Comment Editor Abby Spreadborough, reviews the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, the world’s oldest open submission exhibition
Stepping away from the buzzing streets of Mayfair in the middle of summer into the comparatively quiet courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts, is not only a moment of relief but one of excitement and expectation too. The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition has been on my cultural bucket list for a while. Finally, this year I had a chance to visit. Greeted by the towering figure of Joshua Reynolds who founded the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, when the art which graced the gallery was drastically different from the art of today. Yet by donning a sash of flowers, Reynold’s promised something vibrant, vivid and most of all entirely of the moment.
The Summer Exhibition was particularly enticing to visit, as it states to be the world’s oldest open submission exhibition. One particularly provocative piece depicted a black square lined with red dots, to indicate bids or purchases replicated several times over, presumably from years of subsequent re-submissions. Perhaps it is asking us whether a repeated image can be art at all, or it may question how art can be valued or how its value may increase over time, or it may simply be poking fun at the absurdity of the art market. Either way through works of art like this, the art world’s presence is evident. Upon your entry into the exhibition you are handed a small book containing the prices of each artwork on display if they are for sale and the majority of them are. This meant that many attendees were serious buyers in contrast to myself who at best could hope to buy some postcards on the way out.
At first as I wandered through the vast galleries, each curated by different artists, I became fixated on the book which had become an enlightening new companion to my gallery visit. I eyed up every work meticulously trying to speculate about its price. I stared wide eyed at private buyers and art dealers marking their books to purchase works that cost thousands if not tens of thousands of pounds. This was the art market in action.
Although watching the market atmosphere was fascinating for a time, I soon began to settle into my usual rhythm of studying artworks. Hopping erratically from painting to sculpture to photograph, I revelled in the variety of the show. I was used to seeing works mostly separate from each other in a typically modern white cube, not piled high to the ceiling; this made the exhibition an overwhelming and at times impossible task to surmount. But this was the joy the exhibition provided; evoking the layouts of galleries from a bygone era and startling modern works of art.
As ever, politics was a theme. There were displays of Brexit inspired messages intermingled with meditations on what it means to be British, imagery of Britian’s seafaring past, post-war social housing projects and use of the pastoral made for a thought-provoking set of works. One of my favourites was a small work in the corner of the gallery, a book entitled The Charm of England which had a cut-out framing one small figure choking another under the subheading, ‘The Land of Beauty’. The apparent innocence of rural England was exploded in another of the exhibition’s popular pieces, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Following in the footsteps of Heironymus Bosch, the artists had created a Triptych which produced a curious kind of ‘Where’s Wally’ effect. I spent a fair amount of time scanning each panel in an effort to place every pop culture reference mixed with an art history allusion. Like Bosch’s original, this work was great fun, a feeling that people are often reluctant to associate with high culture.
One of the final galleries offered a first for me; models of potential architectural projects. Some were futuristic city centres, whilst others were smaller scale plans for housing developments. In contrast to the monochrome images commemorating a Brutalist Britain in the previous galleries, these models provided an updated vision of streets in the sky, although perhaps not as egalitarian as its initial conception.
I left the gallery having ticked off another place on my cultural bucket list, but I also left with a wholly different gallery experience. The exhibition was no white cube, it was bright colours and stacks of art objects all with their own price tag, hoping to catch the ever-wondering eye of the art market. Although a student entirely reliant on part-time work and my student loan, it was nice to be absorbed into the commercial art world, if only for a few hours. In fact, I think such an experience is essential to any art lover to understand the function of art as not purely expressive.
The RA Summer Exhibition returns every year for their annual celebration of art. For more information visit their website at: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/summer-exhibition-2019