East meets West: Prom 41

‘Passages’ by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass

Britten Sinfonia with Anoushka Shankar, sitar, Karen Kamensek, conductor, Alexa Mason, soprano

Tuesday 15th August 2017

The Late Proms, introduced in 2012, offer a slightly different musical experience to the main concerts and often feature non-mainstream classical music, jazz or specially-themed concerts (such as the Ibiza Prom and Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights Prom), in addition to memorable performances of some of the greatest works by Bach, including the Goldberg Variations (Andras Schiff) and the solo cello suites (Yo Yo Ma). There’s a different atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall later in the evening and despite the size of the hall and audience, concerts which start after 10pm often feel more relaxed and intimate. Prom 41 was no exception, with an additional special resonance – 15th August 2017 was the anniversary of Indian independence. Appropriately, East met West in the first complete live performance of Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar’s concept album ‘Passages’, performed by the Britten Sinfonia and an ensemble of Indian musicians, with Shankar’s daughter Anoushka on sitar.

Philip Glass met Ravi Shankar in Paris in the 1960s, a time when Shankar was already famous in the west for his collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison of The Beatles. Shankar taught Glass, then only 29, how to accurately notate Indian classical music and Glass learnt how Indian music achieves its sophisticated rhythms and ornamentation, which had a profound affect on his approach to rhythmic structures as a foundation for his own music.

I did a remarkable, intuitive thing, which is I took the music I had written down and I erased all the bar lines. And suddenly, I saw something which I hadn’t seen before.”

– Philip Glass

In ‘Passages’ American Minimalism fuses with traditional Hindustani classical music to create a mesmerizing flow of exquisite sounds and intoxicating pulsating rhythms. The first movement is based on a theme Shankar gave to Glass (a raga played on saxophone), the second vice versa, and so on through the six movements of the work. The influence of Shankar and Indian music is clear in Glass’s use of complex rhythms and multiple time signatures, repeated elements, drones and open fifths, but ‘Passages’ is very different from the hard-core Minimalism one normally associates with Philip Glass – the spooling, repetitive motifs which ebb and flow, and his distinctive, sensuous harmonic shifts are all there, but there is a wealth of lyricism and poetry too in the intertwining lines and voices (including solo soprano and four other singers). The whole work is a rich tapestry of sounds as East and West flow effortlessly in and out of one another, with passages of jewel-like clarity and exotic dialogues between Western and Indian instruments.

Conductor Karen Kamensek, who began working with Glass in the 1990s, said ‘Passages’ blew her mind when she first encountered it and she secretly hoped she might one day have an opportunity to perform it. She cracked the code of Glass’s and Shankar’s notation to create a performance score which is accessible to Western orchestral musicians, and the result was this extraordinarily absorbing and exquisitely presented Late Prom.

Kamensek is clearly very comfortable with this music (she conducted ENO’s acclaimed new production of Glass’s ‘Akhnaten in 2016), combining rigour with an instinctive feel for its shifting rhythms and palpitating melodic streams. The strings of the Britten Sinfonia were wonderfully sleek and silky, the percussion sparkled with precision, the harp delicate and filigree. There was fine playing from woodwind and an elegantly supple solo trumpet. Soprano Alexa Mason’s translucent voice melded with the ensemble as another layer of instrumentation. From the first shimmering sounds of Anoushka Shankar’s sitar, we were instantly transported to another time and place.

This was an entrancing fusion of modernity and tradition, an exquisite meeting of minds, music styles and instrumentation, and a brilliant exchange of musical languages and compositional methods.

 

FW

(picture: Anoushka Shankar, sitar. BBC)

 

Rowan Hudson Trio at The Bull’s Head

I admit it, I’m a jazz ingenue. I know very little about the genre and even less about how to write a convincing review of a jazz gig or album. People say the rubric of classical music is complex and inaccessible; for me, jazz is even more complicated – there are genres and sub-genres aplenty. Do you know your Be-bop from your Hard bop, your trad from your stride? I don’t, but in jazz as in classical music, or world, or folk, or pop, the fundamental rules apply: it’s what you receive aurally – the music – that matters, and I can certainly appreciate really well-played music when I hear it.

This gig was part of 7 Star Arts‘ year-long residency at The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head, a venue which has a fine long-standing reputation in the London jazz world. Once called “the suburban Ronnie Scott’s” (the pub is in villagey Barnes, overlooking the Thames), its legendary jazz room, now housed in a separate building next to the pub, has played host to many jazz “greats”, including Humphrey Lyttelton, Alan Price, Jeff Beck and Peter King, and there is live music in the jazz room every night.

Rowan Hudson is a young pianist whose interest in music developed from a stack of LPs of music from the 1960s and 70s, alongside some hefty independent research online and plenty of time spent at the keyboard developing his improvisation skills. When I spoke to him briefly during the interval, he explained that he is now exploring classical music, and one of the pieces in the second half was by the Spanish classical composer Joaquin Turina, arranged for trio. His trio colleagues are Joe Dessauer (drums) and Jj Stillwell (bass).

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Rowan Hudson

The Jazz Room is an intimate space, usually arranged club style so you can set your drinks on a table before you and lean back and enjoy the music. As with any music, whatever the genre, being up close and personal with the musicians can make a huge difference to one’s enjoyment and engagement with the performance (except perhaps at a Thrash Metal gig!), and its fascinating to see the musicians at work individually and how they interact with each other.

The programme was a mixture of tunes by, amongst others, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, along with some lesser-known numbers, and the vibe was generally relaxed and – let’s be honest here – the very epitome of “cool”, in the best sense of that word. Listening to and watching this trio, one has the sense that these three musicians have been playing together for donkey’s years, such is their empathy and synergy, and lack of ego too. Yet they are all still young. Rowan’s piano playing is sensitively paced, supple and elegant. His dynamic palette is varied and colourful: he can do the gentlest whispered pianissimos and muscular fortes without ever losing clarity or quality of tone, and he can make piano sounds bend and waver, seemingly effortlessly.

Highly recommended.

FW

7 Star Arts presents…… at the Jazz Room at the Bull’s Head continues on 12 September with Liam Stevens Trio and special guest Matthias Beckmann on trumpet. For further information please visit www.7stararts.com

A visit to Turner’s house

Five minutes walk from St Margaret’s station on a quiet residential road of large late-Victorian villas stands Sandycombe Lodge, former home of one of Britain’s greatest painters, J M W Turner.

Turner designed the house as a country retreat for himself and ‘old dad’, his father William (1745–1829), a barber and wig-maker. Located close to the river Thames in what was then rural Twickenham, the house shows the influence of Turner’s friend, the architect and art collector Sir John Soane. It’s a modest residence with well-proportioned, high-ceilinged rooms and a spiral staircase which is almost identical to the one at Sloane’s house in Lincoln Inn’s Fields. Turner used this peaceful spot to escape from the pressures of the London art world, to walk and sketch along the Thames (it would have taken him about 30 minutes to walk to the top of Richmond Hill, from where he sketched and painted the view which is still recognisable today). He also enjoyed fishing with one or two close companions, and occasionally entertained larger groups of friends. His father tended the garden and looked after the house when Turner was away.

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J M W Turner – England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday (Tate Britain, London)

The house has undergone considerable renovation under the auspices of the Turner’s House Trust (THT), which raised the necessary funds to restore the house, remove Victorian additions and return it to its appearance in Turner’s day.

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The restoration is exquisite and sensitive, and one of the first things which strikes the visitor on arriving at the house is how beautifully the exterior brickwork has been restored, complete with careful ‘penny line’ pointing. The render, a later addition, was completely removed after evidence of what the original exterior looked like was discovered when the upper rooms were taken down. Inside, the muted earthy colour schemes, wallpapers and carpets have been selected to reflect the taste of the day. The discovery of a tiny fragment of wallpaper in the bedroom enabled the THT to recreate the design which now hangs in the large bedroom. The delicate marbled effect on the walls of the vestibule, hall and stairwell is all hand-painted, using an ancient paint effect which came back into fashion in the early 19th century. The house is lightly, but carefully furnished with furniture in keeping with the period of the house, together with selected prints and other artworks and ephemera such as clay pipes. Everything is elegantly and tastefully displayed and the house is thankfully free of the rather didactic or bossy displays one encounters at National Trust houses. And there is no twee tea room either: given its proximity to St Margaret’s, one can stroll back towards the station or down towards the river to enjoy a cup of tea in a local cafe.

The house is open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday, and in the mornings one can wander at will, while those wishing for a more informed visit can enjoy a guided tour in the afternoon.

For more information and to book tickets, please visit turnershouse.org

Recommended

FW

 

(Header image: Turner’s House museum)

Matisse in the Studio

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Henri Matisse, Safrano Roses at the Window, 1925
Oil on canvas, 80 x 65 cm
Private collection
Photo © Private collection
© Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Strange things lurk in artists’ studios, amidst the creative clutter. The Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka kept a life-size mannekin of his former lover Alma Mahler with him for company. Several big names have stored guns in their studios, for no particular reason; certainly not to shoot themselves with, suicides being rare among artists. The slightly mad German Pop artist Sigmar Polke kept a lump of uranium handy, which he used as a quick way of developing photographs. Not good.

How refreshing to turn to the benign and orderly world of Henri Matisse.

Transferring to the Royal Academy after a highly praised run at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, this medium-sized exhibition features 65 of Matisse’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints and cut-outs, alongside 35 of the studio objects that inspired them.

Matisse is a very apt subject for this sort of treatment, because like his great rival Picasso he was an inveterate collector, not only of fine art and antiques but also of curios, knick-knacks and what might frankly be described as junk. He called these accumulated objects his ‘actors’, and did indeed arrange them into little dramas in his studio.

Here, for example, you can admire the silver chocolatière given to him as a wedding present by his artist friend Albert Marquet, which found its way into several of his early Chardinesque still lives. Here too is the green Andalusian vase that stands prominently in ‘Safrano Roses at the Window’ (above). There’s also the Venetian rococo chair Matisse acquired in 1942, the arabesque curves of which feature in a number of paintings over the next decade. The contrast between this sinuous chair and Van Gogh’s plain, rush-seated version speaks volumes.

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Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century
Wood, fiber and pigment, 49 x 19.3 cm
Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection
Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

Matisse was also a huge fan of African art, particularly tribal masks. As the exhibition demonstrates very well, there are clear echoes of them in his portraits, such as the one of his daughter Madeleine (1907), once owned by Picasso. (Only having seen this painting in reproduction before, I was keen to examine it closely, because of the old story that in idle moments Picasso would throw darts at it. I’m happy to report that this appears not to be the case, although perhaps he used those ones with suckers on}.

It’s suggested here that Matisse’s late cut-outs may have been partly inspired by his collection of Chinese calligraphic panels, Moorish screens and Congoese textiles, though by this stage his take-off points were so diverse that it’s difficult to nail down a particular visual source.

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Henri Matisse, The Moorish Screen, 1921
Oil on canvas, 91 x 74 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950
Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Is there any point to all this juxtaposition, apart from the fun to be had from playing ‘hunt the vase’? You certainly gain an insight into an important aspect of Matisse’s creative practice, although by no means all the wellsprings of his art are dealt with by this approach. The inspiration for his early landscapes, for example, or his brief flirtation with abstraction during 1913-17, clearly lay beyond bric-a-brac. Wisely, the organisers don’t overreach themselves by trying to cover everything.

This absorbing show is being held in the Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing, completed by Norman Foster in 1991. I’ve long thought this to be one of the best small exhibition spaces in London. As you approach it in the glass lift you can admire the original garden front of Burlington House, exposed by Foster’s clever linking of the Georgian and Victorian buildings on the site. The exhibition space itself – just three rooms, roughly the same size, all fairly small – is satisfyingly spare. It may be obvious, but I think it’s worth underlining the point that the environment in which you see an exhibition can make a huge difference to your enjoyment of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in all the years I’ve been going to the Sackler, I’ve never seen a duff show.

NM

Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy of Arts 5 August-12 November 2017

Trapped in a Smash at Wilton’s

There are some words that make a concert-goer’s heart sink. For me these include “experimental”, “fusion”, “cross-over”, “wunderkind” and – after last night’s concert at Wilton’s Music Hall – “virtuoso harmonica player”.

It’s rare for me to feel trapped at a concert, fervently wishing for it to be over, but last night was such an occasion – the second half at least (the first half was pretty good apart from a horrifically hammered out Bach Passacaglia, of which more later). This was a concert by musicians from Hong Kong’s Music Lab as part of the Hong Kong Music Series. The first item of the second half – ‘Beethoven Rhapsody’ – filled me with dread, and rightly so. It was the kind of music I hate: a “mash up” (or “Smash”) of riffs, motifs and idioms from the rock group Queen (geddit?!), the Beatles and the old radical himself (quotes from the fifth symphony and Pathetique sonata). There followed schmaltzy ballads, film music (by Morricone) and the world premiere of ‘Ideology’ by Hong Kongese harmonica player CY Leo, who has won numerous competitions with his playing. The work was a vehicle for this young man’s staggering virtuosity, displayed in fiendish Baroque-ish figurations and any number of squawks, breathy whispers, bends and myriad other sounds which I couldn’t begin to describe. It was as if Larry Adler himself had been reincarnated at Wilton’s Music Hall…… and I didn’t like it one bit. The concert closed with something called ‘Invierno Fantasia’, which started unnervingly calmly, but, given what had gone before, it was only a matter of time before it exploded into another manic fusion of rock, jazz, classical and “Cantopop“. It was the sort of music which makes me want to set my hair on fire and put it out with a hammer.

It wasn’t that it was badly played. In fact the whole programme was, largely, extremely well played by young musicians from Hong Kong who displayed great enthusiasm and commitment in their music making. Saxophonist, Timothy Sun, modest of stage presence yet immensely resonant and nuanced of sound, and soprano Alison Lau, whose voice had a sweetly searing clarity, were a pleasure to hear, as was pianist Lai Bo Ling, who accompanied violinist Mark Hui, both musicians with sensitivity and mature musicality, despite their tender years (all the musicians were in their twenties, some as young as 21).

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I am usually suspicious of concert programmes which advertise themselves as “experimental”. Often it is just a handy term to suggest something edgy and out there, which actually turns out to be a less than well-conceived programme in which the performer or performers have basically been given license to do what they like. This Music Lab concert at Wilton’s Music Hall (the first of two as part of the Hong Kong Music Series) certainly felt like that. It was as if the programme planner had thrown the components of a concert up in the air and simply watched where they landed without any thought for a theme or linking thread throughout the programme. Maybe the intention was not to have a common theme, and the programme certainly felt  like three separate concerts in one evening. What it did do was give a platform to a group of talented young musicians. The pianist and director of Music Lab Kajeng Wong provided a degree of continuity to the evening: he introduced the concert and performed in most of it, and, whether by accident or design, rather stole the show with his versatility and personable stage presence.

The concert opened with Kajeng Wong as ‘Fingerman’ in a solo performance intended to “explore the concept of God in an experimental classical piano recital”. I was not clear exactly what was “experimental” about this. A delicately nuanced  performance of Arvo Part’s ‘Für Alina’ revealed Wong as a sensitive pianist in this work of supreme simplicity and profound meaning. As he played, enigmatic words and phrases were projected onto the back of the stage – “God or no God”, “Could we return to the silence before the first note”. Unfortunately, for those of us in the forward rows of the theatre, these were often obscured by the open lid of the piano (and this continued to be an issue during the second segment of the concert).

From Pärt, he moved into the frenetic realms of Ligeti’s Étude ‘The Devil’s Staircase’, a work of fiendish technical challenges, which Wong managed with ease and panache, brilliantly paced and quite thrilling to watch and hear. The final work in this segment was Bach’s monumental Passacaglia BWV 582, arranged by Emile Naoumoff (one of Wong’s teachers). Originally for organ, this arrangement sought to imitate on piano the expansive resonance and plangent bass of the organ. It started well, with intent, conviction and a clear sense of the music’s architecture and contrapuntal lines, but as the music grew in statue, so Wong’s sound became strident and ugly. It was impressive, if only for the pianist’s attempt to play at full volume, hammering the keys as if his life depended on it, but more subtlety of touch would have been welcome here: it is possible to play loudly without thumping the piano…… During the performance, philosophical quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ were projected onto the back of the stage. I’m not convinced these projections added anything of significance to the performance and since there were no programme notes, I was left none the wiser. In fact, it seemed a rather pointless gimmick to me.

‘Beloved Clara’ was a retelling of the story of the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms in short works by all three composers, performed by Bo Ling Lai (piano), Mark Hui (violin), Alison Lau (soprano) and Kajeng Wong. As in the first segment, text was projected onto the back of the stage comprising quotes from the Schumanns and Brahms and snippets of their biographies. It was rather simplistic and clumsily-translated and was often obscured by the lid of the piano and the violinist, but despite this, ‘Beloved Clara’ was the highlight of the evening for me, the music performed with great elegance, empathy and tenderness.

Certainly, it was an “interesting” concert, but I admit I wanted to leave almost as soon as the second half began. A word too about the printed programme, which was attractively designed and produced. If translating into English from another language, do try and have the text proof-read by a native English speaker. As in the Beloved Clara text, there was some clumsy and unnatural translating which a decent copy-editor could have put right in a moment. Details like these really do matter.

 

Date reviewed: 10 July 2017

Music Lab at Wilton’s Music Hall

 

 

Variations on a traditional programme – Inon Barnatan at Wigmore Hall

 

George Frideric Handel – Chaconne in G major HWV435

Johann Sebastian Bach – Partita No.4 in D major BWV828, II. Allemande

Jean-Philippe Rameau – Premier livre de pieces de clavecin, IV. Courante in A minor

François Couperin – Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre 12 No. 8 L’Atalante

Maurice Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin, IV. Rigaudon

Thomas Adès – Blanca Variations (UK première)

György Ligeti – Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

Samuel Barber – Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26, IV. Fuga: Allegro con spirit

Inon Barnatan, piano

Wigmore Hall, London

 

 

Israeli’s pianist Inon Barnatan’s 27 June Wigmore Hall concert demonstrated the “power of the programme”. Called Variations on a Theme, the first half of the concert consisted largely of single movements from suites, old and new, while the second half was occupied with Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel.

Initially, the first half of the programme could have been a curious mish-mash, a faux Baroque suite cobbled together from movements cherry-picked from works by Handel, Bach and their French contemporaries Rameau and Couperin, Ravel and Ligeti, and contemporary composer Thomas Ades. In fact, when I posted a picture of the programme on Facebook, a couple of friends commented that it “looks a bit Classic FM” and “how bizarre”. These comments in themselves are interesting, suggesting that a “proper” concert must consist of complete works, not fragments or single movements. Meanwhile, the Telegraph reviewer cites “shorter attention spans” as a reason for creating programmes like this.

This programme worked for me, and I admit that I selected the concert purely on the basis of the works by Ravel (the Rigaudon from the Tombeau de Couperin), Ligeti (two movements from Musica Ricercata) and the Ades Blanca Variations. I felt the concept was imaginative and witty – exploring the notion of variations in music through multiple approaches – and the selection of works created the similar ebb and flow of energy, rhythmic vitality, lyricism and repose as one would find in a Baroque suite, and the mixture of Baroque and modern/contemporary music allowed one to draw intriguing parallels between the individual works. Common motifs, such as filigree figurations and contrapuntal writing within the individual movements, created a sense of continuous throughout the first half, and each work gave Inon Barnatan the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility, switching with ease from the grandiloquent opening Chaconne in G by Handel to the poignant lyricism of the Allemande in D from Bach’s fourth keyboard partita. In addition, there was plenty of very elegant jeu perlé playing and crystalline passagework to savour, and a clear sense of the individual characters of each work.

Adès’ Blanca Variations, a set of five variations upon a traditional Sephardic song ‘Lavaba la blanca niña’, were delicately coloured and rhythmically complex, with much Baroque ornamentation in the later movements, thus connecting the work back to Bach’s Partitas or Couperin’s Pieces de Clavecin. This melancholy work had a sweeping virtuosity which Barnatan approached with understated panache.

The first half closed with a rollicking performance of the final movement of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, Op 26, a fugue whose strict construction reflects the composer’s love of Bach.

The programme was played without as an uninterrupted sequence, with no applause until the end, which further reinforced the concept of a suite of pieces and made for a most absorbing hour of music. Not everyone could pull off a programme such as this, but Barnatan clearly relished the challenge of these interesting juxtapositions and gave a most convincing and absorbing performance.

I regret that tiredness forced me to leave before the Brahms, but I look forward to listening to the entire concert on the BBC iPlayer.

FW

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017

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.

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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.

FW

For reassuring continuity in these uncertain times, look no further than Burlington House. Ken Howard’s contre-jour views of Venice, Gillian Ayres’ 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 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-y and 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.

NM

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition to 20 August