If you had a spare £10,000 …..which art work (or artworks?) in the Royal Academy Summer exhibition would you spend it on? I always enjoy this event, the good, the bad and the ugly, and entertain myself with a fantasy budget and come out with a few imaginary purchases that I have to justify to whoever I am with each year. Well, it is with us once again, the 244th exhibition since it was founded back in 1769 when Sir Joshua Reynolds was its first President. Here, Jim Cowan reports:
It’s an exhibition people either love or hate and for most of the 20th century it had a reactionary reputation. The Summer Exhibition was the showcase of traditional art and the Royal Academy schools providing an education steeped in history. Turner, Reynolds and Constable walked the corridors where plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman statues led the student toward the heart of the institution, the purpose built life room.
Now the art school is indistinguishable from any other University art department and the 21st century has forced itself upon this venerable institution. Internationally important exhibitions continue to delight and educate and the promotion of Tracy Emin as Professor of Drawing and Gary Hume as Professor of Painting, the institution is better seen to reflect the times. Where once Sir Alfred Munnings the horse painter headed the Academy, the New President Christopher Le Brun, who is also known for painting horses, has taken the lead.
With this change of personnel you would expect a more dynamic exhibition and along with the YBAs and their associates, photography and video installation has now been included. Reassuringly however these changes do not seem to have made much effect on the exhibition overall which still manages to retain its identity as an eccentric summer show for both amateur and professional. Rather, a change of picture arrangement and colour schemes seems to be the order of the day, with this year seeing smaller paintings replacing larger ones.
The walls of the first room are painted a bright cadmium red and at first sight seem to unify the content and pull all the pictures together, but in reality it tends to dominate most of the paintings, with the exception of the late Adrian Berg’s cobalt blue interpretations of Kew Gardens. The biggest change is the in large central room. Here is hung, in the form of a Mexican wave, a vast array of small paintings, many of a whimsical nature, side by side with abstracts of all descriptions from expressionist to constructivist to collages and surprisingly it is possible to view the pictures despite the seemingly inevitable visual clutter. The small Weston Room, which traditionally housed these small pictures, densely hung from floor to ceiling, has now been turned into a video space where a piece of discordant music played on a cello and reminiscent of 1960s atonality was in progress. It seems an ideal space for video installation but the sound as in all these film and video pieces tends to interfere with the quiet contemplation of nearby painting and sculpture.
More successful was the Print Rooms where the more ambitious uses of colour and the more assured drawing stood out. For animal lovers this was always the most popular room and the more realistic prices asked for prints makes it a mecca for buyers. New Academician and Professor of Drawing Tracy Emin can be found here although it was difficult to make out the image of the sad little bird from the welter of red dots that covered the frame. Notoriety and sentimentality seem to be a winning combination.
Moving on it was nice to see the Scottish Artist James Byrne represented at the Academy with a full length painting of the actress Tilda Swinton. It’s a long time since portraits were hung in the Royal Academy, but for those who prefer their pictures to have a more serious demeanour, this humorous depiction from an illustrator of note might not be fully appreciated.
The artwork in this room is afforded more space and it worked in favour of Callum Innes whose red and white abstraction easily dominates paintings with more decorative subject matter. A small painting by Sean Scully ‘Doric Grey’ was his only competition and it’s educational to see how much mileage can be got from such a small combination of painterly motifs. Another abstract painter of note is Ian McKeever, here represented by his trademark veiled oval forms.
Recent years had seen an improvement in the Sculpture Room where a more formal approach was evident, but this year there seems to be a return to the eccentric, the odd ball, the definitely weird and the endearingly amateur approach of yester year. Or is this a new trend in sculpture? We shall just have to wait and see.
In an exhibition of this size and there are 1500 works in the show, there is bound to be art to suit every taste and the inevitably variations in quality. On a second or even third visit, different work will come to the fore and others recede into the background. Britain’s annual Art Jamboree is alive and well, keeping up with tradition and open to all comers at Burlington House.