The annual Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London has been running since 1769 and is one of our favourite exhibitions in the capital to wander around. It's always brilliantly bonkers and crammed full of artworks to admire, discuss and even buy (we wish).
Back when it began, it was simply known as 'The Exhibition' and all the exhibits were figurative. Hung from dado to cornice, pictures were abutted, tipped forward towards the viewer and arranged in perfect symmetry. Large portraits by the celebrated artists of the day sat on the line (the bottom edge of the exhibit, 8ft above the floor), with smaller pieces below and others by lesser-known artists sitting above in a regimented fashion.
The exhibition is now the largest open submission art show in the world, bringing together prints and paintings, film, photography, sculpture, architectural works and many more types of media, made by everyone from leading artists to emerging talents. All the various forms and styles are shown together to create an overwhelmingly heady mix that is a real feast for the eyes. You're forced to take in the art before you have time to look up the artist's name in your guide, so a bit of an egalitarian leap from the exhibition's former curation.
On the busy walls and floors of the gallery you'll see works from the biggest names in contemporary art and architecture hung beside works from first-time exhibitors. And as such, it's a unique window into all areas of the contemporary art world. And each Summer everyone from school groups to art collectors flock to see what made the cut to be exhibited.
Most of the artworks in the Summer Exhibition are for sale, with proceeds helping to fund the Royal Academy’s non-profit-making activities, including educating the next generation of artists. In previous years, nearly two thirds of the exhibits were by non-Academicians, £50,000 worth of prizes was awarded, and over 5,000 works were sold.
British painter Jock McFadyen RA has co-ordinated the 251st Summer Exhibition this year. Over 1,500 works are on display, most of them for the first time. The works are initially selected and hung by Royal Academicians, who also exhibit works in the show.
Highlights of the Summer Exhibition include an animal-themed ‘menagerie’ in the Central Hall which pays homage to mankind's ancient instinct to draw animals on the walls of caves. McFadyen’s menagerie showcases images and sculptures of creatures, both real and imaginary, by artists such as Charles Avery, painter Humphrey Ocean RA, photographers Tom Hunter and Karen Knorr, and sculptor Kenny Hunter.
In an interview with Kelly Grovier for the Summer 2019 issue of RA Magazine, McFadyen said of the selection process, “My starting point, is art that describes the world today”.
Everything you see at the Summer Exhibition represents what is happening in the art world right now and is a reflection of the current global climate. Much of the work takes inspiration from topical themes such as climate change, Brexit, race, homelessness and the global political landscape.
There is an eco-spirit that pulsates throughout the show. A room curated by architect Spencer de Grey RA, for example, focuses on concerns about sustainability and how architects can balance creativity and experimentation with respect for achieving a zero-sum impact on the world’s environment.
Another member of the ten-strong Selection Committee , Scottish painter and printmaker Barbara Rae RA, had her thinking about the exhibition stimulated by her recent expeditions to the endangered ice-scapes of the Arctic.
As well as an annual extravaganza of imagination, you really get the feeling that this is a serious show where the artists are trying to take a stand and make important points.
If you want to see the exhibition for yourself, head over to the Royal Academy in London from 10 June to 12 August 2019 and let us know what your favourite pieces are.
Image Sources: (1) Postcards Home, (2) Postcards Home, (3) Hew Locke - Gravesend - photographed by Postcards Home, (4) Postcards Home, (5) Nicola Hicks - Bear from Dump Circus - photographed by Postcards Home, (6) Jasper Lyon - Last Elephant - photographed by Postcards Home, (7) David Mach - Easy Tiger - Photographed by Postcards Home, (8) Postcards Home, (9) Isabel Rock - Lucky Sailor photographed by Postcards Home, (10) Janet Mullarney - Dancer - Photographed by Postcards Home, (11) Kenny Hunter - Animal Virtues - photographed by Postcards Home
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