Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1
The RA Summer Exhibition, 250 years old this year, is as English as strawberries and cream, Wimbledon tennis, and wasps at a summer picnic. It’s a key part of the summer season and is the world’s most democratic art show: any one can submit work, from professional artists to Sunday painters. Twenty years ago, my mother achieved a long-held dream and had three prints accepted for the Summer Show (this coincided with the birth of my son, her grandson, so it was a particularly special summer for her!). I’ve been going to the Summer Exhibition, initially with my artist mother, and latterly with friends and my co-reviewer NM for years now. It’s a curious beast – the format is essentially unchanged, but in recent years the exhibition has been coordinated by a leading artist, who, along with the hanging committee, brings a personal vision to the show. In fact, the unchanging format of the exhibition always leads NM and I to ponder “what will this year’s show be like?” as we make our way to Burlington House.
On the occasion of the exhibition’s quarter-millennium birthday, this year’s coordinator is Academician, Turner Prize winner and lovable National Treasure Grayson Perry, and his love of colour and keen, but largely benign, eye on the paradoxes of modern society and its social mores, has resulted in a significantly zhuzhed up show. It’s vibrant, witty and joyful, with much to amuse and delight, and also give pause for more serious reflection on where we are today: there are two works concerning Grenfell Tower and a Brexit piece by Bansky in the same room (its walls painted sunshine yellow) as a rather pompous picture of Nigel Farage (beneath – perhaps significantly, depending on how you wish to read it – a picture of a dog vomiting). These on point juxtapositions combined with a show pulsating with vivid colours, textures and vibrant imagination make this the best Summer Exhibition I have seen in years.
Added to that the 250th anniversary marks the opening of expanded galleries, and the Summer Exhibition takes the visitor on an intriguing meander through some of the new spaces. The RA acquired the building on Burlington Gardens which used to house the Museum of Mankind, an elegant Victorian pile, and it’s been transformed thanks to architect David Chipperfield into a pale and interesting gallery space, and increasing the RA’s footprint by 70%.
An elegant bridge joins Burlington House with the Burlington Gardens building. Visitors descend via the original garden steps, uncovered and set alongside cool shiny terrazzo. In this exhibition space, there are paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures (including two fascinating anatomical sculptures) from the RA collection, works not previously displayed, to remind the visitor that this is also an art school – an academy. A large, uber modern picture window offers a glimpse into what was once an unseen yard, now attratively laid out by landscape architects Wirtz: when finished, it’s going to be really wonderful. From here, you can also appreciate the rear of Burlington House and the scale of the building, before proceeding into the expanded gallery space. Visitors can appreciate not only the well-proportioned public rooms, but also the “below stairs” details such as the 18th-century brick vaults, which have been beautifully restored. The loos are pretty stunning too – sleek steel cubicles set in a room to delight any bricklayer worth his salt (I know my builder, Hugh, would appreciate the craftsmanship and skill of his 18th-century counterparts).
Back to the Summer Exhibition, and not content to be confined to the main gallery, the show spills out into the courtyard of Burlington House, with a giant sculpture by Anish Kapoor, and beyond – onto Piccadilly and the surrounding streets. Look up and you’ll see colourful flags designed by leading Academicians fluttering in the summer breeze (read more here). It’s clear that as coordinator of this year’s show, Perry has done wonders for it – no longer a rather worthy trudge through contemporary art, it’s now a vibrant celebration of creativity and imagination and I hope this sets a positive precedent for future years.
Poor David Griffiths, he only wanted to see his respectful portrait of Nigel Farage hanging in the 250th Summer Exhibition. According to his website, Griffiths is ‘one of Wales’ most well-known portrait painters…trained at The Slade School of Art… under the direction of Sir William Coldstream, Sir Ernst Gombrich and Sir Anthony Blunt’. Impressive credentials indeed. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get some national coverage. So why did they have to go and stick ‘Farage’ underneath a picture of a dog throwing up and next to a giant fibreglass sculpture of the Pink Panther?
The Royal Academy, it would be fair to say, has evolved since the days when a former president, Sir Alfred Munnings, offered to horsewhip Picasso in the name of art. You couldn’t argue that the RA, one of our most prestigious cultural institutions, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. All the same, Grayson Perry was an inspired choice to chair this year’s selection committee because when you need someone to blow away any residual cobwebs, Perry’s your man. Only don’t expect him to take things too seriously.
With characteristic pizzazz, Perry has used the raw material of the ‘send ins’ (including, it must be admitted, some right old tat) to deliver a droll commentary on the world of art, and indeed the world generally, in 2018. There’s sterling support for this project from his co-curators, including Phyllida Barlow, Conrad Shawcross and Cornelia Parker, and an impressive line-up of guest artists, among them Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman and Anselm Kiefer.
Don’t miss the Sackler Gallery, on the second floor, which this year has been made over to printmaking, and where among other things you’ll see an intaglio print by Queen Sonja of Norway, no less. This I find deeply symbolic. Thirty years ago the best that could be hoped for from royalty would have been a fussy little Prince Charles watercolour accompanied by much bowing and scraping from Sir Hugh Casson. But – guess what? – Queen Sonja actually has talent. She’s also, for good measure, the matriarch of Europe’s funkiest dynasty: last year she and King Harald celebrated their 80th birthdays with a surfing holiday in South Africa.
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 12 June – 19 August
Header image: Michael Landy RA, Closing Down Sale, Mixed media and audio (Image courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, © Michael Landy)