No matter how often one’s been there before and no matter how much mental preparation one undertakes, there is always something obscurely depressing about the press view for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. All those rooms, all those gilt cornices, all those solicitous attendants — and all those terrible paintings! Actually, that’s unfair, because terribleness is not confined to the paintings — there are some pretty awful prints, drawings and sculpture, too, as well as dismal architectural models and indeed, hard-to-categorise disasters like whatever it is that Richard Long has been allowed to do to the Central Hall, assuming he’d even installed it by the time I visited, of which I am by no means sure. But somehow, every year, such reservations notwithstanding, it’s the paintings that distress most. There are so many of them, and lots of them are so big, and most of them are so bright — and virtually all of them are so badly composed, so ineptly executed and so intrinsically pointless! And then, just to sustain the prevailing leitmotif of horror, many of them turn out to have been painted by some of the more famous occupants of the smarter circles of British Art Hell. All I can say is that it is just as well that the Summer Exhibition only turns up once a year — really, it just seems like more often.
Veste la giubba, it’s that exhibition again
But as with the time-hallowed sacra of the Roman state, the priests and the flamines continue to be chosen amidst mysterious rituals of divination, the acrid sacrifices rise once more to the stolid dome of the heavens; inexplicable yet ineluctable, the rites continue to be performed, and the lawful order of things is maintained. And who would wish it otherwise? For all its inadequacies we’d miss it if it went away.
For instance, what would arts journalists do without the enjoyable irritant of the address to the Annual Dinner, delivered this year by the mangled yet strangely magnificent Time critic Robert Hughes? And what would critics do without a set-piece occasion on which to make their regular oblations to beleaguered exhibitions secretary Norman Rosenthal as he continues to fight his battle against the forces of philistine penny-pinching its most feminine, American and hence automatically repellant form? And then there are the obligatory profiles of the exhibition coordinators — this year the spotlight falls on Allen Jones and David Hockney — as well as leading RAs, likely and unlikely exhibitors, refuseniks and rejects of all shapes and sizes. To plumb, for a moment, depths of cultural referents hitherto explored only by the more unsuccessful sort of Guardian filler-writer, it is all a bit like the moment on the old Mrs Merton Show where Mrs Merton would say, in tones of insincere injunction, ‘Let’s have a heated debate!’ Sadly, the ‘debates’ surrounding the Royal Academy share not only this level of spontaneity, but also a similar degree of profundity, conviction and efficacy. It’s all a big reminder that the entertainment value of art lies not even primarily in the works themselves these days, but in the cultural apparatus clinging like scaffolding to their unsteady-looking flanks.
On, then, to what we shall pretend are novel and interesting issues: the hang, the works, the overall tenor of this high-profile event. As mentioned above, the exhibition coordinators for the year were Allen Jones and David Hockney.
Jones, for those of you who don’t follow these things very closely, tends to be bracketed as a Pop Artist, but in fact these days produces either slightly pervy furniture or paints soft porn in a smeary gestural style — while retaining the plastic colour of Pop — in a way that would do for, say, someone who couldn’t actually afford a real R. J. Kitaj yet at the same time (and here’s the bit I can’t understand) actually wanted one. Jones is one of those artists who courts popular appeal without ever really making much of a splash outside places like the RA, where the chance to view, for instance, plastic breasts is a little bit more exciting than it is to the rest of us who have to live in the real, demotic, ‘popular’ world all the time.
Anyway, that’s Allen Jones. As for Hockney, you know him already. He is as famous as the RA itself and sometimes seems to have been around slightly longer, generating more copy and creating more of a personality-cult round his odd obsessions: dachsunds, homosexuality, smoking, the camera obscura. There is, obviously, nothing very unusual about any of these obsessions, but Hockney has long had the knack of treating them as if they were his own, unique discoveries, worthy not only of attention in their own right, but solicitous of admiration for the bold, brave soul (one D. Hockney Esq.) who brought them to public notice. And indeed, there he was at the press view, self-consciously projecting adorability in his deaf but affable way, interrupted only by the odd anxious glance to make sure that everyone was still paying attention. He was wearing a hat, which seems rude for anyone who isn’t undergoing chemotherapy or something, given that the RA’s galleries appear to be securely roofed and that there were no adverse climatic conditions necessitating protective headgear. Still, that’s part of the Hockney persona, along with the silly Alan Bennett glasses and the aggressive Yorkshire patriotism, tenable only in someone who’s spent too much time enjoying the experience of having his wits addled by the warm Californian sunshine.
Pencils down, please
So those, then, were our presiding geniuses. What sort of hang have they produced? The theme, apparently, is drawing. When I use the word ‘apparently’, incidentally, I allude primarily to the press pack and the media strategy, rather than anything that can be discerned with the naked eye anywhere in Burlington House. Still, Hockney & Jones pronounced on the subject today, which must mean something, and in doing so seem to echo aspects of Hughes’ comments at dinner the other night. What, exactly, these massed ranks of luminaries mean to say about drawing is rather less clear, though, and the party line shows signs of fraying already. Hockney, oddly, seems mostly to want to talk about digital photography. Apparently, now that people have woken up to the fact that digital photos can be manipulated — true also of analogue photos, by the way, and ignoring the main point about photos, which is that in the present conditions of logocentric hegemony photos only ever mean what their captions say they mean anyway — there is once again a role for drawing. Which, is, err, because — what? Because drawings cannot be ‘manipulated’? Because they necessarily tell the truth? Because the best place to look for ‘truth’ is visual imagery?
Sadly, answer came there none. Nor did Hockney address a point raised by Hughes on every possible occasion — that ‘drawing’ in the RA context isn’t simply, as Hockney & Jones would have it, an ancient and innate form of communication, but rather, a field of technical knowledge and acquired skill, relying on teaching and practice and application, just like brain-surgery or higher maths. But then Hockney has spent the last few years trying to pretend that a little machine, not years of hard slogging in David’s studio, informed the hand and eye of Ingres — while never really addressing the fact that Hockney’s own work with an improvised camera obscura did not exactly match up to that of his infinitely more capable predecessor. At the same time Jones, for his part, seems positively to distance himself from the idea of drawing as the product of nurture rather than nature:
We are not making a plea for a return to some kind of Never Neverland of yesterday. We are just saying that drawing is a fundamental form of human communication.
In other words, drawing is quite nice, but if you can’t actually draw, don’t worry about it, because it doesn’t really matter that much. Those marginally nearer to St Paul’s Cathedral than I am may, if they listen carefully, hear the sad sound of Sir Joshua Reynolds flipping about convulsively in his grave.
The other great innovation, incidentally — because these days, it’s important to sell an exhibition on the basis of novelty, rather than dull and contentious points such as quality — is that Hockney, in his wisdom, has decided to change the colour of the walls. Usually, for the summer exhibition, the walls are painted a soft white. For special exhibitions, of course, they have adopted every colour under the sun, as anyone with happy memories of the Aztecs exhibition, the Frank Auerbach retrospective, The Genius of Rome etc will doubtless recall. But today they are … beige. According to Hockney, ‘White makes you see all the edges of everything. If you tone that down, the edges are softened.’ Sadly, we never really learn why soft edges are better than hard edges, or indeed why the proper colour to achieve this desirable end turns out to be something so very like white. But according to the catalogue essay, this is ‘in itself evidence of the Academy’s continuing desire to move with the times without doing injury to time-honoured traditions’. In other words, don’t worry — like the edges, the choices here are all soft, too.
Paint a vulgar picture
But of course, no matter how I drag my feet, one of these days I’m going to have to start writing about the art. Upon entering the exhibition, the first big splash is made by a huge work by the late Sir Terry Frost, far away at the end of Gallery II. And this introduces another minor theme, depressing in its own way, of the exhibition. There are, frankly, quite a lot of works by recently-dead Academicians, including Lynn Chadwick, Philip Powell, Colin Hayes and Patrick Proktor. But who wants to criticise the work of the recently-dead? The Frost is, at best, an oddity. With its immense size, multiple canvases and clunkingly awful red-and-black palette, it does not look like a ‘Frost’ — in fact, it does not look like much at all, really, rather than a piece of insane and even pitiable hubris. One wonders whether it would have received a showing here, let alone such a prominent one, had it not been painted by a deceased artist who was also, by all accounts, a perfectly charming and much-missed human being. But then death works its own unpredictable alchemy on all sort of art here. In particular, some rather slight, silly, playful and frankly old canvases by Peter Procktor gain a funny little gravitas from the sad fact of what one knows about the hand that executed them. But the late Lynn Chadwick’s work is as pointlessly awful as it always was. Ditto those terrible slurry-textured daubs by the late Colin Hayes. Death is unfair and horrible that way, as well as obviously being undesirable in many other ways, too.
On the other hand, there are also some old friends about, very much alive. Ken Howard, for instance, occupies his statutory large swathe of Gallery I, with the usual recourse to Venice and pretty naked girls — all so predictable and well-groomed and dull as to elicit surprisingly Saatchi-inflected sentiments in the most reactionary of critics. But then there is a surprise, which is Wilko, a painting of a football match. Okay, so as football-based paintings go, it is hardly Nicholas de Stael. It’s not a great work. But all the same, it has an immediacy, a strange composition and a resolute sort of ugliness that reminds one that this is, indeed, the same Ken Howard who produced some of the best war-related painting of our times, including his grimly powerful recollections of British Army patrols in Northern Ireland during the late 1970s — in other words, an artist who, on a good day, not only has the technical means necessary to create strong pictures but also something worthwhile to say with those technical means. Where, however, is Kyffin Williams? As far as I know he is still alive and kicking. His conviction-laden Welsh landscapes have, for many years, been a predictable high point of this generally dismal scene. Please, if you see him, tell him to come back. He is much missed.
From here on out, though, it only ever seems to get worse. Hockney, for instance, seems to have awarded himself the best wall in Gallery III — probably the most important room in the Exhibition, as it is where the Pimms is served, and hence where people linger. But what to say about Hockney’s paintings? Let’s listen to Hockney: ‘They’re just watercolours, but you can see them right from the other end of the room.’ All of which is a novel approach to watercolour criticism, not to mention a gate at which a few other big names from times past — Blake, Rowlandson, Turner, Palmer, Cotman and so forth — fall speedily. Alternatively, if one adopts a slightly more traditional critical language — one that privileges clarity, limpid colour, a degree of naturalism and, yes, drawing over advertising-hoarding-type long-distance legibility — Hockney does not come out of the comparison terribly well. A bad sludgy sketch magnified to absurdly heroic proportions is only a bigger bad sketch. The Prince of Wales, who has two watercolours in the Exhibition, gets this right by not making enormous claims for his efforts, which in truth, while being perfectly decent holiday-type sketches of which we’d all be proud, are at the same time not major works of art. But anything as big as Hockney’s slapdash sketches courts a different level of criticism. And, well, if someone as charming as Hockney courts something long enough, by God, he’s eventually going to get what he’s looking for …
This, again, is depressing. Once upon a time, Hockney was a reasonable draughtsman. His English etchings of the 1960s deserve their place in the gentler corners of Pop Art history, while his beautiful, sexually intense poolside paintings of the late 1960s and early 70s should, by rights, give him the sort of stature as the chronicler of a particular time and place occupied elsewhere by Holbein, Charles Le Brun or Sargent. But when he stopped sublimating his personality beneath the superficial plasticene glamour of the Southern Californian super-rich, he stopped being interesting. This is, in itself, no crime. Most of us are not interesting; most of us would fail as Expressionist artists not simply because we have no talent, but because we have nothing particularly unique or distinctive to express. But to keep inflating a sagging reputation again and again, patching it here and there with a bit of PR or regional sympathy, is a recipe for seeing that reputation burst. Hockney should, now, stick to being a much-loved, generous yet basically non-productive figure like Sir Elton John, delightful for who he is rather than what he does. He’d be better at that. Actually, this Exhibition would have been better for it, too.
It’s yet another tradition of the Summer Exhibition that, around Gallery IV or so, some big names, often from abroad, take a turn. Almost always, it all goes horribly wrong. For instance, both Auerbach and Kossoff — neither of them brilliant draughtsmen by historical standards, yet still figures who come immediately to mind when one thinks about the state of drawing in Britain now — both turn in old, not particularly inspiring portrait heads, while some soft porn from Kitaj himself (not Allen Jones this time, although I’d challenge their mothers or even their dealers to be able to spot the difference) only serves to remind us all how grotesquely this small, illustrational talent has been inflated — largely, it must be said, through an inexplicable general willingness to take seriously Kitaj’s own increasingly ridiculous claims for himself. A Kiefer nearby manages to be both glitzy and dull at the same time — auto-pastiche done badly — while Tapies, to his credit, is no worse than usual. So far, so bad. There is, however, one pleasant surprise. From Richard Serrra come a pair of imposing works — huge slabs of black paintstick rubbed onto textured paper. All right, it doesn’t sound like much, yet the overall effect is strangely grave, authoritative and silencing — more sculptural than the bad sculptures that dot the room — like a pair of doors to the Unknown, awaiting only the touch of the passing pyschopomp before swinging open to reveal — what? These works engage and persuade both because of their innate force, but also because they show us something that some of us, anyway, had not previously realised about Serra, which is his ability to work in two dimensions. The way in which they pulverise the Kitaj is perhaps the best thing in the entire Exhibition, their sheer weight grinding that simpering triviality into well-deserved oblivion.
From here on out, though, everything dissolves into mostly ghastly incoherence. There’s a terrible pair of Stations of the Cross [sic] by Damien Hirst, where the usual protagonists are replaced by sheep. Witty, eh? Theologically profound? Anything else of interest? Well, no. Gallery VIII was curated by Anish Kapoor, on the other hand, and constitutes another momentary flash of pleasure. There’s a reasonable Sol LeWitt which makes a point, of sorts, about drawing, as does a slightly over-exposed Julian Opie digital display showing a woman walking. Kapoor himself provided a strange sculpture, shiny and deep red, like a large blood-clot. The plastic surface lacked, to my eyes anyway, the sensuality of some of his other saturated or reflective surfaces elsewhere, yet standing above it, looking down, was an experience that lodged in the mind after most of the rest of the show had begun, delightfully, to recede from consciousness. The best thing in Gallery IX is a huge female head by Jenny Saville, complete with all the lushness, intricacy and engagement one has come to expect from her work. Unlike those terrible Hockney watercolours, this painting seems not only to occupy fully the space allotted to it, but actually to press out from it into the world beyond the picture plane, as if the two-dimension surface could’t quite hold all those luscious roses and reds. Finally, Gallery X includes the obligatory paintings by Roy Oxlade and his school, loose and impassioned and vaguely interchangeable, without which no Summer Exhibition would be complete. It is with a sense of relief that one rushes out to the Gift Shop, with its cat-emblazoned cocktail napkins, china mugs and address books. Twelve more months until it all begins again!
The art of … err, can I get back to you on that?
Meticulous consumers of press releases will, however, take me to task for failing to mention the most intensely hyped feature of this entire event. Once again, it relates to the ‘drawing’ theme. Does that sufficiently explain my lack of interest in describing it? Oh well, if not, here goes. In Gallery VI, the gimmick was to invite a group of non-artists — medics, scientists, sportsmen, that sort of thing — to provide drawings for the Exhibition. I suppose this was meant to make some sort of point about the naturalness of drawing as a means of communication, even though one might reasonably prefer, say, one’s surgeon to have a degree of learning in addition to his basic human impulses. These drawings are mixed in with more of the usual stuff — a bad-natured anti-war doodle by Gerald Scarfe, a particularly poor bit of scribbling from Tracey Emin, you know the sort of thing. Yet, reader — well, I have a confession for you. Actually I hate gallery press releases and can rarely bring myself to read them until I am safely back at home, staring at a blank iMac screen, wondering why I agreed to write this review in the first place. Hence when I encountered Gallery VI, I had no idea that there was anything out of the ordinary about it. I did wonder what a lively little sketch by someone called Clive Woodward was all about, but as I know nothing about sport, and care less, the name didn’t ring any bells whatsoever. And this, in a way, says something about the limitations of the whole ‘drawing’ theme — actually, about art per se as it is understood by the people who organised this Exhibition. Drawing, it seems, doesn’t have to be beautiful to be art — it doesn’t have to afford us the comfort of an insight, however specious, into someone else’s mental world, or to simulate some sort of spiritual experience — in fact, it doesn’t even have to be conceived as ‘art’ at all by its creators or consumers. Rather, all that is required for this aesthetic transubstantiation is an accredited priesthood, a sacred space and the right words intoned over it at the right moment. (Sadly, I remain an unbeliever.)
I realise, though, looking back at what I have written, that I have left something out. I have written about the experience of attending the Summer Exhibition press view. What I have omitted is the very obvious fact that this, of course, is by no means how most people experience the Summer Exhibition.
Critics versus real life
For me, the Summer Exhibition means striding past that ugly fountain in front of Burlington House as the clock at St James’s Piccadilly chimes out the hour into a bleak morning sky, wandering empty-handed through those endless empty rooms while the film crews and the hacks circle around whatever Famous Figure is being offered up to their appetites, consumed with a mixture of boredom, regret and solitary melancholy about the state of this strange, rather artificial practice I have come, over the past decade or two, both to love and to loathe in more or less equal measure. But if I turn up again on Saturday afternoon, what will I find? The rooms will be full of happy middle-class people dressed in their gallery-going best. They will drink Pimms and lemonade, and will rush across the colourful crowded spaces to greet and kiss and beam at each other, pleased to have been spotted doing something that redounds so unambiguously to their credit. Of course they will say how awful the art is — but they do this every year, because it gives them the chance to recycle Brian Sewell’s comments which are, after all, far wittier than anything they could have produced unaided, and also because it shows their superior understanding, their failure to be taken in by the patent silliness that surrounds the whole art establishment.
Yet at the same time, paradoxically, they will not see any contradiction in buying two or three things for the house. Most of their purchases will, as ever, come from the larger and smaller Weston rooms, where the prints are displayed, densely packed from floor to ceiling, as in the Academy of one or two hundred years before, although a few will venture a room or two onwards, to where the paintings hang. What to buy? Figurative images, yet freely executed, to give them the requisite ‘artsy’ look, depicting either (a) holiday destinations, (b) plants or (c) cats. Why these three categories of the natural world constitute the desiderata of nice middle class people is a subject that, frankly, detains fewer doctoral students than it ought, but the easy answer would be this — what else do such people love? And certainly it would not do to buy art for its purely aesthetic or formal qualities. What matters is subject matter, where the depicted becomes a fetish invoking and retaining the actual — well, that and the fact that it would look good in that awkward little space in the front hall, right before the door to the pokey little loo with the draw-string light and the faintly dusty carpet. The little red dots will multiply on the walls like symptoms of some rapidly-transmitting disease. No matter how bad they are, most of the works will sell, with the Royal Academy taking a one-third cut and banking the proceeds. It happens every year.
What these decent, harmless people will not do, however, is equally significant. They won’t, for a start, buy any of the works by big-name artists. Why not? Well, for a start, virtually none of them are for sale — David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Jenny Saville, Damien Hirst, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, R. J. Kitaj — the list could go on and on, although to her credit, poor Tracey Emin does not feature on it. I expect this has something to do with the unwillingness of the grandest galleries — Marlborough, Gagosian and so forth — to demystify their activities with anything as vulgar as a non-negotiable, non-discriminatory, totally transparent posted price. But for the normal punters, posted prices are in fact one of the great, if largely unconscious delights of the Summer Exhibition. Simply put, prices transform the relationship between the thing-on-the-wall and the person-looking-at-the-thing. Art, with all its esoteric language, hermetic ritual and mysterious taboos, continues to make most of us feel a bit uncomfortable. Are these arts people making fun of us, we wonder? What should we be feeling? If we don’t feel anything, does that mean there is something wrong with us? But shopping, on the other hand, is something we all understand. There is no mystery, ultimately, in a Birkin bag or a pair of Georgian houses in St James’s Place, except that we know we cannot afford them; our cash gives us the ultimate thumbs-up prerogative when perusing a display of nearly-interchangeable trainers; in the midst of even the darkest depression, the acquisition of a handful of Rococco chocolates or an overpriced art magazine reassures us of our continued ability, no matter how frail and faltering, to influence the world beyond us in a discernable and, perhaps, even a pleasurable way. So by ‘commodifying’ art in the most shopping-mall-literal sense, those price tags strangely give people back a sense of control, of leverage and of connoisseurship, that other exhibitions tend to deny them. Somehow coming home with a 10 x 10 cm woodcut depicting a malformed and boneless moggy puts one on better terms with all the baroque bombast, post-impressionist pomposity and contemporary incoherence that will buffet one over the weeks and months ahead. This, then, is also part of the annual ritual.
The other thing the punters will not do, finally, is to let their own vociferous complaints about the art on show — the strain of dross overload, as well as the strain of endless beaming, that will line their faces by the time they leave the building — put them off coming along next year. For in the end we are left with the simple fact that, simply put, the Summer Exhibition is — well, the Summer Exhibition. Semper iadem! To say that the art is rubbish, that the hang is full of silliness and so forth mostly misses the point, which is that the Summer Exhibition is, for all its faults, a feature of the traditional British year. One might as well suggest that the Boat Race should be free to include different universities with better crews, or point out that the going at Ascot is generally slow and boring, or that the food at Oxbridge feasts is rarely as good as one might expect in a reasonable London neighbourhood brasserie. To view the Summer Exhibition as being mostly about art is to ignore the obvious, impeccably materialist point, which would instead underscore the social function of this bizarre, time-hallowed, unsinkable event — the rows, the fuss, the stinking reviews and all. In our bleakly Tory hearts we know, anyway, that all change is inevitably for the worse. For all its depressive ghastliness, for all its failure to be as good as it probably ought to be, the Summer Exhibition occupies a place in the basic scheme of things, the importance of which we shall only discover a few years after someone finally manages to shut it down — and then, alas, it will be too late to learn from that terminal mistake.
See you next year. I can’t wait — can you?
The Summer Exhibition continues at the Royal Academy from 8 June – 16 August. Tickets cost £7, plus an unknown price for the little Catalogue listing artists, titles and prices. Concessions apply.