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2012 The Hang

With around 1,300 diverse works of art needing to be displayed each year, the Summer Exhibition is both a logistical and curatorial nightmare. The so-called “Academy Hang”, in which two-dimensional works cover the whole wall from about one metre above the ground to just below the ceiling, is not a deliberate display choice but rather the only way that everything can be accommodated in Burlington House’s fourteen rooms. The task for the Hanging Committee, which can range in number from seven to sometimes twelve members, is made even harder because the exhibits can vary in size from a postcard to several square metres, include anything from architectural models and sculptures to paintings, prints, photographs and video, and encompass both the abstract and figurative, the traditional and cutting edge.

It has become commonplace in recent years for the overall Summer Exhibition Coordinator to have a particular curatorial vision or focus for the show and for individual Committee members to give a visual identity to the rooms they are responsible for hanging. Yet the reality of the process means that any initial vision has to be modified, sometimes radically, during the two weeks of the hang. A large part of the problem is that the Royal Academicians (RA) and Hon. Royal Academicians are entitled to submit up to six works each year, as long as they don’t exceed an overall square meterage. These works have to be placed somewhere, so, even if the Committee members want to highlight particular forms or approaches to art and architecture, they must also include a very diverse and often distinctive group of exhibits that have not come through the selection process.

Sculpture also causes a problem for curatorial integrity. Invariably, the number of sculptures submitted via both Sculpture RA’s and the general submission is far greater than can be accommodated within the designated sculpture gallery. Three-dimensional works, therefore, have to be included in almost every room, and while this can enliven the hang, it can also disrupt vistas and visual relationships.

Explore the 2012 catalogue

As the RAs and their hangers seek to give visual sense to this diverse mix of styles, practices and media, a degree of horse-trading takes place. Some works can only be hung on certain walls because of their size, while some need to be hung in particular rooms because the artists have been specifically invited to participate by the RA responsible for its hang. Consequently, over the course of the hanging fortnight, the Exhibition is in complete flux, with works moving from one room to another as deals are struck; submitted works that have got through to this final stage and previously propped against walls waiting to be hung suddenly disappear and are edited from the final selection. Only on Sanctioning Day, the last day of the hang, is everything fixed, with the whole Committee signing off each room. From that moment, nothing can be moved or changed.

While it can seem that the final display is a case of “hang them high and close”, the reality is very different. During the three years I spent closely observing the process while writing the texts for the Summer Illustrated, it was fascinating to watch the care and attention given by each RA to the visual connections in their individual rooms and across the whole. Accommodations may have been made, less than perfect solutions may have been chosen, but visual considerations were always paramount. Connections between disparate works were always being sought; echoes—or sometimes clashes—in colour, form, pattern, or apparent subject matter were constantly cultivated to guide the visitor through each room.

And yet, however much care and consideration is given during the hanging of the Exhibition, there are always criticisms. Art critics invariably judge the Summer Exhibition as though it should have a curatorial uniformity, despite this being impossible. The other RAs can sometimes be even harsher. There will always be those whose work has been “skied” (placed just beneath the ceiling where it can’t be properly appreciated), hung badly, in the wrong company, or in the wrong room.

For all of these reasons and more, Tess Jaray hesitated for some time before accepting the invitation to be the Coordinator of the 2012 Summer Exhibition.1 The criticisms were the easiest to deal with: she knew they would happen, and that one could do nothing about them. She was more concerned with how to give the show a sense of visual and curatorial integrity, when its very purpose was to be as diverse, democratic, and hospitable as possible.

Jaray came up with four solutions to some of the Exhibition’s essentially unresolvable problems. First, she employed colour to bring a sense of unity to diversity. She had the walls of Gallery III painted dark grey (Fig. 1), and the Wohl Central Hall painted red (Fig. 2), not only as a “wave” to Matisse’s painting, The Red Studio, but also because John Singer Sargent had once said that: “red was the only true colour to hang paintings on”.2 Not only did the individual works stand out dramatically against the colour, but it helped to unite their disparate styles.

At the same time, rather than trying to completely overcome the diversity, Jaray celebrated it, not only encouraging young and emerging artists to participate—reflecting her own background as a teacher at the Slade—but also inviting a large number of overseas artists to submit work. Although she knew that her ambition couldn’t be fully realized, her intention was to “represent the best art being made across the world”.3

Finally, to fully embrace the democratic nature of the hang, she not only mixed sculpture, architectural models, and paintings in Galleries V, VI, and VII—breaking down the separation of media so that common threads could be found—but she also transformed Gallery III into an installation that resembled one of her own works. Creating an enormous shimmering wave of paintings around the room, she brought together small exhibits by professionals, amateurs, artists young and old, RA and non-RA alike, to present in a single striking expression of what makes the Summer Exhibition so visually unique.

  1. During the course of 2011–2012, I was writing a book with Tess Jaray and had many conversations with her about the Summer Exhibition and her ideas for it. These observations are based on these conversations and the introductory essay she wrote for the 2012 Summer Illustrated.↩︎

  2. Tess Jaray, “Introduction”, in Tess Jaray (ed.), Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2012 (London: Royal Academy of Arts Publishing, 2012), 8.↩︎

  3. Jaray, “Introduction”, Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2012, 8.↩︎

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Explore the 2012 catalogue