The RA’s A-level Summer Exhibition Online runs in parallel to the Summer Exhibition. Now in its fourth year, it provides a great opportunity to see work by potential artists of the future. Any student at A-level in the UK can enter, and this year the RA received over 1,300 submissions from across the country and selected work by 56 students to present online.
Curating the exhibition is a team effort, and the makeup of that team reflects the RA’s unique position as an artist-run institution. This year sculptor Richard Wilson RA, Royal Academy curator Dr Adrian Locke and final year RA Schools student Rachael Champion were responsible for selecting the exhibition - you can read their thoughts about the process here.
For the students whose work is chosen, it’s an exciting way for their work to reach a wide audience. As one exhibiting student, Isobel Renton of St Paul’s Girls’ School, puts it: “It’s like being a real artist. I didn’t realise how excited I would be until it happened.”
But it's also a chance for students to see what their peers are up to, often for the first time: “You only see what’s happening in your own school, so this was my first opportunity to see how other people are working at A-level. Sometimes I could tell that subjects were responses to exam questions – it’s great to see how other people react to these,” Renton says. “The exhibition is an amazing mix of so many different things.”
Isobel Renton, 'Jean & Paul: a sculptural representation of Gericault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’'. Clay
Renton’s own work in the exhibition is a sculpture inspired by Théodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. The subject matter came naturally – she was very familiar with Gericault’s masterpiece, having studied it in History of Art. “I knew quite a lot about it already and thought it would be fun to do a 3-D interpretation.”
The painting famously depicts the aftermath of a nineteenth-century French maritime disaster – the wreck of the frigate Medusa off the coast of Senegal. Survivors floated for 13 days on a makeshift raft, descending into madness, starvation and eventually cannibalism. Renton is interested in the hidden geometries of Gericault’s work – the compositional structure of pyramids and triangles – and also the hidden subject matter, which she found out about when researching the painting. That the survivors had resorted to cannibalism was something of a taboo subject in nineteenth-century France and Gericault omits this from the painting, despite his obsessive research into the subject.
“Visitors to his studio said it smelt awful… there were piles of amputated limbs and he had a decapitated head on a stick on top of the house… you wonder what the neighbours thought,” says Renton.
“I was interested in the cannibalism and the gore and the other aspects that he left out.”
The resulting sculpture features a spindly, cadaverous figure – whom Renton has nicknamed Paul – crouching with a decapitated head in his hands. It was moulded from crank clay, an industrial substance that she chose for its “great, grainy” texture.
It is also beautifully photographed, with an effective use of chiaroscuro, by Renton herself with help from her school’s photography teacher. As Renton explains, “With figurative sculpture, you’re creating a character. So it’s like setting a play – you need to really know your character, and the photography should exaggerate that.”
Renton, who also paints and draws, begins an art foundation course at Byam Shaw School of Art next month. To view her work and that of the other students selected for the online exhibition – plus a further 58 works commended in a shortlist – visit www.royalacademy.org.uk/alevel.