There is, I would guess, a sizable group of people who, despite their routine sympathy with internationally recognized (read Franco-American) achievements in twentieth-century art, find the thought of a large British retrospective something less than exciting. As with the Whitney Biennials, a vaguely purgatorial aura might be said to surround the prospect. Both types of exhibitions provide “opportunities” not to be missed, yet they do this without promising the stuff of deep aesthetic challenge. In fact, they almost guarantee the very opposite, which is to say a deployment of trends and some insignificant degree of titillation, the latter felt most keenly in contexts having nothing to do with art.

The current British twentieth-century retrospective at the Royal Academy in London—which is supplemented by a rather meek show entitled “Salon de refusés” at the nearby...


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