Sustainability, Brexit and disturbing creatures on show at Royal Academy
The curator of the gallery’s Summer Exhibition this year gives us a preview of the 1,500 works on display
The Royal Academy of Arts’s annual Summer Exhibition opened in London yesterday, just in time for those still enjoying an Eid getaway in the British capital.
The 251st year of the world’s oldest open-submission exhibition has been curated by British painter Jock McFadyen, who takes the reins from Grayson Perry, last year’s co-ordinator.
Anyone can submit a work of art to be included and this year, 16,000 entries were whittled down to 1,500 by the Summer Exhibition Committee. Most of the work displayed is on sale, with prices ranging from a few hundred pounds to over £100,000 (Dh467,900). The National was invited to preview the exhibition and even treated to a tour by McFadyen, who chose the theme “art that describes the world”.
All creatures great, small… and disturbing
“Some people have got it stuck in their minds – an old-fashioned idea – that the Summer Exhibition is pictures of cats and dogs. So, I wanted to face the demons of that and say OK, gorillas, alligators, parrots, tigers – everything,” says McFadyen.
Entering the Wohl Central Hall, there is every animal imaginable, even some that are unimaginable, including a bronze hybrid beast with no head and two tails. Created by Charles Avery, the untitled work is unsettling but “fascinating”, McFadyen says.
David Mach’s sculpture of a prowling tiger baring its teeth is given a Scottish twist, dressed in Tunnock’s tea cakes wrappers.
Anonymous artist Banksy submitted another Brexit-themed entry to this year’s exhibition. KEEP OU features a padlocked customs arch taken from Heathrow Airport that has a rat spray-painted on it. It appears to be trying to break through the door with the missing letter T. “We had a lot of works sent in [on Brexit],” McFadyen says. A lot of it was mock-ish and obvious, but this is quite subtle. It just says it all.”
Last year, Banksy – who is a known critic of Britain’s vote to leave the EU – sent in a “Vote Leave” poster altered to read “Vote to Love”. The work was priced at £350 million (Dh1.6 billion), a reference to a now-rubbished claim made by Vote Leave that the UK spends that much per week on EU membership.
As well as sorting through thousands of entries, Royal Academician McFadyen asked some of his favourite artists to submit work. One particularly moving piece by John Davies features life-size figures of people the artist knew who have died, including his own parents. McFadyen had to persuade Davies, whom he describes as a “bit of a recluse”, to submit an entry that now occupies pride of place in Room VI of the Main Galleries.
Another one of McFadyen’s special invitations was to Hannah Collins, who created two works featuring Nelson Mandela’s birthplace. “She goes all over the world taking these photographs of interesting and intriguing places that have great resonance and significance,” the curator says.
The prints show the road to Mandela’s birthplace and the house that he lived in until he was 15, and where his placenta is buried.
‘Lyrical next to the Brutal’
In Room III, a large painting of a South London council block by artist David Hepher, 84, hangs at the back next to portraits of picturesque countryside. “In London, you see some terrible local authority housing and then you turn around and see beautiful Georgian houses,” McFadyen says. “I wanted this [the gallery] to be like that, so you have the lyrical next to the brutal.”
A sustainable future
The environment is another important theme in the exhibition, with Barbara Rae’s paintings of the melting ice caps in Greenland creating a sombre mood in Room V.
In the architecture gallery, where the theme of sustainability is explored by Royal Academician Spencer de Grey, the atmosphere is more hopeful. Real trees surround models of environmentally friendly buildings placed on specially sourced, sustainable MDF.
The recent climate change protests, which began in the British capital and spread across Europe, have given de Grey a reason to feel optimistic about the future. “On the whole, I feel positive,” he tells The National.
“Nothing is perfect, but I think architects, by and large, are trying quite hard, and that’s what this exhibition is about.”
The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition runs until August 12
Updated: June 10, 2019 06:59 PM