Sunday, June 18, 2017

Does the RA Summer Exhibition still have the WOW factor?

I went to see the 2017 Summer Exhibition of 1,092 artworks at the Royal Academy of Arts on Monday - and this post should have been written sooner (but for an event this week).

This blog post is going to
  • show you how you can see the exhibition - even if you can't get to London
  • examine why this exhibition wowed me less than others and
  • identify pieces I really liked.
Friends Review on 12th June - Gallery III complete with Pimms Bar
This is how you can see the exhibition - without visiting:
  • a video on YouTube - which lasts 74 seconds (how many years has it taken for the RA to catch up with YouTube for promoting what an exhibition actually looks like?)

  • a Summer Exhibition Explorer website - where you can see ALL the exhibits - and create pages for different categories and price points. It started last year and seems to have been refined this year
  • for example, for those seeking more affordable art - there is an art for under £500 website option - which tends to include a lot of prints. 
You can see the exhibition in person in the Main Galleries at Burlington House, the home of the Royal Academy of Arts until 20th August 2017 (Saturday – Thursday 10am – 6pm; Friday 10am – 10pm). Entrance is £15.50 (without donation £14). Friends of the RA, and under 16s when with a fee-paying adult, go free.

Has the Summer Exhibition lost its WOW?

The Summer Exhibition this year has certainly lost its WOW related to oversized works and/or statements by artistic testosterone flaunting male artists - whether that be pink walls and stripey staircases or massive paintings almost covering an entire wall in Gallery III

It's altogether a gentler exhibition - quite possibly because it was put together by a female curator Royal Academician Eileen Cooper who wanted to explore themes of discovery and new talent.

That does however mean that the Courtyard is positively disappointing. The Wind Sculpture VI by Yinka Shonibare work is simply not big enough - and it's not helped by the cones off to the left, the "pavement cafe" scene out front and the cranes out back. You only notice all these things when your eye is not totally absorbed by a massive something or other.  (Looking at the pic of it in the online website, it looks much better in a domestic setting.)

If it wasn't for the colours you could blink and miss this installation.
Looking back after nearly a week, I'm finding it difficult to remember anything much about the exhibition apart from the Western Union: Small Boats (edition of 3 £200,000) video by Isaac Julien which was very impressive.  It also won the The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award 2017

This is the challenge of the Summer Exhibition - making sense of it.
This year I was somewhat preoccupied by the fact my steroid injection for my arthritis has worn off and I was more interested in whether or not a gallery had a seat to sit down on. (There were some but nowhere near enough considering the age of a lot of the visitors - the RA could be a LOT more disability friendly). My solution was to see the exhibition in two halves - with lunch over the road at Fortnum & Masons inbetween (the art on my plate was much more to my taste!)

So 10 reasons why the Summer Exhibition has lost its wow are:
  1. nothing made me say Wow!
  2. disappointing entrance to Burlington House (see above) and the exhibition (an exhibit at the entrance which stops you moving forward is not good for circulation and the colour of the walls was vile - like sick!)
  3. the small paintings are lost or swamped - why it's OK to hang similar smaller sized photos together but not small works is beyond me.  I used to love the crush in the Small Weston Room as we all tried to see all the small works - typically entered by the public.
  4. no models in the architecture section - it was literally and metaphorically too flat
  5. some galleries are crammed/swamped with strong images making them indigestible (eg the photography) and the gallery difficult to view.
  6. a certain lack of punctuation or good design on the walls - eye-catching statement pieces were either competing with one another or located in corners - making it difficult for the eye to 'read the room'
  7. too few good figurative paintings - by which I mean of the relatively realistic variety. There were any number of the more fantasy oriented or "I can't draw" variety.  I see a lot more paintings I like better on a regular basis in the open exhibitions and art competitions exhibiting at the Mall Galleries. 
  8. too few drawings - in past exhibitions we're seen a lot more drawings
  9. the prints seemed to lack something - I love the print rooms and yet this time prints seemed more amorphous - lacking colour or size as punctuation and scattered across a number of rooms
  10. Overall, it seemed as if the exhibition lacked a good "Edit"
I thought the galleries with coloured walls had more impact - but I wasn't a huge fan of the colours chosen.

See what I mean below

entrance to the exhibition (door at the back of the photo) in the middle - meets lateral exhibit.
It was often creating bunching at the end entrance.
The wall colour made me go ICK not WOW!

Small works grouped at the back of the gallery in a cramped space
or at the bottom of the main walls - swamped by works above them

Architectural drawings - no models

I'm just not very impressed with the bulk of the work selected
I see much better painting on a regular basis at the open exhibitions / competitions at the Mall Galleries
(which is not to say I didn't like some of the work on this wall!)

A corner of the Prints room - mainly grey

Gallery VI - this made the work stand out 
but there was a lot of competition from strong pieces in this room
Bottom line - it's not an exhibition which makes me feel like I must visit again or walk around three times to see what I've missed.

Pieces and paintings I liked

Below are the pieces which made me stop and stare and then take a photo.

Pin the Wing by Julie Major
(steel, resin and silk) £6,200

Julie Major has a lot of lovely work on her website

Sculpture by Peter Randall-Page
(clockwise from top) Theme and Variation silver £10,200; Accretion (sterling silver and lead £7,500)
Little But Tree Seed (Sterling silver and lead) £7,500
Peter Randall-Page RA needs to update his website! However the link above shows a great set of exhibits - of sculpture and drawings. I also very much liked the other works he has in the show in the sculpture room.

Swell by Sara Dodd
(porcelain, edition of 259 at £700)
First seen on the BBC programme about the Summer Exhibition, this was even more impressive up close - and it's got lots of fans!  This is Sara Dodd's website about the ceramics she produces. Interestingly Swell looks even better as a multiple.

Four Seasons by Frederick Cuming RA(oil, 378 x 163 x 5 cm £115,000)
I have loved Fred Cuming's paintings for very many years. Sadly, in this exhibition I was beginning to think that he is now not as good as he used to be - until I saw this painting, which is hung in the wrong place in the wrong gallery and consequently is very easy to miss!

I checked his website and more recent paintings would indicate that he's still got the touch.

What I forgot is that he currently has an exhibition of recent work in the Belle Shenkman Room, The Keeper’s House at the RA. Maybe this is where his best work is?

Heligan by Christine Woodward
(acrylic, 91 x 61 £500 sold)
This painting above just jumped off the wall and held my attention. I know why this is - it's of Heligan, it's botanical - it's got lots of paintings of trees and leaves which while stylised are also accurate and the colour palette is slightly weird and yet an exaggerated version of true colours.

She has no identifiable online presence - which is a pity!

Previous reviews of the Summer Exhibition



2014: Summer Exhibition 2014 at the Royal Academy of Arts Jun 4, 2014 RA Summer Exhibition 2014 - a review of the key facts and an overview of changes in 2014.

201310 reasons to visit the RA Summer Exhibition 2013 Jun 10, 2013 Review of the 245th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly.

2012: Review: 244th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts Jun 9, 2012 .Last Friday I went to the Friends Private View of the 244th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. It has a much fresher feel this year ...

2009: Exhibition review: The Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition 2009 Jun 24, 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.

: Innovation and tradition at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition Jun 11, 2007
The 239th Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition at Burlington House opens to the public today.


  1. Sorry totally disagree I think this is the best hung RA Summer Show for ages. Let the Mall show representational works that's what they do. But we need to see a good variety of works which this show does. I loved it and am planning another trip to see it again
    best ashar

  2. I think you're talking about the overall balance of works?

    One of my points was "too few good figurative paintings" - by which I mean I don't expect lots and lots of them - just a better balance.


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