Entertainment & Arts

RA's Summer Exhibition: A sprawling exhibition of varying quality

Image copyright Benedict Johnson
Image caption The show mixes pieces from unknown and known artists

The Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition has run uninterrupted since 1769, showcasing the work of professional and amateur artists together in a quintessentially British exhibition.

BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz takes an illustrated tour of this year's show.

The academy has whittled down 12,000 submitted art works to 1,200 for its 2014 show, it's a sprawling exhibition of varying quality.

Rule number one in the exhibition-making manual is to start well with a strong room of good work. It reassures the visitor, gives him or her confidence.

Rule number two is: Don't show too much stuff.

The RA's Summer Exhibition has heeded the first, and - by design - ignored the second. The quantity of art on display is great, the standard patchy.

The show does start well with the RA's Central Hall exhibiting work by newly elected Academicians.

Yinka Shonibare's Cake Man II - yours for £162,000 - takes centre stage. The life-size mannequin is bent forwards, balancing a leaning tower of cakes on its shoulders.

Image copyright Benedict Johnson

The figure is dressed in Shonibare's signature colourful African fabrics, topped off with a globe for a head, decorated with stock market graphs. The sculpture is elegant, its message heavy-handed.

Bob and Roberta Smith, Conrad Shawcross and Chantal Joffe are all represented in the room, but the standout pieces are by the newly elected Honorary Academician, Marlene Dumas. The South African-born artist has two small head portraits - Helena and Scarlett. Both are excellent, neither is for sale.

Image copyright Royal Academy
Image caption Helena by Marlene Dumas

Turn left and you enter a room of black and white art curated by the artist Cornelia Parker. There's plenty to enjoy in here - not least a break from the chromatic cacophony of the rest of the show. She said she wanted to present work by artists whom she feels ought to be Academicians, like Ryan Gander, Fiona Banner and Martin Creed.

Image caption Artist Cornelia Parker is the RA's chosen special curator for this year's show

Their pieces are fine, but the one that caught my eye was a tiny pencil drawing hidden behind a giant placard by Bob and Roberta Smith. Unlike almost everything else in the room, this is not a work that Cornelia Parker commissioned or selected from friends' studios, but one she chose from the open submission.

It's called Haywain After Hieronymus Bosch and is for sale at £2,000, It is by Rowan Fuggle, an artist who appears to be a graduate from the The Ruskin School of Fine Art in Oxford. I grabbed this photo of it on my phone...

Image caption Haywain After Hieronymus Bosch by Rowan Fuggle

Next door, a mighty red inkjet print by Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tilmans blows away the black & white vibe. Greifbar 1 (£102,000) is one of the German photographer's large abstract colour-field images. Stand up-close and it appears sensuous and fragile, but seen from a distance it becomes powerful and bold. Either way, it's very good.

Image caption Tilmans's red inkjet print gives a different impression depending on how near or far the onlooker stands

Tilmans is not the only German making a splash with a large abstract work. In the huge Room III Gallery, two of the big daddies of German Expressionism are having something of a face off. On one side of the room there is a large, half painted, unusually delicate canvas by George Baselitz (£370,000).

Image caption Anselm Kiefer is another German artist with work in the show

Directly opposite hangs a massive impasto painting by Anselm Kiefer (not for sale) called Kranke Kunst ("sick art" or "diseased art").

It's not often that the two artists are hung in such close proximity, a curatorial stand-off that started with their controversial joint commission at the 1980 Venice Biennale, where one of Baselitz's statues was interpreted as giving a Nazi salute.

On a lighter note, there are a couple of small watercolours by the actress Una Stubbs, called Benedict and Martin respectively. They are of her fellow Sherlock stars Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch.

They're not marvellous, but they are fun - and that's allowed, even at the Royal Academy.

Image copyright Royal Academy
Image caption Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, as painted by Una Stubbs

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