Monday, June 10, 2013

10 reasons to visit the RA Summer Exhibition 2013

Below you can find 10 reasons to visit the 245th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

You can find the exhibition in the Main Galleries of Burlington House, the RA's HQ in Piccadilly.  It opened to the public today and continues until 18 August - expect crowds!  Fortunately I was able to view it last Wednesday when numbers were much fewer - although there were lots of TV cameras and chaps with long lenses!

Those living in the UK can catch a BBC Culture Show Special on Tuesday night (which will doubtless repeat on iPlayer) when Alastair Sooke casts his eye over the Summer Exhibition.

I maybe looked at bit too much for rather too long as my eyes were completely done in afterwards - hence the delay in writing my review.  It's always possible to write a lot about the Summer Exhibition - hence why I decided to make this review a bit more snappy.

So here's my 10 reasons to visit the Summer Exhibition at the RA before August!

1. Grayson Perry's The Vanity of Small Differences.  

The Vanity of Small Differences - Four of the tapestries in the series 
(Artists own edition - of an edition of 6)
©  Grayson Perry

Without a shadow of a doubt, the star of the show can be found in the very last room.

The suite of brilliantly coloured tapestries which make up The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry RA are simply stunning. It's worth visiting the exhibition simply to see these tapestries.

I started to list the ways in which they work:
  • they reference the series of prints by Hogarth
  • they also reference paintings by past Masters
  • they're rooted in his own personal observations of contemporary life based on his travels for the BAFTA award-winning Channel 4 series All in the Best Possible Taste
  • the design is wonderful in terms of both continuity between the pieces and each individual tapestry
  • they work extremely well at a macro level but are absolutely fascinating when you take a close look at the fibre used for the different elements of the tapestry
  • most importantly for me - Perry demonstrates something which for me is missing in a big way from British Art today.  He has conceived grand figurative artwork which has contemporary narrative, social comment on taste, people from across the UK and human interest.  Trust a ceramicist to come up with what is probably the most iconic artwork you'll see in this show!
For those unable to get to see the show you can now buy an app on iTunes which shows you the works and explains how they came about.

I'm probably going to do a blog post about them too - I have more photos and a video!

All these fine art prints have some association with the printed word
Photo: Katherine Tyrrell

2. The Print Rooms

I've always felt the Rooms which house the fine art prints are the best in the show.  This year I've reserved "Best in Show" for Grayson Perry - but the Print Rooms - hung by Anne Desmet RA - are as awesome as always.  It's impossible to get bored and very easy to spend hours as there's just so much good art to look at.

The RA also value the Print Rooms.  My guess is more money is made from these rooms than from any other room in the exhibition.  The prints are more affordable, very high quality and the limited editions simply walk out the door.  Prepare to count the red spots of the very popular prints!

Fine Art Prints at the Summer Exhibition 2013
Tsiatsia - searching for connection
aluminium (bottle tops, printing plates, roofing sheets and copper wire), 15.6 x 25 metres
© El Anatsui

3. Burlington House - it's a wrap!

The top prize went to El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor who did a metal wrap for the front of Burlington House - and won the the prestigious £25,000 Charles Wollaston Award as a result. Click the links to read more about both artist and prize.  There's also a video if its installation if you click this link to the website page devoted to Courtyard Sculpture

Commissioned Portrait (Untitled) (Gillian)
wall-mounted LCD monitor-computer
with integrated software
Michael Craig-Martin RA

4. A Room devoted to Portraiture
A room dedicated to portraiture includes photography and works on paper, along with new works by Frank Auerbach, Tom Phillips RA, Michael Craig-Martin RA and Alex Katz. This focus acknowledges the historic role that portraiture has played at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition and the enduring importance of this genre within artistic practice today.
I'm thinking that maybe the RA have discovered that people rather like portraiture.  Maybe they've been reading The Art Newspaper's poll which monitors exhibition numbers and noticed that the BP Portrait Award Exhibition gets a huge number of visitors each year?  Or that the Lucian Freud portraits exhibition also did extremely well?

Check it out and see how it compares to the BP Portrait Exhibition which opens next week.

I rather liked the Michael CraigMartin work which changed colour.

5. Photography gets better and better

Photography is a relative newcomer to the RA Summer Exhibition.  However, as a medium, those contributing photographs for the exhibition certainly seem to have hit their stride.  An Innovation this year is mixing up the photography with some artwork in other media.

Photography in the Summer Exhibition 2013

"It reminds me a little of an early Glen Baxter, drawn by a much more sophisticated hand"
observed the Deputy Art Critic
ink and crayon
   ©  Glen Baxter

5. Humphrey Ocean poses a conundrum

...every summer for the last 244 years artists play unsafe in a fantastic context. Internationally known artists and complete unknowns sit side by side showing what they are up to now. Try it.An Introduction to the 245th Summer Exhibition, by Humphrey Ocean RA
Humphrey Ocean has curated the displays in the Large and Small Weston Room.  In doing so he seems to be playing a game with the visitors to the exhibition.  He's really mixed up credible and well known artists with what appear to be Sunday painters.  The trick is to work out which is which.  (Clue: look at the signature and the frames!)

Speaking personally I'd not be best pleased if my work had been hung in this room.  but he's already written his riposte to those artists.
Every single artist submits work knowing it may be shown in conditions that cannot be pre-determined. This is something of a gamble and requires confidence, but most artists can handle that.
In fact, my jaw dropped when I entered the Small Weston Room.

A mish-mash of paintings and artists in the Small Weston Room
Personally I think he's devaluing any statement made by the RA that this exhibition represents the best contemporary art in Britain today.  It will also annoy intensely a lot of the artists who produced better art and spent a lot of time and money entering their work.

That said, he's going to have made a small group of Sunday painters very happy.

6.  More space and less sculpture

I'm not sure if the sculpture got smaller or whether the RA began to realise it has become increasingly difficult to navigate some of the rooms in recent years.  Whatever the reasons it's much easier to see the sculpture and fewer people are going to have a close encounter with it while moving through the exhibition.

Sculpture in the RA Summer Exhibition 2013

7.  The RAs return to Room III

I liked the hang last year - but I'm not sure it found favour with the RAs and Honorary RAs who've got their prestigious Room III (The American Associates Gallery) back for their own work this year.

Exhibition Curator Norman Ackroyd RA in the foreground
Works by the late Mary Fedden RA in the background

My photo is of Norman Ackroyd RA who hung this and a couple of other rooms.  In the background is the tribute hang of paintings by Mary Fedden RA who died last summer.

To be honest I can't say I'm overly impressed with a lot of the Academician's work.  I also don't think it's the best of contemporary art.

8. Oldies rule OK?

The exhibition is an affirmation of how artists go on making art all their life.  There's an awful lot of artwork in this show by octagenarians and nonagenerians!

That said, it's a pity I didn't see more work by up and coming younger artists. The one I spotted was last year's BP Travel Award winner Carl Randall who is going to have a stunning exhibition of his paintings of Japan at the National Portrait Gallery next week.

Carl Randall's's painting of the Tokyo Subway is top right of the left hand wall

9. Funding for the RA Schools

A founding principle of the RA is to 'mount an annual exhibition open to all artists of distinguished merit'.  The purpose of the exhibition is to generate funds to finance the training of young artists in the RA Schools.

Coincidentally, I spent part of this evening talking to an artist who's just won a prize at the Pastel Society exhibition.  He trained at the RA Schools and won a Gold Medal for painting!  It's good to see how the exhibition translates down the years as well.

10.  Visit the largest exhibition in the World!

If you've never been before, there's no denying that the Summer Exhibition is certainly an experience.  If only because you should always be open to new experiences, you should visit the largest exhibition of contemporary art in the World - and make up your own mind about its pros and cons!

Other Reviews

Here are links to other reviews of this exhibition:


  1. Yes, here's to us oldies! But I agree, contemporary work from young artists is a must to keep the exhibition fresh and lively for the future.

    Thanks for such a comprehensive and interesting post. Being able to see so many photos of the art in situ is very enticing. I think I need to get on 'trainline' and get myself to London.

  2. You do that Theresa! I recommend afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason across the road after the exhibition! There's rather a lot of building going on at the moment on the Burlington House site as they sort out new accommodation.


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