Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2011

Installation view of the Royal Academy “Summer Exhibition 2011” (photo courtesy John Bodkin, DawkinsColour)

LONDON — With all the fanfare and hullabaloo surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee (celebrating sixty years as the British monarch) wrapping up this past Tuesday, I was reminded of another ancient British tradition that is taking place now, too: the Royal Academy of Art’s (RA) summer exhibition.

Begun in 1769, soon after the RA was founded, the summer show accepts submissions from Academicians (as the members of the RA are called) and non-academicians alike. William Blake, a student at the RA for a short time in the 1770s, had harsh words for Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Academy, referring to him as “Hired by the Satans for the Depression of Art.” But the worst that can be said about the summer exhibition nowadays is that: a) the salon style of hanging all the work from floor to ceiling is still a bad way to display paintings, and b) it’s just not as hip and cutting edge as, say, Frieze, the main London art fair extravaganza.

Michael Craig-Martin RA, "Desk chair"

Michael Craig-Martin RA, “Desk chair,” acrylic on aluminum, 78 x 78 inches (© Michael Craig-Martin, courtesy Gagosian Gallery; click to enlarge)

As far as b) goes, that can be a point in its favor. This year, the summer exhibition’s main coordinators are two very fine senior British painters, Christopher Le Brun and Michael Craig-Martin. Craig-Martin is represented by one of his characteristic paintings of furniture, done in a diagrammatic style with flat colors. One of the galleries curated by Craig-Martin is, for the first time, devoted solely to photography and includes a piece by “honorary RA member” Cindy Sherman.

I don’t know if anyone still considers it particularly an honor to be a member of the Royal Academy, whether permanent or temporary. But despite the annoying display format, there’s something touching about seeing work by Per Kirkeby, Tacita Dean and other art stars hanging next to the work of totally unknown artists. The fact is, the Royal Academy summer exhibition is like the Queen herself: ancient, somewhat creaky, but a venerable and permanent fixture that somehow reassures by the fact that it is always there, no matter the changes in political or social fashions.

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition 2012 at Burlington House (Piccadilly, London) runs through August 12.

Philip A Hartigan

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...