When one thinks of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, it is not photography that immediately springs to mind. In the 18th century, the exhibition, which has run every year since 1769, was restricted to history painting and swagger portraits by the celebrated artists of the day. Work by Reynolds and Gainsborough sat alongside landscapes by Turner and Constable, with smaller pieces by less well-known practitioners confined to the upper echelons of the gallery space.
Today the exhibition welcomes submissions from both emerging and established artists working in any medium, from painting, printmaking, film and photography to sculpture, architectural works and performance art. “Fellow artists! 2018 marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, so the Summer Exhibition will celebrate a quarter of a millennia of artistic innovation,” writes Grayson Perry RA, introducing the concept of this year’s show. Co-coordinator of the Summer Exhibition 2018, Perry decided upon the theme Art Made Now, to showcase the diversity of art being created in this moment and to celebrate the legacy of the world’s largest open-submission show. The remainder of the exhibition committee comprises Phyllida Barlow, Piers Gough, Allen Jones, David Mach, Chris Orr, Cornelia Parker, Tom Phillips, Conrad Shawcross and Emma Stibbon, and represents some of the country’s most eminent artists working today.
Summer Exhibitions of recent years have featured a selection of impressive photography, including work by the likes of Wolfgang Tillmans, Stephen Gill and Hassan Hajjaj. In 2014, Tillmans won the prestigious Charles Wollaston Award, marking the first time a photographic work was chosen for the prize, which is awarded annually to the most distinguished piece in the exhibition. Selected for his abstract work Greifbar 1, which means Tangible 1 in German, the image’s fleshy, sensuous aesthetic is palpable. Central to Tillmans’ practise is his ongoing exploration of the physicality of the medium and its possibilities for image-making outside of the conventional still. Greifbar1 epitomises this having been “created in the darkroom, without the use of a camera, using light and light-sensitive paper,” says the RA.
Despite its prestigious reputation, the Summer Exhibition also encourages submissions from less-established practitioners. Indeed one of the founding principles of the Royal Academy of Arts was to “mount an annual exhibition open to all artists of distinguished merit in order to help fund the training of young artists in the Royal Academy Schools,” and this is an ethos that continues today.
In 2016 the work of Paul Cliff, a BA photography student from the University of Bolton, was chosen for exhibition. Despite being dismissed by his tutors in favour of a project on hot tubs and trampolines, his surreal, long-exposure photograph, shot from a train window, captured the imagination of the exhibition committee. Depicting a lone tree in the midst of a blurred landscape, the image, entitled Pensarn – Llandanwg, is part of his project The Escape Train, which Cliff began during the first year of his Photography BA.
The idea for the series came after the photographer overheard a station attendant listing all of the stops for a train travelling to the most south-westerly place in Wales. Inspired to journey across the country, seeking out lesser-known places and interesting landscapes, Cliff looked into trains running throughout Wales. The photographer completed five journeys across most of the central and northern parts of the country, sitting on the right-hand side of the carriage, and shooting the people, places and landscapes passing by outside.
This year’s exhibition committee urges both established and emerging practitioners to submit work made in 2017 and 2018 that relates to the theme. Entries are judged democratically on merit and the final selection is made during the eight-day hang in the galleries. “I am also planning a special ‘Room of Fun’ in a newly built part of the Academy, so the committee may well look favourably on artworks that we find amusing,” advises Perry. With around 1200 works selected for public display and purchase, the Summer Exhibition offers a unique opportunity to showcase work in a world-leading institution.
With less than two weeks left to submit, find out more and enter the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition today.