Issue Number: 95
Every year, the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition becomes an annual open house of art, bringing together multifarious creative forces. The broadcaster Andrew Marr, who is speaking at the RA’s Annual Dinner this year, revels in what he calls the ‘jumbled’ nature of the event (see page 73). ‘In today’s art world, the show is hilariously subversive. Instead of the cool and limited… it offers a hot ruckus of contending objects. Riotously democratic, it subjects some of our finest artists to the test of joining the crowd.’
Others disagree: the outspoken sculptor Tony Cragg RA deplores what he sees as a disrespectful ‘mumbo-jumbo of paintings around sculpture’‚ which is why he has decided to take the sculpture gallery into his own hands this year (see page 56). He is filling it with young German sculptors, such as Katharina Fritsch, whose work has never before been exhibited at the RA.
Meanwhile, David Hockney RA enters the fray with glee, using the Summer Exhibition as a springboard to create ambitious new work (see page 48). This year he has painted the world’s biggest open-air landscape painting, designed to fill the end wall of the largest and grandest gallery in the Royal Academy. ‘I found a way to do an eye-catching landscape for the Summer Exhibition,’ he jokes. ‘It was quite a challenge.’
Another attention-getter is the Chapman Brothers’ installation of giant steel dinosaurs in the Royal Academy courtyard. Their presence here, alongside the work of newly elected RAs Michael Craig-Martin and Tracey Emin, who is representing Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale (see pages 40 and 52), seems to indicate a more active engagement with the wider currents of contemporary art.
Does this mean that, like a big tanker, the RA is slowly changing direction? Craig-Martin, who designed the cover of this magazine to reflect this year’s Summer Exhibition theme of ‘Light’, believes so (see page 99). He sees what he once considered the ‘ultraconservatism’ of the RA as shifting toward a more contemporary minded, internationally attuned membership. ‘It’s now unrecognisable from what it was before,’ he says.
Might this change he detects in the RA also be seen as a return to its roots? After all, early members – including Reynolds, Gainsborough and Turner – strove to make the Academy a venue for showing contemporary art and a forum for debate about the ‘Arts of Design’.
I was reminded of their spirit recently, when I entered Norman Ackroyd RA’s atmospheric printing studio. Not much in etching has changed since the eighteenth century, except for the three men I found hunched over their etching plates: the President of the RA Nicholas Grimshaw, his fellow architect Chris Wilkinson RA and painter Ian McKeever RA were all struggling with the laborious technique of making etchings, while Ackroyd hovered over them like a patient schoolmaster (see page 58). The experience epitomised what the Academy is all about: vigorous voices arguing and opining, worrying and wondering about art as though their lives depended on it.
Yes, it makes noise and it’s messy. But isn’t that the point?
Sarah Greenberg, Editor