Royal Academy Summer Show

IAN COLLINS Really Awful or Rather Awesome? Another RA Summer Show is almost upon us and Ian Collins has just relished a preview… at least in parts.


More than 200 years ago our own Thomas Gainsborough reckoned the initials in the RA Summer Exhibition might have stood for Really Awful…

But, in parts at least, the Royal Academy's 239th seasonal blockbuster is Rather Awesome.

The world's largest open art show has just seen around 13,000 works submitted by amateurs and professionals alike, less than a tenth of which have survived the selection process to be seen by us.

Many will say that some of the chosen artists should be hung also but there's something for all tastes here. And I detect an extra tang this year.

Indeed, with a massed assortment of paintings, prints, photos, drawings, sculpture and architectural models, this is the mixed spice of a show that puts the Piccalilli in Piccadilly. So let's just relish it.

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Ever eager to exorcise the stuffy old ghost of Sir Alfred Munnings, RA selectors give lots of space to global giants such as Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg and Anselm Kiefer.

With six works apiece allowed to scores of academicians - including the newly-enrolled Tracey Emin (exhibitionists now being welcomed too) - many walls are taken before selection starts.

David Hockney has put in just the one picture, but at 40x15ft, Bigger Trees Near Water is not only his largest image to date. It's an unparalleled act of hubris.

This whopping great clanger could be a stage backdrop for a local amateur dramatic group. As a lesson in the exciting possibilities of paint, it's easily eclipsed by six small works from veteran RA Adrian Berg hanging alongside. Less is more.

And when it comes to electric energy, some of the highest-voltage talents are past the age of 80 - artists like Bert Irvin and Lowestoft-raised Jeffery Camp.

Camp's ecstatic paintings of lovers entwined above cliffs or leaping over bridges and rainbows have reached a swirling summation in a maelstrom of a monument called Pulling Out.

But this is no elegy. The full title should surely be Pulling Out All The Stops.

And yet, this RA summer show is seriously diminished by a failure to pay tribute to the great Norfolk-based Derrick Greaves, who celebrates his 80th birthday this month. New RA Michael Craig-Martin (godfather to the young turks of BritArt) is a novice linemaster next to him.

Still, I'd give the award for the best work in the 2007 show to Norfolk's Colin Self - who very properly won it in 2005 and should have been made an RA by now. At £150,000, the piece in question is also the costliest exhibit of those for sale.

A Trilogy: The Iconoclasts (Triptych) is an assembly of three bronzes pondering the misuse of religion. A Hindu elephant god sits beneath a Nazi helmet and above a book stamped with a swastika, a typically serene Buddha is endowed with a metal banana and two eggs in a way that would have upset the late Mary Whitehouse, and a Christ figure is crucified on the back of a flying bomber.

The message, of how religion is debased and perverted by those chasing earthly powers, is brilliantly delivered.

There's an ominous omission, however. Then again, if the artist had chosen to underline his point with a very valid reference to Islam, his life would now be menaced by a fatwa.

Self's work is far more powerful than the much-hyped Michael Sandle drawing of Adam and Eve (aka Tony and Cherie) being expelled from a Downing Street piled high with the bodies of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

I also salute the work of two more academicians - both adopted East Anglians.

Making the most of a new liver, John Bellany continues with his vivid explorations of landscapes from his native Scotland brightened and peopled by a peculiarly personal mythology.

And Anthony Green - long back on form after keeling over with a heart attack in a garden mercifully close to Papworth - is always good for a laugh. What fun to see the witty artist peeping into his shed and causing his naked wife literally to hit the roof.

Good, too, to see a typically crisp Porthole painting of buoys and boats by veteran Sheringham painter Peter Baldwin alongside fine works by two other local notables in the crammed Small Weston Room: an immaculate Auricula, from John Morley, of Stoven, near Beccles; and a beautifully-textured Goldfish Bowl With Shells, by Fred Dubery, of Great Finborough, near Stowmarket.

Here too are first RA offerings from Wenhaston-based Tessa Newcomb - in the comic form of a pair of seals bobbing before a boatload of gawpers off Blakeney Point - and Norwich's Keith Johnson with the charming Rose Light Café.

Near thought-provoking abstract sculptures by Andrew Schumann of King's Lynn and the great Geoffrey Clarke RA of Hartest, near Bury St Edmunds, is another admirable geometric print by Fressingfield's Mary Webb.

Almost side by side are bronzes by two King's Lynn sculptors: Victoria Evans - with a tiny but telling figure dragging a shopping bag - and Kabir Hussain, with a startlingly life-like bowl of garlic.

And once again we can claim the biggest shock in the architectural section - thanks to Will Alsop, whose Victorian cottage in Sheringham now resembles a spaceship.

The wildly squiggled abstract collage entitled Fog is an Urban Experience suggests a mercurial architect letting off steam, until a similar idea is spied decorating the façade of a proposed design for Puddle Dock (currently the City of London's dullest corner).

Even that's a model of restraint compared with the jagged shard of black, white and red glass, boldly doodled with jazzy motifs, that Alsop imagines for City Road.

Sir Alfred would be Raving Angrily. But I'm Rather Admiring.

The 239th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition runs June 11 to August 19. Open Sat-Thur 10-6, Fri 10-10. Admission £8, concessions £2-£6. Tube: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus.

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