Challenging the Order of Things

Challenging ‘The Order of Things’: a call to arms in Karen Knorr’s Academies.

Established in 1768, the Royal Academy of Arts aimed to elevate the status of the artist. Instead of teaching practical skills to the commercial artist, the Royal Academy encouraged its students to create works of high moral and artistic worth. The monkey perched before the easel in Karen Knorr’s ‘Painting after Nature,’ photographed in the Life Class Room of the Academy, can be seen as an example of a civilised post-Darwinian gentleman engaged in a refined and educated endeavour. Yet traditionally the monkey is known for its ability to ‘ape’ or imitate reality. In photographing the monkey, Knorr draws upon a nineteenth century trope of the photographer as an organ-grinding monkey who cranks a handle to generate a tune. Photography was satirised as an unskilled and repetitive endeavour that could be performed without thought, even by a mindless monkey.Comparisons were also drawn between the artist and the monkey: both were able to copy without thought, but neither were believed capable of creating an original art work. Such beliefs are compounded by the teaching methods employed within the Royal Academy. The importance of copying old master paintings was stressed to students, alongside drawing from casts of Antique sculpture, examples of which are documented by Knorr in ‘The Order of Things.’ Knorr inserts her own naked body into the space of the Royal Academy, mimicking the pose of Manet’s 1863 painting ‘Olympia’ and using the same title to make her quotation explicit. The ruse of Manet’s motif suggests a criticism of such teaching based on the duplication of copies, indicating how academic training of this kind may result in a lack of creative originality.

In composing her portrait in the Life Class Room, Knorr draws attention to the contentious practice of life drawing within nineteenth century art institutions. Whilst studying the human body was considered vital to academic training, the naked body was often cited as possessing the ability to morally corrupt students. Consequently, male students had to slavishly copy engravings and anatomical figures before they were permitted entry into the life class; women, in their brief two year admittance to the Academy, were forbidden from witnessing the naked form. The brutal castration of the sinewy male figure in ‘The Order of Things’ testifies to the conservative values of the time. Defiantly confronting the viewer’s gaze, Knorr’s ‘Olympia’ disrupts the academic institution in which she is located on several levels: as a woman, Knorr trespasses into the exclusively male domain of the Life Class Room; as a photographer she intrudes into the sanctuary of the ‘creative’ artist; and in her nakedness she confronts a taboo of conservative Victorian society.

The viewer must therefore consider how far society has since evolved, or alternatively, contemplate the possibility that the values represented by the Academy still persist today. Issues of preservation permeate Knorr’s images. As photographs they fulfil the desire in man, identified by André Bazin, to “preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance […] to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life.” In photographing statuary and taxidermised animals, stuffed and preserved after death, Knorr also documents attempts by others to fix the corporeality of the body. The Wallace Collection, in which several of Knorr’s photographs are set, is similarly preserved within a specific moment of time. Amassed by generations of Marquises and Lords, the collection of art works and artefacts was bequeathed to the British nation in 1897. The bequest dictated that no item was to ever leave the collection, even for temporary exhibition, and that no new works were to be added. The Wallace collection remains hermetically sealed and impervious to change, embalmed within the moment of its donation, a relic from the end of the nineteenth century that registers as anachronistic to a modern day audience.

The animals that appear to wander through the rooms of the Wallace collection exist, much like the museum itself, in a space suspended between life and death. A monkey and parrot resting on the back of a wolf in ‘High Art Life After the Deluge’ are artificially kept in the hold of life: as taxidermised animals they are irrevocably deceased but appear at their most animate in the photograph. Freud discussed this uncertainty over an object’s status as alive or inanimate in terms of the uncanny. Yet the uncanny element of Knorr’s photographs is not located in the potential animation of the dead animals; rather it concerns the value systems preserved in the patriarchal and aristocratic spaces she photographs. Freud stated that uncanny experiences can be prompted “when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.” The uncanny makes itself felt in Knorr’s images through a realisation that the antiquated values embodied by institutions such as the Royal Academy and the Wallace Collection, values which should have been relegated to the past, still linger over the production and reception of art today.

The title ‘High Art Life After the Deluge’ offers a clue to interpreting Knorr’s photographs. The flood metaphor, with its biblical allusions, threatens a destruction of old values in order to make way for a new culture. The satire that runs throughout Academies suggests that we should look towards a renaissance in culture that will finally allow outdated beliefs to be relegated to the storerooms of the past, alongside the ornate gilded frames and antique sculpture casts.