Johann Zoffany RA: Society Observed, Royal Academy of Arts, until 10 June 2012 Gilbert and George: London Pictures, White Cube, until 14 April 2012 at Hoxton Square; until 12 May 2012 at Mason’s Yard, and South Galleries, Bermondsey

There is laughter to be had in the galleries just now. The best is in the Johan Zoffany show at the Royal Academy. Zoffany was a German artist who came to England in 1760, when he was twenty-seven. In Germany, he had mostly painted historical pictures for princely patrons. In England, he was open to anything, and in the event he became a master of two things – celebration and comedy.

There is not much gloom and doom in his work. His first big break came when the most famous actor of the day, David Garrick, employed him to paint him performing on the stage. This was perhaps the nearest Zoffany came to portraying tragedy, and he duly painted the scene in Macbeth where Lady Macbeth snatches the daggers from her husband’s hand. Zoffany, in my view, did not rise to the occasion here. Lady Macbeth, towering over her husband, is a grand figure. But Garrick, as Macbeth, looks like a little pop-eyed frog standing on its hind legs. It is surprising if Garrick liked the picture, but the relationship seems to have been a firm one, and Zoffany painted some delightful scenes of Garrick and his wife at the temple to Shakespeare that the actor had erected by the Thames. Two of them have just, appropriately, been bought by the Garrick Club.

Soon Zoffany was introduced to the king, George III, who liked the meticulous attention to detail in Zoffany’s pictures. This opened the great period of celebratory painting in Zoffany’s life. Now his gift for portraiture unfolded, and he produced many brilliant, colourful and very cheerful- looking pictures of Queen Charlotte and her family. I happened to see the show at the press view, and could not help remarking on the contrast between the colour and merriment on the walls and the look and demeanour of the critics and journalists there. Some of the men had a certain willowy elegance, with rather eighteenth century-looking tight trousers, but nearly all of them, men and women alike, were in dark clothes and seemed very solemn. A yellow cardigan on one woman and some bright red high-heeled shoes on another were too little to make a difference. However I suddenly realised that the Academy itself had brought some Zoffanyish colour to the scene, because everybody was clutching a large scarlet folder containing information for the press.

Anyway, on the walls the pleasure continued, now often boosted by Zoffany’s wit. He painted the king in a relaxed mood, reclining on a sofa with his waistcoat unbuttoned – and it has recently been realised that the king’s posture reflects that of John Wilkes, the king’s radical arch-enemy, in a famous and widely-bought engraving of Wilkes by Hogarth. The king must have liked the surprising joke, or he would hardly have allowed it.

However, in the end Zoffany went too far with the king. He went to Florence, at the queen’s wish, and there painted one of his most amazing pictures – an interior view of the Uffizi with many of the gallery’s greatest pictures on the walls. Beneath them stand many English cognoscenti and visitors on the Grand Tour. Everything is done in precise and delicate detail. Unfortunately, Zoffany, in his irrepressibly humorous way, included among the spectators a well-known homosexual of the day, whom another man is trying to persuade of the charms of a nude Venus by Titian, while a group of other men are looking a little too eagerly at the bottom of a sculptured Venus. This was too much for George III. He declared that the queen should never be allowed to see such a picture, and Zoffany’s relationship with the Court cooled.

Other splendid celebratory and amusing pictures include group portraits of painters and art students assembled in the Academy studios, with some idle fellows looking out at the painter, just as people being filmed stare at the television camera when they should not. An odd celebratory commission that Zoffany took on is a portrait of a man whose wife had run away from him. He had sued the man whom she had gone off with,

Above: The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-7) Johann Zoffany Oil on canvas 123.5 x 155cm
Right: The Sharp Family (1779-81) Johan Zoffany Oil on canvas 115.6 x 125.7cm
Mystery (2011), Gilbert & George, 151 x 190cm

and totally bankrupted him. He sits there with a look of grim satisfaction on his face, surrounded by his children, one of whom wears a helmet. The whole concept makes one laugh. There is also a jokey self-portrait showing Zoffany putting on a friar’s clothes to disguise himself at a masquerade, with two sheep’s-gut condoms hanging on the wall behind him. He glances at the viewer with a smile of complicity.

And what did the critics say when they wrote their pieces? Well, to some extent my apprehensions were justified. Many of the reviews came late, were short, and were rather guarded in their praise. The more straightforward paintings Zoffany did when he went to India were the most admired, and indeed they were good, including a very fine portrait of Warren Hastings. But it was the paintings in the earlier rooms that I liked best.

The new works by Gilbert and George at the White Cube claim to be serious and moral, but I thought they too were comic, in a cunning sort of way. With the overall title ‘London Pictures’, they are split up between the three White Cube galleries, one in Hoxton, one in Mayfair, and one massive new gallery in Bermondsey where I went to look at them. The two artists, who consider themselves as one, have collected thousands of London newspaper placards with screaming headlines on them. They have redone the words on many of them in bold red and black, and assembled these versions of the placards in big rectangular blocks that hang on the walls of the galleries, each block labelled with a keyword title such as Yobs, Stabbings or Tube. They say that this is an ‘epic survey of modern urban life in all its tragedy, absurdity and routine violence’ and that there is a ‘moral dimension’ in the works in that they make us more aware of these things.

However, the exhibition does not come over like that at all. You soon get tired of looking at these endless ‘Stabbed to Death’ headlines or suchlike, and become quite numb to their implications. You find yourself, instead, looking for the funnier or more ridiculous ones: ‘Cyclist Hurt in Snowball Attack’, ‘Gun Found in Man’s Bum’.

Moreover, each block of placards is set against a rather misty and ghostly photographic background, mainly of London scenes, with Gilbert and George peering out at one through the words. They are always dressed in the same well-cut grey suits, with a silvery and black tie, and they are always looking very serious. But they are canny enough actors to know that serious looks can be funny – and so it is here. Besides searching for any entertaining headlines, you also start studying these earnest, half- hidden faces. Slowly you find yourself laughing at them too.

It is just as if, as in many of their previous shows, they were really engaged here in a comic parade of themselves. Some critics, in the same frame of mind as they approached the Zoffanys, have taken their professions of seriousness at face value. But I suspect that Gilbert and George are slyly – or perhaps without themselves quite realising it – putting on yet another amusing show.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.