Sky-high at the RA Summer Exhibition
by ANNA VAUX
The four piece steel band playing at the top of the stairs at the Royal Academy on Monday was presumably there to make us feel summer had arrived. And as luck would have it, it had. I thought the President of the RA looked relieved as well as warm when he announced to a crowd sweltering under the glass roof of the large main room that the sun always shines for the Royal Academy summer show.
This was Varnishing Day – or, more accurately, non-members varnishing day, when the selected artists and their guests get to see the show before it’s open to the public – so-called because in the days when you varnished the oil on your painting, this was the day on which you could go in to the academy and finish off. Turner used to put a drop of red paint in his varnish to make his pictures glow and to make those of his neighbours look flat and lacklustre.
I wondered out loud if this sort of thing still went on, if there was a modern day equivalent to varnish tampering, painterly doping. You have to watch the hangers, my RA friend told me, helping himself to a handful of mini cheese scones from a passing tray. I don’t trust the hangers. They can sky you.
RAs are supposed to be hung at eye level. This is important in a show where there is such a huge amount to look at. The President told us that 11,000 works had been submitted to this year’s show – and there are 1270 listed in the Summer Exhibition booklet. It’s hard to know where to turn, what to give attention to, even which direction to go when you arrive. I turned right, which is wrong, and came through the show backwards, looking for something to settle on, some way in to the exhibition.
My moment came in the Sculpture Room, which was airier and cooler than the others, with large works surrounded by lots of space, where I saw what must be a piece by Michael Landy: a red worker’s stepladder in the middle of the floor. Part of the fun of the summer show is guessing which works are by which artists, since the works on the walls are identified only by a number and you have to then source the number in the booklet. Michael Landy had a bin in last year’s show and I watched several people try to put rubbish in it. I noticed a small black m on one of the steps of the ladder, and an e, placed at an angle, as though it had slipped slightly. A Duchampian clue, I thought, though while I was looking for the number with which to identify it, a man in overalls came and wheeled it away.
I turned my attention to people watching – another fun part of the spectacle, surely. You can tell an RA by the huge gold medallions they wear on looped gold chains round their necks, like lord mayors, or pearly kings and queens. But Varnishing Day is the wrong day for people watching, it turns out. My RA friend, who had taken his medallion off, perhaps because it clashed with his braces, said people watching was tomorrow. I asked if that day had a special title. He couldn’t remember exactly. It’s the Glamorous Day, he assured me, brushing crumbs of meringue from his front and glugging back a large glass of Pimms.
After that, the fun is to look for the most expensive works of art – Zaha Hadid’s, perhaps (£450,000), or Gary Hume’s (£168,000). Looking for the cheapest pictures is not the same sort of fun – though flicking through the catalogue I saw plenty of work that seemed reasonably priced, provided I suppose, that you like it, or think it’s any good.
And is any of it any good? When Picasso showed at the Salon in Paris, he was asked how he thought his work looked. He said, it looks terrible, like everybody else’s, but the difference is I know why it looks terrible and they don’t. My RA friend told me that story, nodding towards the main room, filled with hundreds of works of art, all bathed in that famous natural sunlight. A steaming pile of horseshit, he said loudly. I assume he was talking about his own picture, which I now saw had been hung rather high up. Skyed, in fact.