Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Exhibition review: The Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition 2009

I visited the Royal Academy of Art last week to see the Summer Exhibition 2009. I honestly can't recommend the exhibition this year. I found it boring and badly organised. There were individual works I liked by individual artists that I like. However the overall impression is of an extreme of eclecticism. The sheer nature of the chaos makes it difficult to see certain works which to my mind merited a much better display.

However I stress my views reflect my own personal taste. Not everybody thinks the same way - and I've provided some alternative views in links at the end.

The only thing I could find positive to say about it was that it was at least better than some of the self-indulgent rubbish I saw in the Royal Academy Schools show (continues until 28th June 2009) which I saw beforehand. Here there was even less to interest or admire! In fact, the only really interesting bit was seeing the studio space which the artists get to use while atttending the Schools.

So what's different this year?

The co-ordinators of the Summer Exhibition this year were Royal Academicians Ann Christopher (sculptor), Eileen Cooper (Printmaker) and Will Alsop (architect) who selected works for the exhibition around the theme of 'Making Space'.

Joining them on The Selection and Hanging Committee were Ivor Abrahams (sculptor), Basil Beattie (abstract painter), Gus Cummins (painter), Michael Hopkins (architect), John Hoyland (painter), Allen Jones (printmaker), Mick Moon (printmaker), Eric Parry (architect), Mick Rooney (painter), Richard Wilson (sculptor).

Maybe the lack of figurative painters is why I don't like this exhibition very much?
  • The rooms didn't feel very coherent. The hanging committee changes every year. Last year there was evidently a very strong design ethic and it looked an awful lot better. There appears to be some sort of consensus that this year's exhibition appears to be even more chaotic than usual.
  • An awful lot more limited edition prints. No longer are they contained within the Large Weston Room - they were everywhere - pushing out paintings in some places. Maybe the excess of prints is due to the fact that there was a printmaker Academician co-ordinating the show! Alternatively it's possible that the penny has finally dropped with some of the RAs and other artists submitting to the Summer Exhibition. If you develop a fine limited edition print it's possible to achieve very good sales at the Summer Exhibition as the print is (1) not unique and (2) can be sold many times over. I went round the Summer Exhibition towards the end of last year's show and saw an awful lot of unsold pieces - whereas the Large Weston Room (the print room) was a roaring success with most works selling and some of them selling extremely well with very many buyers. I multiplied the price of some of the prints I saw last week by the number of prints sold already (eg 50+ by the second week). I reckon that some of the print sales of individual images will well exceed sales of paintings. Hence why I think we're seeing more prints this year. I wonder how long it will take before the RA also notices that animal and wildlife art always sells well? For example, the print of the black labrador highlighted at the end of the Daily Telegraph video (see below) had sold to 53 people when I visited a week ago. That's £15,900 in sales in just the first couple of weeks!
  • Fewer figurative paintings of the type I like - but then I'm no great fan of abstraction, New Painting and post-Pop (see the review by the man from the Independent for a different perspective). It's so sad that artists like Dianne Ibbotsen - whose painting Star Shine won the Insight Investment Newcomer's Prize in 2007 following a public vote has no work in the show.
  • many fewer small paintings - the Small Weston Room - always the most popular with the public has lost its largest wall of small paintings to small prints. This is the room which tends to house the most works from non Academicians. Given that some of the individual works in the rest of the exhibition equate in size to this wall, I think a different approach would have made for a more open exhibition - but maybe this wasn't the aim.
  • sculpture is being subdued again - it's back to being seen against masses of work on the walls - which is another way of saying you can't actually see it properly at all. Last year's room for sculpture which had no paintings has not been repeated - more's the pity. Damien Hirst's silver sculpture of a skinned saint is quite vile and is just one example of the boring work being produced by 'name' artists. (Bear in mind that if you go to this show every year and keep seeing the same old same old from some artists it just gets very boring. The one trick ponies really need to be put out to pasture.)
  • one room has been given over to film and video. Which I guess is an inevitable progression. The room of photographs which were only allowed in for the first time three(?) years ago now provide some of the better works of art! I wonder when they're going to have their first photographer Academician? They certainly don't yet have a category for photographers.
  • no work at all by some Academicians - I always wonder if there's a trade-off between featured one year and not at all subsequently. There are no works for example by David Hockney - maybe because he has two exhibitions of his work running concurrently with the Summer Exhibition?
What else did I notice?
  • Wittgenstein's Dilemma by Tom Phillips RA (Tom Phillips ) - this cubic construction of words in steel is a development of earlier word cubes in other media. I found it both fascinating and aesthetically pleasing - however the challenge to read the words is impossible in a gallery which is full of paintings. It needs to be seen in a 'clean' space. You can see an 'inside view' of this work in the Guardian's slideshow
  • Fred Cuming's paintings - which I'm very happy to stare at for absolutely ages. You can see more of his work on his website - Fred Cuming RA. Those who like the coastline and skies around Britain will appreciate his work.
  • Presidents of other national art societies downsizing the work they submit - presumably with a view to getting in
  • Apparition - a beautiful silverpoint drawing in the Small Weston Room by Dylan Waldron
  • oil paintings of still life subjects by Jennifer McRae and Elizabeth Blackadder
  • Jerwood Drawing Prize winner Warren Baldwin's drawing totally swamped in the Small Weston Room.
  • ING Discerning Eye Purchase Prize winner Cedric Huson's paintings "skied" in the Small Weston Room (meaning far too high to see and appreciate properly - which is quite ridiculous for his type of painting).
  • Angela A'Court will be pleased to know that I spotted her pastel drawing of Dog and Arches
  • the public continue to buy images they relate to - and those continue to include dogs and cats!
You can see room guides to the exhibition - text, no images - in the links which follow

Annenberg Courtyard
Gallery I
Gallery II
Large Weston Room
Small Weston Room
Gallery III
Gallery IV
Gallery V
Gallery VI
Gallery VII
Gallery VIII
Lecture Room
Gallery IX
Wohl Central Hall
Gallery X

When oh when is the RA going to invest in putting at least some part of the exhibition online? It's perfectly feasible to charge an admission in the same way as you have to pay to get in. Have they not yet realised that it is also possible to sell art online? Or is Internet art beneath them?

If you'd like to see what others thought of the show take a look at the various articles in the broadsheets:
At the end of the day the thing which needs to be remembered about the Royal Academy is it's really just a gigantic art society - with all the politics and other shenanigans which go on in any art society in terms of who gets to decide "who's in and who's out".

It's got precious little to do with whether or not the art is any good.

Let's not forget that this is an Academy where, for example, artists who have created genuinely innovative art are not members - people like Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long and Banksy. In fact I found it rather amusing that Banksy's current exhibition in Bristol has garnered rather more column inches in the national press than the Summer Exhibition this year. I don't think the timing is coincidental.

Not the Royal Academy

I'm hoping to see a few more paintings at the Not the Royal Academy exhibition at the Llewellyn Alexander Gallery. You can see some of them on their website. This exhibition hang's the best of this year's work which is submitted to the Summer Exhibition but not hung. Hundreds of artists collect their rejected works from the RA and bring them to the Gallery on the South Bank (opposite the Old Vic theatre). Artists are told immediately whether or not they have been successful or not. The works on display are hung for three weeks and then a fresb batch of 'rejects' are hung in this modern day Salon des Refus├ęs


  1. I could not agree more. Far to many prints. I like abstract paintings but those selected seemed a very poor selection.

  2. Don't get me wrong. I've got no problem with there being more prints. However I don't think they were displayed to best effect.

    I'm happy if I can find several paintings I'd want to give house room to if I could afford them. I was struggling this year. Even artists I liked were exhibiting some indifferent pieces. Which rather makes me think it's all down to the selection committee.

    That said I'm not that impressed with some of the Paintings at LA Gallery - judging by the website - so maybe less people submitted work this year? It's very interesting that there's no absolutely reference to the number of submissions in 2009 that I can find in the catalogue or on the website.

    Can anybody find the numbers?

  3. I was there yesterday too ! I am still digesting the sheer amount of works but I do share your thoughts.
    Among the figurative painting I was very moved by the tribute to the late Jean Cooke.
    Having seen Summer Show and BP in one day I went home wondering if there's really the need of producing more art.

  4. I am in favor of any kind of art. It's great that you remain in history with something done, without offending anyone, but still, expressing your view.

  5. 'Boring, badly organised… self-indulgent… vile'. You made me laugh this morning, because you really seemed to let rip – not the usual coolly appraising tone I'm used to you from you. Of course, I'm sure the work deserved it.

  6. These are "the big boys" - they can take it!

    Seriously - I've enjoyed other Summer Exhibitions much more than this one

  7. I'm grateful you took me to the exhibition on a good year, Katherine!

  8. I haven't been to the exhibition and I'm not sure from what you write whether by limited edition prints you mean electronic prints or individual prints created manually from the same plate. If it's the second then each print is uniquely created by an often time consuming inking process. The plate itself can take hours to create, and, while a large number of prints can be taken from it, each print can take up to an hour to create when intaglio inking. I completely agree that a range of media should be represented but wanted to challenge the view that limited edition prints just happen instantly without a lot of creativity and technique being employed.

  9. Becky - the prints are all conventional fine art prints of every type - lithograph, etching, monoprints, screenprints etc. They also include artist's original giclee prints (by which I means ones created through the use of digital art processes rather than reproductions of artwork in other media.)

    I don't quite know where you got the impression that anybody suggested that a set of limited edition prints happen instantly - as that's simply not the case and I think most of the readers of this blog know that

    One of the points I was making was that IMO painting for a raw deal this year. That doesn't mean I don't like prints - on the contrary I love prints. However I do like to see a balance - and I didn't like seeing small paintings being edged out of the Small Weston Room when there is an extremely large room right next door which is traditionally given over to prints and which could have easily been reconfigured to take even more prints than usual.

    Also that while makers of one-off pieces (either paintings or monoprints) have a totally win/lose situation, those making limited edition prints tend to do very well on sales at the Summer Exhibition - where many sell very well and some even sell the complete edition.

    If I was an artist concerned about my income, I'd submit prints to the Summer Exhibition - if they get accepted they're far more likely to generate revenue.


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