Azara Blog: Royal Academy Summer Show and Surreal Things exhibition at the V&A

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Date published: 2007/06/16

The Royal Academy's annual Summer Show has now opened. It is of the usual standard, with some good works (mostly not by Academicians) and quite a bit of dross (quite often by Academicians).

The Academy forecourt has a few large, rusting, steel animal cutouts by the Chapman brothers. This was the first (but by no means the last) work in the show this year whose price was listed in the catalogue as "* (Refer to Sales Desk)", i.e. if you have to ask the price you can't afford it.

Many Academicians take the Summer Show as an opportunity to ask a silly price for some silly work. After all, some sucker might fall for the bait. In the first room there is a mediocre (and that is being kind) self-portrait by R B Kitaj for £125000. And Gary Hume had four works in the second room, and another in a later room, all made out of an aluminum backing with some scrunched up plastic stuck in various arrangements (yawn), at prices ranging from £45000 to £70000. If you have more money than taste, then these artists would be happy for you to visit the Summer Show.

As usual, the Large and Small Weston Rooms not only had the most works of art on display, they had more interesting stuff on display than in the rest of the exhibition. This year the outstanding example was a large portrait by Chuck Close, with the strange title "Lucas Paper/Pulp", a "stencilled handmade paper print" in an edition of 50 at £23000 each (so not cheap). Sasa Marinkov also had a couple of interesting woodcuts (at a much more reasonable £255/£385, both in editions of 30). And Mark Clark had his by now customary three works (the maximum by a non-Academician), as usual all nudes (£195 for the two smaller ones, edition of 120, and £285 for the larger one, edition of 75).

The best painting in the show, as it often is, was by Douglas Hamilton Fraser (an Academician), entitled Beachscape II 2007 (and sold already, no doubt even before the show opened to the public earlier this week). There was also Beachscape I 2007, which was pretty good as well. Unfortunately Hamilton Fraser seems to also do silkscreens these days (three out of six this year), which do not capture the mood nearly so well as his oil paintings (but given that they occur in large editions at modest prices make him a lot more money overall).

The architecture room was fairly standard this year as well, with the usual suspects (Rogers, Foster, etc.). Only there were no private houses and not even much in the way of housing at all. But lots of art museums, public buildings and commercial buildings. Nothing really stood out that much, although of course Richard Rogers Barajas Airport in Madrid won the RIBA Stirling Prize this year.

By the time one has finished the architecture room one is normally starting to have had enough, which makes it convenient that the worst rooms in the show are the rooms after this, because one can get through in good time, and this year was no exception. Gallery VIII was easily the worst in the show, but with only seven works on show, who cares.

David Mach seems to have found his great niche in life, cleverly composing images out of thousands of bits of copies of a single (totally unrelated) photo (four works this time around, each at £25000). He had one of the few interesting works in the later rooms.

Meanwhile over at the Victoria and Albert Museum the "Surreal Things" exhibition is in its final five weeks. Surrealism was the first art movement which successfully managed to take the piss and make money from it. The surrealists also seemed to be even more screwed up sexually than your typical artist, and to boot many of the men seemed to be misogynists (just witness the mannequins on display). But in spite of this, the exhibition is worth seeing (and the catalogue is also good).

One of the most interesting aspects was seeing how some surrealists were harking back to the Art Nouveau period (e.g. a wonderful console by Emilio Terry, with palm fronds as legs). And although much of the stuff is just plain silly, it was also interesting to see how a rather boring work by Joan Miró is transformed into something quite good by being made into a tapestry. Indeed, textiles seem to be the best medium for surrealism.

There was a British fan of surrealism by the name of Edward James. He wrecked a perfectly good Lutyens house, Monkton, by giving it a surrealist makeover from 1930 . But James also was a patron of Dalí and the latter developed the idea for the Mae West lips sofa while staying with James at his house in London. (And it was good to see that the V&A did not miss an obvious trick. There was a reproduction of the lips sofa on sale for a mere £1000 in the exhibition store.) And James commissioned a cute plaster and glass light fixture with a pair of hands holding the light globe (designed by Nicolas de Molas), and also commissioned a fine surrealist tea set from Royal Crown Derby (supposedly designed by Dalí). (A reproduction of the tea cups and saucers were also on sale in the exhibition store.)

Another interesting architectural contribution to the exhibition was an apartment designed by Le Corbusier for Carlos de Beistegui on the Champs Elysées in Paris in 1930. This is around the same time that Le Corbusier was working on the Villa Savoye near Paris, and one can easily see an overlap of ideas used in both buildings, including the odd surrealist feature (particular on the roof). But for some reason de Beistegui chose to have neo-Baroque furniture, which completely clashed with the pure Le Corbusier lines.

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