The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is undoubtedly one of the most important arts events of the year, and after several of those who entered the calendar competition told me it was also their cultural highlight of the summer, I knew I should go along and take a look!
I have to admit (shamefaced) to never having been to the Summer Exhibition before, and as such I was curious to see it. The show has often been characterised as occupying the traditional and 'safe' end of the contemporary visual arts spectrum, yet it is also something of a phenomenon: the largest open-submission contemporary art exhibition in the world, it has been running since 1768, and this year attracted over 12,000 entries from 27 countries.
Far from being dry or dusty, I found the exhibition to be a hugely inspiring experience. Wandering through the interlinked galleries is like feasting on a delightful smorgasboard of different work, encompassing a huge range of styles and approaches. I loved the presentation style, with works often grouped close together - perhaps most obviously in Gallery III (pictured above) which this year was hung by Christopher Le Brun and Tony Bevan, and which Le Brun describes as 'a battle of the paintings'. Rather than seeming cluttered or chaotic, the result is a pleasingly exuberant patchwork of art.
For me, the prints and the paintings were the undoubted highlight of this exhibition: I was much less taken with the photography, architecture and sculpture, although I did enjoy the scribbly geometric forms of Anthony Gormley's Drift, and Jeff Koons' exuberant Colouring Book. Amongst my favourite spaces were the Small Weston Room, arranged by Olwyn Bowey - a treasure trove of miniature and small scale works - and Room I, hung by Chris Orr, filled with an intriguing range of prints by everyone from Gillian Ayres to Tracy Emin; Keith Coventry to Elizabeth Blackadder, plus vitrines containing artist's books.
Half the fun of the Summer Exhibition is stumbling upon new talent jostling alongside works by well-known or favourite artists whose style is instantly identifiable, be it Rob Ryan's magical images or Barbara Rae's jewel-coloured screen prints. There's more fun to be had poring over the list of works in the exhibition, which includes prices for the majority of the works, and choosing which ones you might buy for yourself, just supposing you happened to have a small fortune to hand. Altogether, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is a most enjoyable experience - certainly this year one of my cultural highlights of the summer too!
Many thanks Sam and Kate for the recommendation.
[Image: Installation view of Gallery III. Photo: John Bodkin. Via Royal Academy of Arts]