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2015 Looking for the Narrative

Explore the 2015 catalogue

Since 1875, when the first attempt was made to illustrate as well as to catalogue some of the works in the Summer Exhibition, the Summer Illustrated has been both an essential, yet inevitably partial and highly selective, record of the Exhibition (Fig. 1). Although it has undergone a number of reinventions over the years, the constraints remain the same: time and the impossibility of representing every artist.

Since 1998, the design of the Summer Illustrated has largely followed the same format, with a representative sample of works hanging in each room shown. Over the course of the publication, every Royal Academician in the show will be represented by at least one of the works they have submitted. In addition, members of the Hanging Committee select a number of other works to include from among those submitted and invited, and finally there are a number of general installation and contextual photographs. Alongside the illustrations are text contributions, which have sometimes been written by critics, either as a general introduction or a guide to each room; the Senior Hanger or Coordinator may also write the introductory essay.

Figure 1

Pages from Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2015 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2015).

The process is highly collaborative, with each Academician reading the text commissioned for their particular room, and making comments and suggestions before signing it off. Unlike other Royal Academy catalogues, which are the responsibility of Royal Academy Publications, the Summer Illustrated is ultimately the responsibility of the members of the Hanging Committee, which explains the slight changes in format that have occurred over the years.

In 2015, however, changes were made to the Exhibition timetable that required a different approach. The decision was taken to move the writing process away from the two weeks of the hang, so that it was edited and signed off before sanctioning day, when the Hanging Committee meet to sign off the Exhibition, after which nothing can be changed. This allowed a longer introduction of 6,000 words to be written by a writer who would not only focus on the overall vision of that year’s invited “Curator”, Michael Craig-Martin, but also discuss the thoughts of the RAs responsible for hanging the rooms given over to specific media: Sculpture—Bill Woodrow; Print—Norman Ackroyd; and Architecture—Ian Ritchie. Reference was also to be made to some of the artists invited by Craig-Martin to take part in the Exhibition, including Liam Gillick, Jim Lambie, and Matthew Darbyshire, as well as the group of artists aged over seventy he had invited to show, whose careers, he felt, had been overlooked. In addition, special installations by William Kentridge, Tom Phillips, and Conrad Shawcross needed to be discussed.

In February 2015, I was approached by the Senior Commissioning Editor of Royal Academy Publications to see if I would be interested in writing the text for that year’s Summer Illustrated. The brief was signed off in mid-March and a deadline was given of early May!

The problem was how to create an informative, relevant text for an exhibition that had not yet been hung or fully selected. This was solved during my first visit to Craig-Martin, with the emergence of a number of themes that would become significant in the text. First, Craig-Martin wanted to challenge public perception of the Summer Exhibition. He believes that the Academy has undergone a quiet revolution in recent years, and he wanted the Exhibition to reflect this less conservative and traditional outlook. Second, where so many exhibitions are now shaped by a curator’s vision, Craig-Martin relished the fact that the Summer Exhibition is shaped by artists and is not underpinned by an overarching concept. What interested him about the show is that it is about the act of looking and an engagement with the visual. Third, he saw the Summer Exhibition to be educational: allowing visitors to learn to see and discover the richness of the visual. Fourth, he wanted the visitor’s engagement with the Exhibition to be a journey, moving from unexpected encounter to unexpected encounter, as works were glimpsed through arches or at a distance. He also saw this journey to begin on the street outside.

This idea, that the Summer Exhibition could be a journey of discovery into the visual, that taught visitors to look, was reinforced in conversations with Bill Woodrow, Norman Ackroyd, Ian Ritchie, Tom Phillips, and Conrad Shawcross, who each described the particular ways of looking demanded by their specific media and distinctive visual knowledge it offered.

From these conversations, the structure for the narrative became clear. It began with a discussion of Craig-Martin’s infamous An Oak Tree, an emblem of conceptual art usually associated with the theoretical turn in modern art which, I argued, was really a celebration of the visual. Quoting Sir Alfred Munnings infamous speech at the Annual Dinner preceding the 1949 Summer Exhibition, where he attacked modern art and said: “if you paint a tree, for God’s sake try and make it look like a tree,” I noted the irony that in 2015 the Summer Exhibition was being curated by an artist famous for describing a glass of water as an oak tree.1 As I wrote, “An Oak Tree becomes an exploration of the differences between the visual and verbal, or philosophical and practical approaches to our experience of being in the world.”2 Against expectations, Craig-Martin is clearly drawn to the visual and practical experiences of art. He wanted people to look at the visual qualities of the glass of water, rather than focus on the abstract concepts implied by the title.

The narrative then followed a visual journey through the Exhibition. It began on Piccadilly, before moving through Shawcross’s enormous Courtyard sculpture, noting the fragments of abstract blue and grey that could be seen through its skeletal structure. It then continued up Jim Lambie’s dazzling staircase (Fig. 2), before entering Craig-Martin’s brightly painted galleries. From Gillick’s corona painting the walls with coloured light, it then described the poetic, provisional qualities of printmaking, before exploring the physical three-dimensional nature of sculpture and architecture, and some of the other ways in which visual art can mediate our experience of the world, before returning back to Piccadilly, where I suggested that, having visited the Exhibition, we might see the world with new eyes; proposing that the Summer Exhibition was not old-fashioned and irrelevant but a radical place of visual education, hosted by an Academy committed to the act of looking.

  1. Richard Davey, “A Masterclass in Looking”, “ in Michael Craig-Martin (ed.), Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2015 (London: Royal Academy of Arts Publishing, 2015), 12.↩︎

  2. Davey, Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2015, 13.↩︎

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Explore the 2015 catalogue