful it transcends mere visual delight. There’s something richer here to hold your gaze. Second, it’s a painting of two young girls getting along splendidly. Both Livia and I have daughters and we hope they too get along splendidly.

Livia gives this some thought. She points out that if that were the case, surely we’d be attracted to a Vogue style photograph of the same composition over and above this highly abstracted version. In other words, I’ve described the picture but failed to capture was is special about it as a painting. What are we noticing but failing to take seriously, or failing to articulate about our experience? What is it that makes us both continually return to it?

To this I can only add further questions. What is special about paintings qua painting? Why, since the invention of photography, ubiquity of the iphone camera, the flattering potential of the selfie-filter and the monumental absurdity of the billboard fashion icon, do we find ourselves reflected so tantalisingly in pigments suspended in oil, gently layered onto skins of canvas? Why are we so mesmerised by this small painting?

We dig a bit deeper and resolve on this tentative explanation. This three-dimensional painted world is suspended outside time and space. It is not transparent or transporting us to some actual earlier time, nor does it promise us some better, blingier actual future. Instead, it is a glimpse into our shared memories and future imaginings. This pink and sepia moment feels like a soft premonition of how young lives and companionship exist eternally in the bonds of sibling love. A photograph would have made that point too particular or singular. I would see *that* model as sibling A. But in the picture, the girls are so abstract as to lose all particularity. They are just sisters, we might say. Yours. Mine. Just Girls. Quiet, companionable and we can attend to them without fear that we are intruding. We can really look – as Iris Murdoch suggested – and our looking is a form of respect and love. Not voyeurism. Just as our trip to the Gallery together, and banter over which work we wanted to take home with us, was an exercise in respectful double vision and heartwarming argument.

Vanessa Brassey