We’ve visited the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition religiously almost every year since we relocated to London from Munich respectively Sydney more than 15 years ago.
It used to be our cultural highlight every year. We almost measured each year in art & culture as before-the-Exhibition and after-the-Exhibition. We’d say “Oh yes, that exhibition starts just six weeks before the Summer Exhibition’s deadline for submissions, doesn’t it,” or “We’ve got tickets for this show for a Friday night a month after the Summer Exhibition will have finished.”
WE ABSOLUTELY LOVE THE ROYAL ACADEMY SUMMER EXHIBITION
With few exceptions we visited each Summer Exhibition several times, each time discovering new aspects of some of the artworks that we had previously missed. A painting that might have seemed merely shrill and hard on the eye suddenly revealed a political message. Sculptures that we might have deemed boring turned out to have required exceptional skills and to be showcasing traditions thought long lost. Other works might have broken new ground by employing new techniques for the first time. Scenes on a tapestry that we had initially missed would turn out to be hilarious and rather witty on second glance.
COAT-HANGER GORILLAS, DOGS IN BINS, AND CAR CRASH TAPESTRIES
Every single Summer Exhibition had half a dozen highlights our friends and we would keep on discussing for months, sometimes years, like David Mach’s coat-hanger gorilla (which kind of became our unofficial logo), Simon Brundret‘s ‘Dog In A Bin’, or Grayson Perry’s car crash tapestry.
Most importantly, perhaps, there were so many ground-breaking works from complete nobodies that we’d regularly be surprised to find a low four-digit price tag in the catalogue and no “RA” behind the artist’s name.
AN ANNUAL FIXTURE SINCE 1769 – ANYONE CAN SUBMIT ARTWORK
Now is probably a good time to provide more background about the Summer Exhibition and its rules. Since 1769 the Exhibition has been taking place every year. While it was initially set up for the Academicians to showcase their work, it gradually opened to other artists. For many decades any human anywhere in the world can pay a small admin fee (£35 per piece) and submit one or two artworks. Every year thousands of ordinary people, many with no or very little experience as amateur artists, submit pieces.
MORE THAN A THOUSAND WORKS OF ART GET CHOSEN
A jury then picks around 1,250 works (over 1,300 this year) which will be exhibited. With a few exceptions each piece is listed with a price in the catalogue that is included in the ticket price. The cheapest pieces are under £100, the most expensive ones usually in the £100,000s.
THE RED DOTS
Whenever a piece is sold, or where there is a whole series such as 100 prints of a photograph, whenever another copy of a piece is sold, the Academy staff put a little round red sticker next to the artwork or onto the frame on the bottom right-hand side. One of the more amusing pieces we’ve seen over the years was a white canvas in a white frame with lots of red dots added to the bottom right-hand side onto the frame by the artist (not the Academy).
During the past five years or so, the Exhibitions have been tiresome, dull, and boring, in our opinion. Almost as if not to take away the shine from the Academicians, the chosen works from ordinary folk were largely made up of hopeless efforts. Different from previous years, there were only very few large-scale works from nobodies. The works from the Academicians themselves gradually became more boring too and seemed to claim more and more of the space.
As expected, the death knell came with Grayson Perry, who will tell anyone who listens that he hates ‘art as an artform’ and who thinks art is merely there to amuse. He detests art that has a message or meaning and art that isn’t easy to understand. When we learned that he was going to curate the 2018 Exhibition, we were seriously thinking about skipping it altogether. In the end we managed to get free tickets and did a quick 20-minute round, simply to confirm our assumptions. The 2019 and 2020 Exhibitions maintained the disastrously low standards.
RE-BIRTH WITH YINKA SHONIBARE
This year, the Academy chose Yinka Shonibare and a panel of artists to select works under the theme of ‘Reclaiming Magic.’ We’ve always liked this very cool London-born, London-based, black, British-Nigerian artist. His life-sized sculptures of groups of colourfully dressed people are aesthetically pleasing and we like the fact that he explores serious issues like cultural identity, colonialism, and globalism. He curated a Summer Exhibition before, in 2016. This had been the last one we thoroughly enjoyed.
FROM SALONS FOR SLAVERS TO A PEACEFUL REVOLUTION
When the Royal Academy of Art was founded in 1768 by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Britain’s slave trade was bustling. The artists in the grand salons of Burlington House were more than happy to portray slavers and a good few of them will have owned slaves themselves. Usually when the Exhibition is on, Reynold’s statue in the courtyard of the Academy is adorned with flowers.
This year, Shonibare put a sash of Dutch wax print around the Bronze statue. This type of fabric with its colonial past has become one of his trademark signs. It’s typical and inspiring that Shinobare doesn’t use a sledge hammer to drive his point home. He’s always subtle and pleasant, but dead serious and persistent nonetheless.
INTRODUCING AN ARTIST BORN AS SLAVE IN 1854
Right in the first room we are introduced to African American artist Bill Traylor, who died in 1949. He had been born into slavery in Alabama in 1854 and only discovered his artistic talent at the age of 85, 11 years before his death. I’m happy to stand corrected, but I believe this must be the first time that an artist who’s been dead for many years, has been part of a Summer Exhibition. Usually all exhibited artists are very much alive and kicking.
Shonibare found the perfect match in his quest to link artworks with slavery. Traylor’s art is political (with many hidden symbols calling for a black uprising against injustice, if you believe some sources), it is highly acclaimed and reasonably easy on the eye. Moreover, the artist must be the most recent successful artist who has been born into slavery in a western country. The British Empire banned slavery in 1807. In the U.S. it ended with the Civil War in 1865. I had never heard of Bill Traylor before, but I certainly intend to find out more about him and his art now.
The list of artists is very impressive and extremely long. To throw a few names in, you’ll find work by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Michael Armitage, Jade Montserrat, Hew Locke, Rita Keegan, Alvaro Barrington, Frantz Lamothe, Bärbel Lange, and Marie-Rose Lortet.
GREAT JOB BY THE SELECTION PANEL AND THE CURATORS
Shonibare and the panel have done an exquisite job selecting the works on display. Tip to the hat also to the curators who, just like during the good old times, arranged the pieces in a way where each room developed its own vibrant character. Especially the bigger rooms have an almost mesmerizing aura that captures you as soon as you enter.
FINE-TUNED ARRANGEMENTS OF THE PIECES IN EACH ROOM
The colours of the artworks are not always in perfect harmony, often far from it. A large-scale illuminated photography might hang next to an artwork made of paper, wood, tar, and clay, right below a series of oil, acrylic and watercolour paintings, surrounded by sculptures, some of wood, others of metal or ceramics. What comes across as oscillating chaos at first glance soon proves to be a finely tuned arrangement that some very talented people put a lot of thought into. As always, there is a room dedicated to architecture.
To my knowledge for the first time there is a sound programme which can be accessed by bringing your own headphones with your mobile and scanning the QR codes at the Exhibition or alternatively online here.
DON’T MISS IT! UNTIL 2 JANUARY 2022.
Has the Summer Exhibition found back to its former greatness? Not quite, but it’s still exquisite and it certainly managed to pull off an impressive U-turn. Give it another couple of years and it might just be as phenomenal as it used to be. 5 out of 5 in our book, despite the relatively hefty price tag of £22 per ticket. We’ll definitely visit the exhibition again before it closes on 2 January 2022.
Looking for more posts about art & culture? Why not check out our posts about Frieze London 2021, JR: Chronicles at Saatchi Gallery, Chihuly in Kew Gardens, Ryoji Ikeda at 180 The Strand, Henry Moore Studios and Gardens near Stansted, Moments Exhibition at Moyse’s Hall in Bury St Edmunds, or ‘Being Modern’ Exhibition: MoMA at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris.