Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2023 review

The latest iteration features 1,600 works spread over 13 rooms

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2023 
A ‘random jumble sale’ with moments of genius
(Image credit: David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts)

Every year since 1769, the Royal Academy has hosted a Summer Exhibition, a “cave-of-wonders-cum-candy-shop-cum-car-boot-sale of works by known academicians and keen members of the public”, said Laura Freeman in The Times. And, as the saying goes, “it is what it is”. This latest iteration, stewarded by watercolourist David Remfry, features some 1,600 works spread over 13 rooms under the “happily vague” theme “Only Connect”. As ever, submissions are open to anyone, everything is for sale, and its scope takes in almost every conceivable artistic medium. While it doesn’t represent much of a departure from the standard format, it is markedly “less manic than usual”, and aside from “the odd nod to climate change or BLM”, it is significantly lighter on politics than recent outings. There is so much to see here: one moment you’re looking at an “inflated sculptural beetle”, the next, a piece juxtaposing floor plans for Notre-Dame cathedral and a Second World War German battleship – laid flat, they “look much the same”. Or you can admire a “balloon dog” wrapped in Tunnock’s Teacake foil. The tone is largely upbeat: this is a show with “all the fun of the fair”.

“In a show of 1,613 works, there’s always going to be plenty to admire,” said En Liang Khong in The Daily Telegraph. A case in point is a painting by Frank Bowling, a veteran Royal Academician: up close, it is “a cauldron of gluey detritus and bubbling Day-Glo pigments”; from a distance, however, it becomes a “sublime” vision of sunshine in a woodland glade. Elsewhere, there’s Kara Walker’s “satisfyingly spooky” ink drawing “The Omicron Variation”, in which a moonlit figure in a ruff “raises her hands over the still outlines of a kneeling child”. For the most part, however, the content here is either trite – witness a “huge fibreglass model of Donald Trump’s flattened head” – or simply “bloodless”. Much of it, I’m sorry to say, is “art on autopilot”.

True, it’s “a random jumble sale of mostly anodyne art”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. To its credit, however, it isn’t pretending to be anything else: “you can look at a work, for once, without anyone telling you why it’s Both Important And Urgent”. Even the silly works are often fun and, every so often, “something grabs you”. Comedian Joe Lycett’s Hockney-ish painting “I Drink a Crisp, Cold Beer in a Pool in Los Angeles While Gary Lineker Looks on in Disgust”, for instance, is both amusing and “accomplished”. Better still is “Oratorio”, an extraordinary work by Paula Rego: “a heavy old wooden cabinet opened up to reveal violent, sexually charged, unresolved scenes painted on its interior and doors, while a gang of grotesque dolls within stare you down”. It is that rarest of things: a genuine “modern masterpiece”. “Mediocre” as most of this exhibition is, there is more than enough to celebrate here.

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Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020-7300 8090, Until 20 August

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