Issue Number: 95
As television coverage of the RA’s Summer Exhibition focuses ever more eyes on the show, Richard Cork talks to new Academicians, as well as an elder statesman, about their attitudes to this annual panorama of art
Boosted by the success of extensive TV coverage on BBC2 last year, the next Summer Exhibition looks set to attract a great deal of attention.
Three one-hour programmes, presented by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, are screened at the end of June. They focus on the show’s long and fascinating history, the challenges involved in receiving and displaying works, and the opening events. Given the dramatic rise in submissions (around 2,000 more people have sent in work this year), the activity promises to be even more intense than before.
The coordinators – painter Paul Huxley RA, architect Ian Ritchie RA and sculptor Bill Woodrow RA have chosen the overall theme of ‘Light’. They have ensured that a wide variety of disciplines, from painting, sculpture and architecture, to printmaking and photography (film-based art has a dedicated space this year), are embraced by the selected work.
However, at least one artist being filmed by BBC cameras, following the creation of work in the studio right through to the eventual hanging, found that the experience filled her with anxiety. Fiona Rae RA, who has become one of Britain’s leading younger painters since being shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1991, had planned to show a large canvas in the Summer Exhibition. ‘But it has all gone wrong,’ she tells me.
Fiona Rae RA in her studio with her painting ‘Life is full of pleasant gifts and surprises, you know,' 2007 Photo by Nick Cunard
‘The presence of a television camera in my studio changes everything when I paint: it’s not something I can do. This painting will either need much more work or end up in the skip.’ Sadly, she does not complete the work on camera. Instead, she adds the finishing touches to an exuberant canvas, Life is full of pleasant gifts and surprises, you know!, 2007 (above).
The artist is familiar with such turnarounds. While she reflects that she felt ‘very flattered’ when she was elected as an RA back in 2002, she then spent a year on the Council during a challenging period for the Academy: ‘That was stressful and time-consuming, so I got a bit dispirited. To be honest, I don’t really like how they doublehang things in the Summer Exhibition. It’s so crowded.’
That is why, until now, Rae has resisted the idea of displaying her own work in the show. ‘There are always good things there, buried in the mass. But the problem is that the Academicians can put in so many works; it would be better to display only two great pieces by each artist. I do have a couple of smaller paintings that could be shown this year: I finished them recently, and they’ve got bits of recognisable imagery in them –
like the work I exhibited at PaceWildenstein in New York. But they can’t survive a crowded hang. So I’m full of trepidation.’
On a positive note, Rae believes that ‘the Academy is an institution that can and should change, bringing in the new generation. What’s great is that you can propose new members: I suggested Michael Craig-Martin, Lisa Milroy and Tracey Emin, and they’ve all been elected RAs.’
A wide international reputation precedes Craig-Martin, who taught the YBAs in their student days at Goldsmiths. So, what does he think about joining the RA? It was, he recalls, a complete surprise.
‘One day, I got a phone call. It was from the painter Humphrey Ocean RA, who said: “Michael, you’ve become an RA.” I’ve always resisted the urge to become a member. In the past, the Academy was seen as archconservative, and played a role in the history of that particular form of British anti-modernism. But when Humphrey told me I’d been elected, I realised that some effort had been made on my behalf.
‘So I thought about it overnight and decided to accept. Since then, Tracey Emin has been elected, so my moment of being the most outrageous nominee only lasted about two months. I can see that the RA is trying to change, but it needs to change more. I have great admiration for its president, the architect Nicholas Grimshaw RA, and most major architects in Britain are members. I think there are possibilities in all of that.’
This explains why Craig-Martin has always accepted invitations to display his work in the Summer Exhibition, even if he feels that ‘the show is not truly an exhibition in the terms I understand. It’s more of a social event than an art event. The British like these annual, seasonal traditions, like Wimbledon, Ascot and the Boat Race. It means a great deal to a lot of artists, too, but to someone like myself, an American, it’s of lesser consequence.’
He is planning a major solo show at the Gagosian Gallery, in London, which features the epic dimensions of space that allow his ambitious works to thrive. Yet he does not
dismiss the significance of the Summer Exhibition. ‘Plenty of people say “just get rid of it”, but that’s not going to happen. It no longer represents a threat, even though reactionary members might still hope that it could shift contemporary art towards something more provincial and retrograde. If that’s what they think, they’ll be disappointed.’
Freddie Gore RA in his studio
Freddie Gore, now 94 and an RA veteran (left), could never be ranked among the die-hard
enemies of modernism. The painter admits that ‘it’s always supposed to be a shock when a new person as controversial as Emin is elected. People like me are expected to feel affronted, but it’s a false notion. Younger blood is healthy for the RA. New artists bring one closer to thinkers of the moment.’
Gore was elected in 1963. Two years later, he became a member of the Summer Exhibition’s selection and hanging committee. ‘I knew certain people would see me as an arch-outsider, and others would regard me as a menace of a different order,’ he recalls. ‘However, the Academy has been admirable in its response to new things. A lot of people come and see the Summer Exhibition.
That’s the glorious aim, and a great deal of work is sold each year, to help support the RA. On that level, it has always been a success.’ He agrees that ‘you’re dealing with too many pictures: open submission is a challenge for people on the hanging committee. But whenever ruthless hangers have cut the numbers down, it has become much easier to get around the exhibition.’
Judging by Emin’s reaction, many artists of her YBA generation may welcome election. ‘It’s brilliant that I’ve just been made a Royal Academician,’ she tells me. ‘It’s like Glasnost or Perestroika in the arts.’ What, I wonder, is she planning to exhibit there this summer? ‘As the theme of the Summer Exhibition is ‘Light’, I would like to show a neon, and maybe some small watercolours,’ she explains.
‘What I’m most looking forward to about being an RA is being able to go somewhere and specifically talk about art and ideas with people who are older than me and have a wealth of experience. As long as the discussions don’t turn into full-on wrestling matches – and even if they do – I’m sure that it’s going to be a lot of fun.’
Summer Exhibition 2007, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 11 June–19 Aug. Sponsored by Insight Investment; the BBC2 programmes are broadcast at 7pm on 22, 23 and 24 June
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