“People get the words dull and subtle muddled up” said Grayson Perry at the press preview for this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy which he has curated. Well, standing in Room 3 painted a zingy bright lemon yellow, there was no chance of that. Perry’s enthusiasm for the weird, wonderful, colourful, seductive, playful, non-conformist and just a bit rude is clear to see in his selection of works. But they are such fun. Yes, I know the Summer Exhibition’s primary objective is to sell work and raise money to fund the schools but that has often made the choices very safe – maybe a bit dull? In the past we’ve seen a lot of cute cats, birds, boats and moody landscapes. Not a bit of it this year; there’s a giant bear emerging from a rug, an eggshell portrait of Iggy Pop (Eggy Pop geddit!), sculptures made of smashed up crockery and lots and lots of colour.
So, this is my kind of show. You get the usual mash up of RA works with the Summer Exhibition, cheek by jowl with ‘amateur’ artists but the juxtaposition is fun and starts a kind of visual conversation. Grayson Perry is great advocate of the ‘outsider artist’, the artist who is compelled to create and makes work which has no classical or trained back story but has emerged from a compulsion to express an idea or a passion in their own language; that’s always fun, and often very moving.
But over in another part of the now HUGE gallery, the John Madejski Fine Rooms, Weston Rooms, Galleries I and II is another treasure trove of visual delights – The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition. The premise of the exhibition – originally called The Annual Exhibition – was to exhibit art made NOW. Of course, 250 years later we see art made THEN but it’s absolutely fascinating. What is clear is that the shock of the new is a constant, it’s something which we’re all looking for and even if it can’t be defined in exact terms there are certain paintings which become huge hits. For example, some of the terrific genre paintings by David Wilkie, such as The Village Politician, contained fascinating visual narratives and people would cluster and stare at the picture for ages.
Back at the start of it all, Joshua Reynolds, founder of this great institution, understood fully the need for the blockbuster image which had that ‘wow’ factor. He introduced it with his fabulous portraits which used light in a wonderfully dappled way. The portrait of Mrs Lloyd is semi classical but shows the young woman in a diaphanous gown in a sun speckled glade and her face positively glowing against the dark leafy background. Apparently all the ladies who saw that image wanted to look like that, or be painted like that.
Then there’s all that argy bargy with the artists trying to out do each other in terms of bravura and attention grabbing. As you can hear from Grayson when he was negotiating his hang of this year’s show, nothing changes, egos can be huge and expectations can be high and artists can be easily incensed by the space (or lack of it) they have been given. Reynolds always competed with Gainsborough, Turner with Constable. We love all that!
So, what with the new permanent exhibition, the Great Spectacle, the Summer Exhibition and the show of work by RA students, there is a great deal to see at this magnificent gallery.
The Summer Exhibition and The Great Spectacle run from 12th June – 19th August. The Schools Final Year Show runs from 8th June – 1st July.