A colossal artistic joke – Flaming June at the Royal Academy review

<span>Ironic erotica … Flaming June by Frederic, Lord Leighton, is at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until January 2025.</span><span>Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Ironic erotica … Flaming June by Frederic, Lord Leighton, is at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until January 2025.Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

Some artworks are iconic the moment they are created, such as the Mona Lisa or Warhol’s soup cans. Others become famous in more twisty ways. Frederic, Lord Leighton’s late 19th-century painting Flaming June was forgotten and lost for much of the 20th century, and when it did turn up in the 1960s no one wanted it except Andrew Lloyd Webber, who claims he tried to borrow £50 from his granny to purchase it, and the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, which leapt in where young Lloyd Webber failed. It is now lending its treasure to the Royal Academy for nearly a year while it remains closed following an earthquake. The RA has announced this loan as a triumphant return of a British masterpiece, and it has also been shown with great excitement by other museums around the world, an overnight success at last.

It’s easy to see why it was a hit when it was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1895: it let Victorians enjoy a sneaky sensual peak. Flaming June is supposedly a symbol of Summer. With her red hair and fiery garment, a model curls up on a marble seat, allowing us to look at her while she has her eyes closed. Respectable onlookers could not fault its mild aestheticism. But while Dr Jekyll smugly approved, any Mr Hydes visiting the exhibition might notice the nipple that’s firmly visible through her dress, and the way the tight, glowing fabric reveals the fleshy ampleness of her upraised thigh.

Leighton plays a double game, the ultimate Victorian hypocrite. He turns the respectable conventions of his time inside out by using his model’s covering not to hide but to accentuate the curves of her acrobatic body as she twists herself into a snug, sinuous human coil. It’s a colossal artistic joke: at the end of a hugely successful life, which saw him made a Lord shortly before his death, Leighton has a good laugh at what nudity, the body and sensuality are.

One thing artistic bodies are not, he teases us into seeing, are living human forms. The RA nicely emphasises the point by showing his celebrated painting alongside casts from its collection that were once used by students to draw the body as an artistic instead of biological fact. The Belvedere Torso, a muscular trunk lacking limbs or a head, and the Laocoön, in which a father and his young sons are having the life strangled out of them by giant snakes, loom colossally. A painting attributed to Zoffany shows 18th-century art students assiduously drawing these replicas.

Leighton emerges in this engaging encounter as one of the last great exemplars of that “academic” tradition in which you learned to see the human body through the lens of classical art. Flaming June is inspired by a stone cold masterpiece, Michelangelo’s statue of Night in the New Sacristy, Florence. It’s from this sculpture of a woman with her right leg raised to emphasise a powerful hip that Leighton gets the similarly hoisted leg that bulges through orange diaphanousness.

Neither artist was necessarily interested in female bodies outside their artistic possibilities. Michelangelo’s Night famously has two bell peppers stuck on her chest far apart for breasts. And we shouldn’t make any assumptions about the sexuality of Leighton, who lived alone in his home with its lush north African-style tiling.

The Royal Academy’s display in fact starts with a cast of The Sluggard, a particularly sensual male nude by Leighton. It’s a Michelangelesque youth who stretches and yawns, unselfconsciously showing us his naked body as he does so. Except in the life-sized cast in the RA collection, a decency leaf replaces his genitals, which were happily exposed in the original.

This president of the Royal Academy may have been gay or bisexual, or he may have avoided all entanglements to sublimate his complex desires into art - which is what Flaming June seems to proclaim. It is art for art’s sake, a cool witty machine of a painting that titillates the eye while leaving the brain free to admire Leighton’s meticulous artistry. It’s as if the father of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp had collaborated with a skilled figure painter to create a piece of ironic erotica.

Is it a masterpiece? No, obviously not. Our age of the simulacrum likes it because it works very well in reproduction: it is as smooth and clinical as a photograph. Successful Victorian painters like Leighton were adept at giving their art the clarity of the camera, so popular in Britain from the 1850s onwards. For all its allusions to high art, Flaming June is a populist, completely unambiguous and unpoetic work: an efficient painting that makes an instant impact and gives a quick shot of visual gratification. Drink in that orange. Notice that nipple.

There’s no soul to it at all. In this virtuoso exercise Leighton gives nothing of himself away and leaves nothing to the imagination – or the heart. It’s a cliche to call classical nudes “chilly” but I really did feel the cold looking at Flaming June. Like an English evening in early summer, it’s not all it promises.

• At the Royal Academy, London, until 12th January