I HAVE often found that by way of preparation for the summer splash each year in Burlington House I need more than to take a deep breath. Although the hang has been improving year on year in the past several years, I decided that I still needed to steel myself.
Round the corner, an exhibition of British Impressionism at Messum’s (28 Cork Street, till 28 July) did the trick as a way of exploring just why the English love the stunningly second-rate John Lavery, or fold themselves in the comfort blanket of Alfred Munnings. To understand this is to begin to see why Gary Hume or Tracey Emin still can cause outrage in some broadsheet papers.
By way of appreciating what art really might look like, I ventured to a show being staged by Cesare Lampronti at his gallery 44 Duke Street in St James’s. "Lights and Shadows: Caravaggism in Europe" (also to 31 July) brings together a remarkable range of 17th-century paintings that explain a pan-European phenomenon; art and colour can be seen in the deepest of shadows.
Thus heartened, I made my way across Piccadilly. Once through the metal scrap yard that is not perhaps the finest moment for the Royal Academician Conrad Shawcross, one comes into the establishment haven of a classical portico. Here, Jim Lambie’s painted staircase leads to the great galleries. I was grateful that, at the time, the Glaswegian Turner nominee was not old enough to decorate the floors of Charles de Gaulle airport with vinyl tape strips to confuse and control visitors.
But, in the exhibition itself, there was a palpable change of gear. Michael Craig-Martin RA has overseen and curated an exhibition that is both enjoyable and instructive. True, there are inevitably some duds, of which more later, but in room after room I found myself thinking that I need not have worried as much. This is a bolder show in many ways, and builds on the consistency of more recent years to bring a stronger dimension.
Walls are less cramped, and there appears to be a real dialogue between works. In Room V, for instance, the first of two given over to prints, Julian Opie’s two screenprints are loud enough to offer colour on two opposite walls to make us aware immediately of the skill of many printmakers in monochrome. In the largest room (Gallery III), the painted magenta walls allow Richard Long’s Mississippi River Blues to unfold seemingly for ever.
The visitor comes first into the cupola of the Central Hall and learns at once that the show is going to be about light and about beauty. Although there are works of individual bravery around the walls of the irregular octagon, including the orange and red oil painting Can’t or Won’t by the President of the RA, Christopher Le Brun, which does not quite make it against the turquoise walls, the hall is dominated by the central sculpture of an athlete.
The Doryphoros (Spear-carrier), a bronze sculpture attributed to Polykleitos, which would date from around 440 BC, is one of the famous works known to us only from Hellenistic copies, as it defined beauty in the harmony of physical form. Rendered by Matthew Darbyshire in polycarbonate and stainless steel, as Captcha no. 11, the imperious figure of the athlete stands beneath Liam Gillick’s corona of coloured Plexiglas plates, like a herald of what is to follow.
In the case of the sculpture, in the Lecture Room to the right, this proffers a degree of disappointment, but, in the works on paper and in many of the oil paintings, there is much to gladden the heart.
Craig-Martin’s own timepiece, set at ten to two, is graphic in the proper sense, as opposed to the exploratory Arms and Legs, an inkjet print by Wolfgang Tillmans near by, whose vulgarity seemed only to occasion teenage giggles. Tony Bevan’s head appears through the mesh of his own acrylic and charcoal self-portrait.
Arching above the entrance to the gallery is a sculpture of a number of neon bubbles that turn out to be Homo Bulla (Man is a Bubble), the work of Michael Landy and not, as I first presumed, of Emin. "I’m forever blowing bubbles", maybe.
Emin is represented with half a dozen polymer gravures of cutesy animal drawings that a ten-year-old might make to give to a doting grandparent or distant aunt. Badger, bunny rabbit, owl — the whole repertory explores the British love for the countryside, and has proved immensely popular with the public. Maybe her sole purpose is to pour scorn on the innocent enjoyment of such childish drawings, or maybe her agent has worked out just how much to raise on her signature.
Another runaway success with the punters which I found incomprehensible is a photograph by Rachel Mallalieu of a red roof on a shingle beach hut, presumably along from her home at Rottingdean. The Academy has even turned it into a mini print. The forlorn pebbly beach, the hard sky, the red corrugated-iron roof, and the weathered white wood of the door and window panels argue for a composition in colour, whereas her recent work often has a real command of form, with surprisingly enjoyable eddies of light.
If I could take anything away (or if I could afford it) this year it would probably be the sequences of Kim Wilkie’s four photographs of Boughton House, or the suite of 40 etchings of the Galápagos islands (Norman Ackroyd RA), a commission for the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, the model for whose building (Stanton Williams) we encounter in the architectural room, or Mychael Barratt’s London Map of Days.
Since 2013, the Canadian-born Barratt has been President of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, and this jeu d’esprit is characteristic of his wit, littered with minute details that tell a narrative of London with the accession of monarchs (I spotted Elizabeth and James VI and I) alongside the last flight of Concorde (24 October 2003), the death during a live television programme of Tommy Cooper (15 April 1984), and the 100 Club Punk Festival of September 1976. Barratt even includes the introduction of parking meters (in July 1958), appropriately enough opposite the US Embassy, whose staff now refuse to pay London’s congestion charge.
The last room is given over to a display of The Humument. Tom Phillips first devised this in 1966, doodling across pages of a Victorian novel by the classicist W. H. Mallock. I do not normally approve of whole rooms given over to one artist, and had puzzled why William Kentridge was given the Small Weston Room for his linocuts and Indian ink drawings of trees. But Phillips has reworked his earlier work to provide a library of artfulness.
The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 16 August. Phone 020 7300 8000.