If you find yourself with an hour to spare in London this summer I urge you to go to the Royal Academy (RA) Summer exhibition, in its 249th year.
This year’s show is curated by the artist Eileen Cooper RA who currently holds the position of Keeper of the Royal Academy. Having held this position since 2011 she is the first woman to have been elected since the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768. She is famously known for her figurative works which are often described as magical realism.
It is the largest open-submission art exhibition in the world, open to anyone of any age. This year saw up to 12,000 submissions, which then got whittled down to 4,000 works that were invited to the Royal Academy for review. Works were then selected by the Hanging Committee (a group of Royal Academicians that are selected by their artistic peers) and around 1,000 works eventually ended up being chosen to exhibit alongside the works of Royal Academicians such as Tracey Emin and Yinka Shonibare. The artworks are on sale and if purchased, the money is donated directly to the RA schools programme, some works are affordable and others not so.
History of the RA show
The initial aims of the RA’s summer exhibition was to create an exhibition that acted as a pedestal for artists of all merits and that was also open to the public. Unlike today when anyone of any age and any background can walk into the National Gallery and view artworks by the likes of Titian, Rubens, Van Gogh and Da Vinci, in the 1700s art was only accessible to the wealthy. In this sense, the Summer Exhibition over the months of June, July and August brings art to the people and shines a spotlight on the lesser known artists whilst also upholding London popularity as a destination for art. Even two world wars did not deter the Summer Exhibitions from opening its doors to the public, a testament to it’s legacy.
In 1884, the legendary J.M.W. Turner added the final touches to his piece Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway on Varnishing day. ‘Varnishing Day’ was historically the day that artists were invited to varnish and amend/retouch their paintings, however the modern notion of Varnishing Day is more of a celebration, particularly for the non-members (artists chosen that do not obtain the title of Royal Academician) to celebrate the hang of their piece in the show. Every year, the artists are lead by a steel band in procession to St. James’ Church for an artists blessing. They then return to the Royal Academy and celebrate their achievements!
This year’s show
Cooper this year has striven to curate artworks from all over the country and include the unknown artists alongside the big names in the art artworld. This was done in an attempt to increase the democracy of the Royal Academy and I believe she has achieved this with artists exhibiting from all around the world.
As you enter the courtyard of the Royal Academy you are met with the sculpture Windsculpture VI by Yinka Shonibare commissioned for the Summer Exhibition. The sculpture is made of fibre-glass and brightly coloured and explores ‘the notion of harnessing motion and freezing it in a moment of time”. Shonibare was also part of the Hanging Committee and a few of his works feature in the exhibition. This sculpture is seriously impressive, dominating the courtyard whilst adding such a colourful aspect to the building. My favourite part of this courtyard commission is that the statue of Joshua Reynolds adorns one of Shonibare’s colourful scarves.
I believe that every visitor will have a different experience, some will gravitate towards the artists they recognise, like gravitating towards your friends or familiar faces at a party, and others will be finding their friend’s piece or others just taking it all in. There is also such an array of works that makes you slow down your viewing process which doesn’t necessarily happen when you walk around a solo show exhibition. It is rich with colour, texture, subject and medium.
A very prominent artist that was featured was ‘Bob and Roberta Smith’ which is in fact the pseudonym of the artist Patrick Brill. This series of work was a response to Michael Gove’s 2012 aim to remove art from the GCSE curriculum. As well as it’s poignance in 2012 it is also extremely relevant for 2017 following the attempt to remove History of Art from the A-level curriculum.
Each of the exhibition rooms are curated by a different member of the Hanging Committee which I believe provides such a diversity that every room is different and every room is exciting. You are met with modern and funky brightly coloured walls, which I find are much less intimidating than the usually pristine white walls of the Gallery/Museum prototype. Not to mention very busy walls, rather than the intimidating white wall galleries, when rooms hold a painting on each wall, at the Summer Exhibition the walls are packed creating a visual spectacle that almost tires your eyes. To be frank, the Summer Exhibition is very very funky!