For some reason I expected a sense of urgency. The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition has been directly hit by the pandemic – delayed until they’ve had to scribble “Winter” over its traditional title. The Academy itself is facing such financial chaos as a result of this year’s revenue loss it says it will have to sack 150 people, or maybe sell its Michelangelo. But if you arrive, as I did, anticipating a survey of the state of our harrowed souls, a great gathering of lockdown projects that take the rapid pulse of the time, you’re thinking of a very different institution. This place is more than 250 years old and, boy, does it feel like it.
The exhibition at least begins as if the artists have been watching the news. The first room recognises the year of Black Lives Matter with a gathering of black Royal Academicians including Sonia Boyce, Frank Bowling and Yinka Shonibare. The most arresting piece is Isaac Julien’s wall-filling photographic assemblage Lessons of the Hour, London 1983 – Who Killed Colin Roach? This history painting made of black and white photographs reminds you suffering and protest have a long story to tell. Colin Roach died of a gunshot wound in the entrance of Stoke Newington police station in 1983.
In the next room, a heroically scaled portrait by South Africa’s Zanele Muholi hangs next to a dreamy triptych of timeless lovers by Chris Ofili. Well, this was getting interesting. Was the entire show to be as fresh as this?
No such luck. Although this Summer Exhibition has been so delayed, the open submissions from artists were already in by the start of the year. And, while this year’s lead selectors Jane and Louise Wilson do manage to start with a nod to BLM, there’s almost no hint of the pandemic and its effects on art.
Maybe the surrealism of having a Summer Exhibition start in October is fitting, for much of this event feels out of time. It floats in an eternal summer Before Covid. There are several glowing paintings of Venice. It’s like being suspended in 2019 in a white fedora, putting your easel down in St Mark’s Square. But, since these Venetian views don’t add anything to those of Turner or Monet, it may as well be June 1914 and all’s right with the world.
I really hoped more artists would rise to the time. The usual haul of landscapes painted on holidays or in suburban gardens should surely have a new fervour and power as locked-down artists sought salvation in nature. But no. The array of skies and fields is as wishy-washy as ever.
There’s the usual crop of doodles by wannabes. For instance, a huge, crowded, fussy satire on America choked by little boxes of commentary like a nutty shopping list … oh I’m sorry, that’s by Grayson Perry. And I was wrong to claim no one is dealing directly with the pandemic. Bob and Roberta Smith has painted a sign saying: “There is still art, there is still hope.” What an inspiring nugget of wisdom that is.
So thank the gods of ancient Germania and Margate for Anselm Kiefer and Tracey Emin. They remind you how majestic and liberating art can be. Emin’s painting The Ship has urgency in every pummelled smear. At first it looks completely abstract. Pink and orange fight for space with a huge encroaching ocean of black. Then you see legs in the storm, and realise it’s not abstract at all. There are not one but two pictures here – an intimate private scene, and a painting of a ship in a storm. Triangular sails of bare canvas materialise under raised knees. Then the fiery glow of sky and vortex of dark water become recognisable as Emin’s homage to JMW Turner. Did she have herself lashed to a mast as Turner was said to have done? You can believe it. But the hints of a nude make it clear this is a storm of the inner life, a shipwreck of the soul. It’s a tempest in her bath.
What a painting. The only other work of art in the Summer Exhibition that gripped me anything like as much hangs opposite hers. The great German artist Kiefer shows at the RA every year – in this case a colossal golden canvas with real scythes fixed to it, seemingly moving towards you with lethal inevitability.
Emin and Kiefer always make art as if they are going to die tomorrow. Both their works have the apocalyptic intensity of our moment. The scythes are coming. The storm is here.
It is of course too much to expect that kind of inspiration from every artist all the time. The vast majority of art that gets made is at best ordinary. The trouble with the Royal Academy, throughout its 250-year history, is that it pretends otherwise. In reality, two blazingly sublime new artworks out of the 1,172 efforts here is a decent result.