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Two Hundred and Fifty Years and Counting …

The Great Spectacle tells the story of The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, where, for the past two and a half centuries, the galleries have been filled with artworks submitted by artists from across the country. Key works have been carefully selected by the exhibition’s curators, Mark Hallett and Dr Sarah Turner, to demonstrate that as the world has changed dramatically, so too has the art and it focuses on moments when the Summer Exhibition made an especially significant impact within the British and European art world.

William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, 1883, Oil on canvas, 102.9 x 195.6 cm, A Pope Family Trust, courtesy Martin Beisly

Arranged in chronological order, the visitor is first greeted byby William Powell Frith, which demonstrates the huge (and enduring) appeal of this great spectacle. Society across both age and class is depicted, including the expert, who studies the paintings with the aid of a lens, as well the infamous celebrity, Oscar Wilde, viewing the crowded arrangement of pictures in Burlington House in 1881. It instantly reminds the onlooker of the role of the exhibition as a showcase where artists and architects could compete with their rivals for popular and critical acclaim – a prime opportunity for advertisement and self-promotion.

The theme of comparison and competition remains evident as paintings by Gainsborough hang adjacent to portraits by Joshua Reynolds and Turner’s glowing landscapes are hung alongside and contrast Constable’s work. The pictures are allowed to speak for themselves and it remains the role of the visitor to judge whose work is of the highest calibre and worthy of greatest praise - the talking points that have maintained the exhibition’s popularity over the last 250 years!

However, the public appeal of these masterpieces paled by comparison to blockbusters by David Wilkie, such as The Village Politicians, and Frith’s Life at The Seaside, where huge numbers of spectators had to be restrained and barriers erected as, in their enthusiasm, they attempted to touch the works on display. The popularity of such works led to their reproduction in editions of The London News or as mezzotints and etchings and truly made art accessible to the public.

Tracey Emin, There's a Lot of Money in Chairs, 1994. Appliqu�©d armchair, 69 x 53.5 x 49.5 cm. Private collection (c) Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017. Image courtesy White Cube

The ever-changing journey through history and British art continues to the present day with John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the author Henry James (famously slashed by the suffragette Mary Wood in the Summer Exhibition of 1914), Sir Winston Churchill’s Winter Sunshine (submitted under the pseudonym David Winter) and the iconic portrait of HRH Queen Elizabeth II by Pietro Annigoni also on display. The final gallery focuses on contemporary work such as Tracey Emin’s There’s a Lot of Money in Chairs and Michael Craig-Martin’s Reconstructing Seurat (Orange) and emphasises the diversity of the works on display, with the bright colours ensuring the display concludes with a light and optimistic feel.

Michael Craig-Martin, Reconstructing Seurat (Orange), 2004. Acrylic on aluminium panel, 187 x 280cm © Michael Craig-Martin. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Today the exhibition continues to feature works by distinguished painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and architects as well as up-and-coming artists and this year’s Summer Exhibition, under the curatorial stewardship of Grayson Perry, aims to continue to encapsulate the celebratory spirit that this festival of art-making engenders. Perry enthusiastically acknowledged the aim of his stewardship was to “play with a toy box of art” and continue to provide the public with the aesthetic and sensory overload associated with the traditional saloon hanging that is the Summer Exhibition. He has certainly succeeded!

John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1849. Oil on canvas, 103 x 142.8 cm, Courtesy National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

As the exhibition continues, the innovative style of the Pre-Raphaelites is epitomised in John Everett Millais’ painting, Isabella. Only 19 when he submitted the work in 1849, Millais had rejected the looser, bravura style of painting of his predecessors and returned to the glowing colours and abundant detail of Quattrocento Italian art. Literature inspired this painting and its importance is referenced in several other pieces, as is the effect of key historical events such as the sense of loss so evident in the gallery housing ‘Post-war Visions’.


The Great Spectacle

Royal Academy of Arts, London

Showing until: 19 August 2018

For more information CLICK HERE

The exhibition is running alongside the RA's 250th annual Summer Exhibition. Also on until 19 August. For more information CLICK HERE


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