Summer Exhibition 2014: Turning the tables
By Ben Luke
Published 2 June 2014
Can an establishment institution like the Royal Academy be a radical force? As this year’s Summer Exhibition focuses on an influx of newly elected Royal Academicians, Ben Luke puts the question to Members old and new.
A remarkable influx of 11 newly elected Royal Academicians – who now make up around 10 per cent of the total membership – is set to make its mark on this year’s Summer Exhibition, when a room showcasing their work announces their arrival at the Academy. Look at the primary medium in which each of these artists works and you get a sense of their diversity.
Chantal Joffe paints psychologically charged and sensual figures; Mike Nelson makes sculptures and atmospheric, multiple-room installations using found materials; Tim Shaw combines politically charged subject matter with traditional sculptural skills; Neil Jeffries produces painted metal sculptures that occupy a strange territory between abstraction and figuration; and Wolfgang Tillmans takes hugely various and often beautiful photographs, which he shows in innovative installations.
Bob and Roberta Smith creates brightly coloured text-based paintings with powerful social messages; Yinka Shonibare clads figures in colourful batik to create politically loaded sculptural or photographic tableaux; Thomas Heatherwick is one of the world’s leading designers, whose Olympic Cauldron fired the imagination of viewers in the opening ceremony in 2012; Rebecca Warren fuses everything from the ideas of conceptual artist Joseph Beuys to the cartoons of Robert Crumb, creating vitrines and lumpy sculptural figures; Conrad Shawcross brings engineering and sculpture into collisions of mechanics, sound, light and space; and Louisa Hutton, of architects Sauerbruch Hutton, designs buildings with a flair for colour and material richness.
At times in its history, the Royal Academy has been criticised for being out of touch with the latest developments in art. So with this wave of new elections can it now be argued that the Academy is truly representative of the dizzying breadth of visual culture in Britain today?
But these classifications today may seem rather outmoded in the face of art’s shifting sands. Tillmans, for example, who makes photographs, has been elected in the category of painting, but the German-born artist, who has lived in London for nearly 20 years (and now moves between there and Berlin), is wary of being pigeonholed.
"I see myself as a picture-maker, just as I see painters, as well as other photographers," he says. "The frame of reference that I work in is not 175 years old – as is the age of photography – it’s 40,000 years old, or whenever the oldest cave painting is from." Tillmans argues that "these categories are left over from 200 years ago. But it should all be picture-making and there shouldn’t be departments of photography and painting and printmaking in museums. Nowadays, you cannot divide these any more."
However, Christopher Le Brun, the Academy’s President, remains convinced that while art is expanding beyond these traditions, the four-category system still plays a role. "At the moment it’s still working," he says, "and it hasn’t got to the point where it’s urgent that we change it, because that would be a major shift." He thinks that the categories remain balanced in the current set-up. "What you don’t want is the Academy shifting entirely towards architecture or towards sculpture – that wouldn’t make for a good mix."
As artists working in new forms of media enter the Academy, this brings new challenges, particularly in the context of the Summer Exhibition and how the works will interact with the Academy’s famous galleries. As Le Brun says, the show was originally designed "for easel paintings and plinth-based statuary and we’ve moved away from that in a big way recently".
This presents a particular conundrum for installation artists such as Mike Nelson who, when he spoke to RA Magazine, was still mulling over what to show. "They are very grandiose, those spaces, and the context of the Summer Show is very particular," he says. "I am not quite sure, as yet how somebody like me can deal with that."
Nelson’s installations are largely made on site, where he composes a wealth of material often gathered from flea markets, salvage yards and second-hand shops. "I don’t have a studio, and I don’t have a studio practice, so it’s not like there are works that are ready to go off and be put somewhere," he says. "I don’t quite know how I am going to deal with [the Summer Exhibition], other than taking on a larger space in the galleries, which might be possible at some point."
When Nelson was invited to consider becoming an RA, he said that the fact that some Members were "great people who influenced me in college and beyond" – among them Richard Deacon, Phyllida Barlow and Phillip King – helped to convince him that he should join. He was also attracted by knowing that the Academy is run by artists for artists. "You could potentially see it as quite radical in that sense, in the context of now, a world where curatorial and art management courses are everywhere," he suggests. "That was what turned my head, so I thought I would give it a try."
The Academy’s autonomy also appeals to Tillmans. "In the old days it was much more about artists showcasing themselves, which is not so necessary now, because there is of course the entire commercial art world, which didn’t exist in the 18th century," he says. "But some idea of advocacy for the larger community, not just the 125 Members, is important. And given the current climate, where governments everywhere are thinking they can withdraw without harm from funding the arts, I think artists speaking together is a very important thing."
This idea of advocacy is spelled out on the card given to Academicians: it says that the RA’s vision is "To be a strong, clear voice for art and artists". Patrick Brill, whose artist’s pseudonym is Bob and Roberta Smith, says, "I could have written that. If the Academy really wants to live up to that, it has to be for all art and all artists. I think it wants to do that, so there’s some purpose to it for me. It’s not just about joining a club."
A discomfort with ‘clubbiness’ prompted Smith’s initial misgivings about becoming an RA. Invitations to join huge cultural or establishment institutions often trigger such reservations, but Smith’s reasons are perhaps more personal than most. "My parents were artists and my dad [the painter Frederick Brill], during the 1960s and 1970s, was principal of Chelsea School of Art. He was the kind of artist who would submit his paintings to the RA Summer Exhibition, and he would get them in occasionally," Smith recalls. "My mum was also a painter and she used to submit her paintings to the RA but she wouldn’t get them in. But then, instead of Deirdre Borlase, she started signing them “D. Borlase”, and got them in more often than my dad did." He adds that "in a strange sort of way, I have associated the Royal Academy with a slightly misogynistic clubby thing, but I’ve also associated it with showing really great, radical art." He particularly remembers the RA’s Courbet show in 1978, the first exhibition he saw, with his father, "a left-wing sort of person" who stood him in front of A Burial at Ornans (1849-50) and pointed out the power of Courbet’s depiction of a very ordinary funeral, "a reflection of working-class life".
Yinka Shonibare echoes many of the new RAs’ thoughts when he says he was "genuinely surprised" at being asked to join the Academy. "I had never actually thought about it. It’s a place with a lot of artists whose work I like and respect. So to be in the same place with those people is a great honour." But he is acutely aware of the trappings of such recognition. He was awarded an MBE in 2004 and has worn those letters as an ironic badge of honour, since a core theme of his work is empire and colonialism.
Shonibare says his view of the Academy was of "a very establishment sort of place", a comment which conjures Frederick William Elwell’s group portrait The Royal Academy Selection and Hanging Committee, 1938 [at the top of this article]. "But then I find that, actually, the Royal Academy has really opened up and there are a lot of contemporary artists of my generation there now. So I think it’s very different from what it was even 10 years ago."
He admits that, despite the fact that many among the recent influx of Academicians were only recently seen as enfants terribles, "the younger generation in their 20s probably see us now as part of the establishment. That’s just the way it goes."
But to have had doubts before joining the Academy is nothing new. Le Brun recalls: "It was still a big decision for me, career-wise – would this damage my career or not?" Painter Anthony Green, who became an RA in 1977, recalls: "I was told by people who knew probably better than I did that joining the Academy would probably ruin my career." But as it turned out, "Later, Phillip King joined, Barry Flanagan joined, Paul Huxley joined, and suddenly it seemed like a daring thing for a cutting-edge artist to do."
The dismissive attitude had been a legacy from an earlier era, Green believes. "Henry Moore’s generation used to cross themselves and walk by on the other side of Piccadilly in case they got tainted or got a septic virus from us," he jokes. Green warns against "assumptions that the so-called body of Academicians were old-fashioned, conservative flat-earthists – in fact that’s never been the case", and suggests that the reactionary views of modern art expressed by Alfred Munnings, RA President from 1944 to 1949, who famously said he would like to kick Picasso’s behind, caused long-term damage. "We’ve had to fight very hard to live that down."
"It has taken a long hard slog to get back the respectability the RA has now. If you criticise the membership now, you’re criticising Gormley, Kapoor, Emin, Landy – and they are international names."
However much the Academy might be more reflective of contemporary art than it has been in the past, Le Brun is clear that it is not representative. "It’s vital that everybody is elected as an individual; following the logic of that, they represent no-one other than themselves," he says. "Even to the extent that they don’t represent the category of, say, painting, in which they are elected. This is really crucial and it gives the Academy its authority, because it’s a body of individual artists chosen on merit. As soon as you start moving towards representation – in other words, asking does this reflect the contemporary art world as we know it? – it distorts the decision about individual artists and architects, I think, in a really unhelpful way."
Indeed, from its earliest incarnation, when Joshua Reynolds was President, the Academy has only ever partially reflected the contemporary art scene. As Martin Postle, Deputy Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre and a specialist in 18th-century British art, points out, that first group of artists was "just like it is today, a loosely affiliated group of very strong-willed individuals".
There was a struggle to attract leading artists, Postle says. "Reynolds writes to Gainsborough to get him on board, and Gainsborough’s not terribly interested and doesn’t feature in Zoffany’s painting of the first Academicians [1771-72, above)," he adds. "That painting by Zoffany tells you so much about the way in which these blokes do and don’t get on together – they’re a bunch of individuals and egoists."
One of the artists in the painting is the Welsh painter Richard Wilson. "Wilson is a key player in the Society of Artists a decade before but, by then, he’s a curmudgeonly, disgruntled figure who already feels he’s cast out into semi-darkness. He stands out, leaning on the mantelpiece... and he’s not really feeling that he is at the heart of things," says Postle.
Of the great British artists of the later part of the 18th century – Gainsborough, Romney, Wright of Derby, Stubbs – none had a strong affiliation with the Academy, he adds. "Stubbs basically ignores it; Romney never really bothers with it, doesn’t become a Member; Allan Ramsay, George III’s painter, never becomes a Member."
Though it still prompts healthy debate, the RA today is, on the whole, more harmonious, says Le Brun. "The interplay between the painters, sculptors and architects is a wonderful thing to see because the discussions are not on the level of professional rivalry, they are on a cultural level. And that’s where the RA provides something really special and it leads to the affection with which the Academy is held. Where else would you see all those senior architects, sculptors and painters mixing as equals?"
Being welcomed into this community has come as a surprise to the painter Chantal Joffe. "You spend a lot of your life as an artist feeling outside of things," she says, "so it’s odd to be included in something." She says she has "always liked that thing of being a painter and being alone – that seemed to me why you did it, to be alone with your work, and that was the great privilege and beauty of it." Yet she admits ‘you do feel quite special’ joining the Academy. Like many new RAs, Joffe is looking forward to seeing her work in the Academy’s grand galleries. "I think of The Real Van Gogh [in 2010] and I can’t think of a more astonishing show that I’ve seen in my life. It’s always humbling to think about that. They are astonishingly beautiful galleries."
For Bob and Roberta Smith, the galleries are "much stronger for art to resonate against than white cube spaces... it’s a great thing to have your work respond to an architectural space. So I am really excited." And while, unlike his parents, he has never submitted to the Summer Exhibition, he has come to admire it. "One of the great things about the Summer Show – and no other institution does this – is that it’s a madly democratic thing," he says. "Anyone can apply and have their work looked over by their peers... It’s a kind of anti- curator thing, because there’s this idea of the curator as a very powerful individual. If you have a free-for-all like the Summer Show, it’s an incredible catalyst of artist power."
Ben Luke is Contemporary Art Critic at the London Evening Standard and Features Editor of The Art Newspaper.
The Summer Exhibition is at the RA from 9 June – 17 August 2014.
Summer Exhibition and Summer Exhibition Preview Party sponsored by Insight Investment
More recently-elected RAs in the Summer Exhibition
Enjoyed this article?
Become a Friend to receive RA Magazine
As well as free entry to all of our exhibitions, Friends of the RA enjoy one of Britain’s most respected art magazines, delivered directly to your door.
Why not join the club?