RA Summer Exhibition – A Beginner’s Guide

I’ve always avoided going to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. It seemed a bit of a meat market for art, with shedloads of works overwhelming the senses, and there being just too much ‘stuff’ to possibly appreciate, or even indeed see, at all. In fact, the Summer Exhibition is impossible to review, in any real sense of the term. How do you assess the quality of 1,200 works of art? How can you compare to last year, or any of the hundreds of previous years?

These concerns were at the forefront of my mind as for the first time, I decided to brave the Summer Exhibition. These are my impressions…

The first thing you notice is that you’re given a fairly weighty little catalogue when you go in. The reason being that the works as displayed are only identified by a number. You need to refer to the catalogue to see who did what. The second thing you therefore notice is that many of the works in the catalogue have a price next to them. Yes – they’re for sale! Now, I know one shouldn’t go to a gallery and wonder how much the art is worth, but let’s face it, we pretty much all do it. Apparently there are some pieces up for grabs for less that £100. But then on the other hand, one of the first paintings to grab my attention was number 33, In London Schritt Für Schritt by Georg Baselitz, which was interesting because only half the canvas was painted (the rest was done in a very unoriginal neo-Pollock style). The price? £370,000 to you, Gov. I think if I paid that, I’d want the whole canvas painted, thank you!

The fact there are so many works of art by so many people, the vast majority who you wouldn’t have heard of, is very liberating. In contrast to most exhibitions you go to, where you might gravitate to the famous works or the famous artists, here you can’t really do that. What you end up doing is looking for what seems interesting, what catches your eye. Only then do you look in the catalogues and see who it’s by. However, it’s interesting to note that although all work submitted is supposedly anonymous, and chosen solely on its merits, there seems to be a high proportion of members of the RA being exhibited. I guess the fact that many works are signed helps circumvent the anonymity!

The first few rooms are quite manageable, then things get a bit crazy with some rooms so absolutely stuffed with art that hardly a square inch of wall remains with some works so high up the walls they are obscured. Without specific works that might give you a reference point, it can be disorientating as you wander from room to room, as each room blurs into one in your mind.

However, given there are so many pieces, it’s a lot more manageable than you’d think. Many of the rooms are thematic and hung by particular curators so at least you can occasionally compare like with like. There is no overall ‘theme’ – there can’t be – but the Summer Exhibition is a great way to take the pulse of British art right now.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition continues till Sunday 17 August at:

Burlington House

Photo: Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 c. Benedict Johnson

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