The Great Spectacle at the Royal Academy of Arts
As you might have heard, the Royal Academy is celebrating its 250th birthday this year. As well as a fancy extension and a Summer Exhibition curated by the inimitable Grayson Perry, the RA is also celebrating with an introspective exhibition about the history of the world’s longest-running annual showcase of contemporary art. Held each year without interruption since 1769, the history of the Summer Exhibition is also in part the history of British art. The Great Spectacle charts the development of the event through its ups and downs.
The work is displayed in a set of elegant rooms that are not usually used for showing art, and the fireplaces and ceiling frescoes act as a constant reminder to consider something that the Summer Exhibition has always embodied: context. Traditionally densely hung with paintings reaching up to the ceiling and jostling for space with their neighbours, the annual show has always sought to give a sense of the general state of art being made at the time. This means that it has previously been the home to some of the most daring art being produced, from Turner’s most cutting-edge paintings to Millais’s earliest Pre-Raphaelite works.
In the late Victorian era, however, it all went a little wrong, with the Academy coming to stand in the popular imagination for a long time as a symbol of conservatism and isolation. The exhibition addresses this by including some works that were rejected from the annual show, but the idea could perhaps have been explored more fully. If we’re honest, the Summer Exhibition never quite threw off that reputation (although this year’s incarnation certainly makes an admirable attempt), and the inclusion of works from more recent decades serves to suggest primarily the event’s ongoing identity crisis.
Nevertheless, this rather serious show makes an interesting counterpoint to Perry’s totally mad Summer Exhibition across the corridor, where bright colours and humour abound. The Great Spectacle acts as an important reminder of the Royal Academy’s legacy and of the history of institutionalised art in Britain.
Photo: Matthew Pull
The Great Spectacle is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 12th June until 19th August 2018. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.