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Getting on for the full quattro

12 July 2013

Nicholas Cranfield visits the RA for the Summer Exhibition


Cut-away style: Julian Opie's Maria Teresa I (2011), on display at the Royal Academy summer show

Cut-away style: Julian Opie's Maria Teresa I (2011), on display at the Royal Academy summer show

ANY organisation that approaches its 250th anniversary must necessarily feel a little nervous; is the Royal Academy where it once was under Sir Joshua Reynolds? Are the equals of Constable and Turner among those showing this year? Is it still "an annual exhibition open to all artists of distinguished merit"? If not, why not?

At the risk of sounding like a mere political punter, I would say that there are signs of green shoots, although the recovery of this patient is neither assured nor steady. Under the presidency of Sir Hugh Casson (1910-99), whose work is currently celebrated in a small exhibition in the Academy (to 22 September), the Summer Exhibition slid inexorably into the worst of Sunday-picture painting. One of this year's Drawing Prize winners (626) exemplifies the old problems. "Could do better," it used to say on my school reports for such work.

The crowded hanging spoke of cheap supermarkets piling high and selling cheaply. Now it is leaner, but the money still rolls in, which is critical to maintaining the work of the Royal Academy Schools, where Piers Gough, Roberto Cipolla (Computer Vision), and Tracey Emin are among the professors.

Jo(e) Public is charged £25 for each work submitted (limit of two works), and a further 30 per cent of sale price plus VAT, which is about the nearest we get to a proper policy for open submission. Royal Academicians (45 Senior Academicians, 73 Academicians, and 24 Honorary Academicians) may submit six works. Hearteningly, more than 110 Academicians are showing work.

In the list of exhibitors, only Academicians are accorded titles and post-nominal honours. Jo(e) Public is simply listed as that, with not a doctorate, professorship, peerage, or membership of a learned society among them.

So it is not quite a level playing-field yet.

Whereas in the grim days of the 1980s and 1990s, every other picture was of Venice, flowers, gardens, or Venice (again), now most Academicians are willing to show alongside the "amateurs" who pay their fee and hope for the best. Or maybe the commercial galleries that represent them know that it is good for business. The Lisson, Alan Cristea, Hauser & Wirth, Richard Green, White Cube, The Redfern, Marlborough Fine Art, Timothy Taylor, The Fosse, and Browse & Darby have all sponsored entries from their stable of artists.

Intelligently hung, and with a more spacious feel than before (although there are still 1270 works on show), this exhibition is a more satisfying one than for many years. The exceptions are more glaring, perhaps, but more easily dismissed.

When I arrived, I ignored the bottle-top curtain (Tsiatsia) with which the Egyptian El Anatsui has draped the listed façade of Burlington House - although I cannot quite ignore the fact that he has walked away with the year's most expensive prize - crossed the courtyard, and entered the Academy. Imagine Jo(e) Public submitting a sculpture that measured 15 × 23 metres? I doubt whether it would be accepted.

Once in the exhibition, I walked past Sir Anthony Caro's half-octagonal steel wall in the Central Hall, and headed right, into the Lecture Room. Although there are any number of Academicians (including David Remfry, Anthony Green, John Bellany, and Ken Howard - more views of Venice, in two delightful quartets of San Marco, and of the open Loggia in Udine) represented among more than 200 works on display in this one room, most are from the open submission.

It proved a good place to start, and I returned to it twice before leaving, as Mick Rooney RA has clearly worked hard to curate an exciting and upbeat display. Here the quirky (Dr David Tindle RA's pot of upside-down asparagus painted in egg tempera, and Joan Hickson's Pierre et Gilles-like soldiers in To End All Wars) and the closely observed (Elizabeth Butterworth's Grey Wing and Michael Tarr's dish of highly coloured olives) are sensitively chosen. James Butler RA does himself, and his subject, few favours in a maquette for a Diamond Jubilee statue.

The largest room in the exhibition (III) is always the hardest to hang. Norman Ackroyd has managed this deftly, not least as he has had to make a shrine for the late Senior Academician Mary Fedden, who died during last year's Summer Exhibition, aged 96. At the Slade, Victor Polunin, who had earlier worked for the Ballets Russes, had taught her something of the European sensitivity of la belle peinture, and Fedden remained firmly in that tradition, moving away from abstract art to a neo-Romantic world of still life, popular on greeting cards.

As well as Ackroyd's own beautiful watery etchings, the long gallery has a troubled and enigmatic self-portrait by Tony Bevan in charcoal, and demonstrates that the older artists Diana Armfield (half-realistic landscapes) and Bernard Dunstan (music rehearsals and domestic interiors glimpsed through a hazy memory) have lost none of their power. Their work is hung around one another's as if in deliberate artistic embrace. Thankfully, not a Hockney landscape in sight.

The linchpin of the west wall in Gallery II is a large six-part print by Stephen Chambers which seems oddly out of place for no readily definable reason, rather like advertising for a parish priest in the columns of The Spectator. The names of fictional characters hang from gold branches - Mrs Miniver, Captain Hook, Robert Lovelace, Mrs Danvers, Harry Lime, Don Giovanni, and Clare Quilty among them. Perhaps the all too obvious clue comes in the title of the work: The Good Bad.

Words come easily, too, to Chris Kenny in his enjoyable digital print Menu. Taking "a lovely bunch of coconuts" as his starting point, I treasured the offer of "Mutton dressed as Joan Collins", "a peck of fickle peckers", "a blissful fish of Venus", and "one stagione short of a full quattro".

The fanciful engravings and screenprints of London and Delft by Professor Chris Orr are also in Gallery II, and repay close attention. Detail is also the hallmark of his The Princess Has a Pea, a story-book-like illustration awaiting a narrative: will the white bunny rabbit cross the railway tracks safely before the toy train returns, and can the fish escape the cat's paw at the poolside?

Peter Freeth has again been left in charge of Gallery I, and has confidently chosen prints and engravings (his own métier), while Professor Humphrey Ocean has selected works for the two smaller side galleries. Apparently, the judges for the sculpture prize shortlisted Richard Long's underwhelming thumbprints in Cornish china clay, Cornwall Spiral, as well as Ocean's own clever Lemon Static, which may be why Ocean has accorded Long a whole bare wall to himself.

We are on safer ground again with Norman Ackroyd's choice of works for Gallery IV, including Joe Tilson's Postcard from Venice, although Anselm Kiefer should perhaps stick with his day job. For the first time, Kiefer has submitted a print. Melancolia (the title is a homage to Dürer) measures 375 × 280cm gross, but it does not show the Honorary Academician at his best. The brightness of Philip Sutton's three oil paintings is, by contrast, much more transparently a sign of good work.

To either side of Gallery VI, which is traditionally reserved for architecture judiciously chosen by Eva Jiricna, John Wragg, a Royal Academician since 1986, has satisfyingly mixed both paintings and sculptures.

Portraiture stands up well (Room VIII) with the venerable art critic William Feaver trapped magnificently by Frank Auerbach in graphite and chalk, and Rodney Graham photographing himself as a sous-chef on a fag break beneath a spreading tree (Betula Pendula "Fastigiata"). Deservedly, Celia Paul has won an award for the quiet oil painting of another tall woman, Annela, selling at half the price of Julian Opie's inkjet print of Maria Teresa I, in his usual cut-away style. Green shoots indeed.

The 245th Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition runs at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 18 August 2013. Phone 020 7300 8000.


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