The RA Summer Exhibition has been part of my cultural landscape for years. As a teenager I used to go to the members Private View with my parents, enjoying an illicit glass of fruit-laden Pimms while perusing the weird and wonderful of the world’s most democratic art exhibition (yes, anyone can submit work for inclusion in the show, from leading international artists to shy Sunday painters) and marveling at the volume and variety of art on display. In 1998, my artist mother had three of her prints selected for inclusion in the exhibition which gave me a more personal connection to the exhibition.
Every year it’s the same – a curious mix of art jamboree and jumble sale all crammed into the elegant airy rooms of Burlington House. In fact, in recent years, efforts have been made to rationalise the displays, with a far less crowded hang and greater thought about themes and how the exhibition “flows” from room to room. This year’s show is curated by painter and printmaker Eileen Cooper, and I liked it better than last year’s, mainly because of the care taken in how to display the works to their best advantage. Thus, one doesn’t feel “overloaded with art” when walking round and the more spacious displays allow the works to be appreciated on their own merits and in the context of the works around them.
The main theme of this year’s exhibition is one of welcome, and this seems particularly apt, and a touch poignant, in the light of the Mayor of London’s assertions that despite terror attacks, London is open and welcomes everyone. This celebration of welcome and diversity is most evident in the first room in which paintings, photographs, sculptures and even performances (if you’re lucky) are brought together in a vibrant and colourful visual display. There are works by international artists including Marina Abramovic (‘The Cleaner’) and Romuald Hzoume’s ‘Petrol Cargo’, modelled on vehicles used to smuggle petrol from Nigeria to the artist’s native Benin. There are also several neons by Tracey Emin, characteristically forthright. The works chosen confirm that art is a universal language that connects across borders and cultures.
Returning to the theme of the democracy of the Summer Exhibition, it’s wonderful to see large oil paintings by Sean Scully (elected to the RA in 2012) alongside works by amateur artists. And what a privilege and inspiration it must be to find your painting hung next to the work of one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. The display is such that there is no room for lengthy captions for each work and so one must refer to the list of works (a bulging little handbook) to discover the names of the artists. Of course, some are easily recognisable – Ken Howard’s views of Venice are like old friends, as are Anthony Green’s irregular canvases featuring acutely personal subjects. My personal favourites tend to reside in the print room – Elizabeth Blackadder’s elegant flowers and Norman Ackroyd’s storm-tossed seas. Elsewhere, there are works by Cornelia Parker, Michael Craig-Martin, Wolfgang Tillmans, Anish Kapoor (his vast, visceral, shocking ‘Unborn’ which elicited some pretty visceral reactions from visitors) and even Anselm Kiefer (an honorary Royal Academician).
In a way, it’s the Summer Show’s regularity (it’s been held for 249 years without interruption) that make it both reassuring and appealing: the format is largely the same each year, the exhibition opens a couple of weeks ahead of that other stalwart of the English summer season – Wimbledon – and one visits knowing one is likely to find at least 10 works one would happily have at home. There really is something for everyone in the RA Summer Exhibition, and this year an abundance of colour makes it especially enjoyable.
For reassuring continuity in these uncertain times, look no further than Burlington House. Ken Howard’s contre-jour views of Venice, Gillian Ayres’s sub-Matisse lyrical abstraction, Artistic Director Tim Marlow’s ‘yoof’ haircuts: no one does comforting timelessness quite like the Royal Academy.
As a practicing artist myself, the Summer Exhibition is always the perfect opportunity to check out what other people are up to and, yes, to pinch (or, as we artists prefer to say, ‘appropriate’) ideas. As Lucian Freud once put it, artists go to galleries for the same reason that other people go to the doctor: to get help.
Exhibition co-ordinator Eileen Cooper is known for her Magic Realist paintings and there’s a distinctly New Age/World Art vibe to the show this year. Room VI in particular, curated by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, is a positive riot of colour, featuring works by such highly-regarded African artists as El Anutsui and Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, as well as more local talent. For me the standout was the lavish digital study of bikers in turbans and djellabas by Hassan Hajjaj, ‘the Andy Warhol of Marrakech’.
Rather different is the slightly creepy Room VIII, curated by sculptor Ann Christopher. The centrepiece is the totemic ‘Croce (Cross)’ by Mimmo Paladino; I also liked Tim Shaw’s zombies on rockers and Lee Wagstaff’s crouching, porcupine-quilled figure, ‘The Art of Being Right’.
As usual, throughout the show there’s a good selection of works from the heavy hitters of the contemporary art world, including Marina Abramović, Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel and Royal Academicians elect Gilbert & George. Schnabel isn’t an artist I’ve ever warmed to that much, but I loved his gaudy ‘Rose Painting (Near Van Gogh’s Grave) XVIII’, constructed from his trademark broken plates.
Finally, a word on Isaac Julien’s mesmerising and immersive film ‘WESTERN UNION: Small Boats’ in the last room (X). Shown across five screens, it’s a riff on Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ and combines ravishing Sicilian landscapes with a narrative highlighting the perils of transcontinental migration. Please don’t wait for the DVD or Blue-ray, though; it’s an edition of three, yours for £200,000 apiece.