The Royal Academy of Art Summer Exhibition 2012

It seems a daring thing to suggest an outcome to an open art exhibition before knowing what has been entered. I was unsure how the brief that curator-in-chief Tess Jaray RA had set for this year’s Summer Exhibition was going to implicate the success of this, the 244th’s show. Her request was that the art chosen be of a modest scale. I had two anxieties. The first, that the audience would be utterly underwhelmed by a mishmash of art that was meek, pitiful and very permissible. The second outcome that I foresaw was of an audience overcome by something like claustrophobia. The sensation that visitors usually have at one glance into the infamous Small Weston Room (the smallest room in the Royal Academy), which is hung to congestion with the catalogue’s dregs – miscellaneous and mostly mediocre paintings; would be extended as this impression was multiplied across the academy. I was envisaging each and every wall caked in canvasses – your eyes darting in all directions until dizziness overtook.

Both thoughts made me want to give up on the 2012 Summer Exhibition before I had even begun. (‘Once you’ve seen one Summer Exhibition, you’ve seen them all, right?’ was a thought that would not escape my mind the last three years I had attended.) But, one way or another I was persuaded to go, and so I caught it on its penultimate day. I reckon, thinking about it, it was the insistence some had made, that this year’s show was different. And even with my suspicions, ‘different’ had a 50 per cent chance of being better…

The suspicion I had had that modest means nothing noteworthy was quickly dispelled in the poppy entrance hall, where vivid colours and energetic strokes proved they could breathe life into any size canvas. As I continued on, I found each gallery upheld its own attitude to the brief, but all to me seemed very complimentary. This brief could only have been successful with such an approach to its display, to make the increase in number of works (this year the academy showed 1474 works, where it had 1117 in 2011), manageable for the eye. It was laid out by a team of curators (all royal academicians), each of which marked a territory within the academy, and claimed ground for a particular subject area within art. The impact was one academy, many summer exhibitions. Each gallery was self-sufficient, cohesive and most importantly well argued.

One such argument was made for the Great British landscape. It struck me right from the beginning that the landscape was going to triumph at this exhibition. I felt it at my first easterly glance upon entering the Wohl Central Hall. Where, in the place that David Hockney’s summer scene of the Three Trees at Thixendale (exhibited at his solo show in spring time), was a similarly vibrant landscape from the late Adrian Berg RA – ‘2nd Lake, Sheffield Park Garden, Sussex Weald, Late Summer.’ I believe that the legacy of Hockney’s incredibly successful exhibition at the RA, lingered in the minds of the curators as it had in me standing before the Berg at this Summer Exhibition.

Tess’ brief suited the come back of the modest landscape, and the RA suits praise of the British landscape because the landscape, in my opinion, carries the sentiment of British art. (I find it no coincidence that the genre of painting that by nature flourished at the opening of our national academy was the landscape.) The British landscape painting is softly spoken, reserved and humble. I was so delighted by Barabara Rae and Chris Wilkinson’s Gallery V because it proved what I believe of paintings, (as I do of people), that it is better to be seen as humble and proved later that you have reason to be proud, than to have arrogance that is falsely placed. Every one of these paintings caught my eye. Hung in an arrangement that was collectively complimentary– the paintings seemed to converse with each other, shrouding the attention they had received, signifying where to look next.

The big (RA) names were there: Michael Craig-Martin, Michael Landy, Anselm Keifer and Tracy Emin – most of whom disregarded the rules. Emin’s nudes, which make up a whole exhibition at the Turner Contemporary this summer, displayed and sold well. Her modest size paintings made a strong case against the claim that small equals discrete. The ‘modesty’ of detail in her paper works some find a draw back and protesters of her professorship (in 2011 she took up the role of Professor of Drawing at the Academy) have suggested, “can she even draw?” Quite the opposite, I find myself feeling grateful that some of her modesty is kept in these wobberly line drawings. However abstract, these provocative drawings cannot be called discrete, especially when we understand that Tracey always speaks from experience.

The third point made for modesty was put forward by the minimalistic painting. I found some beautiful explorations around the colour white in Gallery IV. Hung on a warm grey, my attention was immediately drawn to Alison Watt’s sumptuous sheet drawings. Watt’s tactile approach to painting alludes and suggests. A great case study for Tess’ brief, Watt mystercises scale. Sometimes we are engulfed into a scene that fills only a small canvas, other times our insights are a little broader (usually due to the allusion of the figurative) even if the canvas overshadows us to the point of our view being limited. Simple but oh so effective; in an art world where sensationalism is strife, there’s space for something of such modesty.


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