RA Summer exhibition

In Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard, Tancredi famously informs his uncle that, “In order for everything to stay the same, everything must change”. Much the same applies to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition (until August 15). Now in its 243rd year, this is the world’s longest-running exhibition, the Mousetrap of the art world.

It has of course, changed somewhat since 1768. But it still consists largely of works by the Royal Academicians themselves. Naturally enough, their idioms alter little from one summer to the next. On the other hand, new Academicians – and Honorary RAs from abroad – are constantly being added to the roster.

Slowly, the mix of styles on view shifts. These days “Young British Artists” of twenty years ago are pillars of this self-selected institution. Gray Hume’s “The Cradle” is among the more striking items on display in the Lecture Room, a gallery hung by  Michael Craig-Martin, who once upon a time taught many of those YBAs.

Craig-Martin’s arrangements of this room and the adjoining Wohl Central Hall are the best ensembles in the exhibition. In the latter, he has just put photography on the walls, an innovation. In the centre he placed a sculpture (Work No 998) by Martin Creed, who once won the Turner Prize with a piece consisting of the lights going on and off. This, certainly for the RA, is almost as radical: a stack of modernist chairs.

Craig-Martin’s other room also succeeds in imposing a personal taste and sensibility on the essentially chaotic nature of the Summer Exhibition. It would be hard to define exactly what unites his choices – which also include a painting of his own, and works by Allen Jones, Anish Kapoor, Alison Wilding and Richard Long. They are a bit minimalist, often hard-edged, in some cases with a dash of pop art sensibility.

At any rate, they seems to belong together, contrary to the essential spirit of the Summer Exhibition which is customarily made up works that happened to be sent in by Academicians or to survive the open selection process. Consequently, its natural tendency is to look, as David Hockney once put it, “like a jumble sale”.

Perhaps that’s part of its charm. It certainly means that large and striking works tend to catch the eye more than small and discreet ones. That certainly applies to one of my favourites, a grand and beautiful abstract by Frank Bowling RA that dominates Room VIII and – through the doorway – the room next door too.

From my column in The Lady

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