Bob and Roberta Smith’s guide to the Summer Exhibition
A new Academician gives his views on a British institution
By Bob and Roberta Smith RA
Art now is more popular than it ever has been. We are in an era where art is at the centre of a public conversation about who we are, and where we want to go.
With that public attention and success comes a degree of questioning: who gets to make art these days? Who buys it? Who gets to show where? What’s funded and what is not? Who’s in whose pockets?
In among this debate comes the annual Summer Exhibition, the most incredible expression of diverse creativity imaginable.
I’ve been a Royal Academician now for about 6 months. It's been a whirlwind journey into an organisation I knew little about. My parents used to send in their paintings to the RA Summer Show in the 1970s. For my mother in particular getting her work hung was a special joy: she sold her painting the first time she was accepted. It opened up a world of contacts and financial opportunity, giving her enormous confidence to carry on making paintings and build a career.
The Summer Exhibition is about artists' generosity and democracy. No other gallery in the world tries to do what the RA does - open its doors to everyone who thinks of themselves as an artist, to have their work judged by their peers. It is a unique event.
While the Galleries are being ‘hung’ by the Committee, you’re not usually allowed in. But because my work was difficult to install I was let in to see the process and have a sneak preview.
I can reveal it’s absolutely true that the RAs hanging the exhibition do drink beef tea – and what's more, it has sherry in it! It really is a very odd drink. I am looking forward to the forthcoming JMW Turner biopic to see if it features. Perhaps JMW spits it out exclaiming “What the hell is this? I ordered a hot chocolate!”
There are so many aspects of this year’s show which are exciting. Cornelia Parker RA has installed a beautifully elegant room of work made in black and white; there are moving displays of work by Alan Davie RA and John Bellany RA who died this year, and there is a kind of humanist room curated by Eileen Cooper RA, which displays lots of deeply-felt figurative work. There is a room of some amazing sculpture. One piece, Neighbours, by Charles Hewlings, looks like a 3D map of the Tube with objects comprising key points in a story attached.
Ten new RAs joined the fold this year, and our work is displayed in the Wohl Central Hall as you enter. I have tried to create an echo of an incredible interview between David Nott and Eddie Mair, broadcast on New Year’s Day 2014, which detailed Nott's efforts to save lives in Syria. This work consists of a transcription of the broadcast which I spent five months working on. Opposite my painting are two uncanny portraits by Marlene Dumas Hon RA, which are wonderful works – and Sean Scully RA and Anselm Kiefer Hon RA also exhibit major works.
The Summer Exhibition this year is an amazing demonstration of creativity. It's a unique chance to celebrate all the different kinds of art and architecture that our country produces and admires. The organisers and artists who have devoted so much care and attention to others creativity are to be commended. Go see it - it's amazing!