As my editor will confirm, I will usually do everything I can to avoid writing about the Royal Academy’s summer show. Not just because it is such a tawdry event, full of such average art, or because the displays are so crowded and higgledy-piggledy that you cannot actually see if the art is better than average, or because most of the country’s best artists (Lucian Freud springs to mind, and Damien Hirst) are not academicians. Those are all factors, but the chief reason I avoid it is that I always end up saying the same things about it. It’s always lousy. It doesn’t change.
Just recently, however, things have been happening at the academy. The tectonic plates are shifting. The departure this year of the RA’s brilliant exhibitions secretary, Norman Rosenthal, after 30 years of inspired show-making has rid the institution of its only big hitter. Conversely, the arrival of Charles Saumarez Smith was terrible news. Smith’s tenure at the National will be remembered by me as the Hello! era. For it was on his watch that merchandisers began promoting the gallery’s holdings with cringe-making reworkings of the covers of the magazine. Anyone who has this much difficulty distinguishing between democratisation and banality is a dangerous man to have at your table.
While all this is regrettable, and bodes badly, the summer show itself has been showing signs of life. The unveiling of David Hockney’s extra-large Yorkshire landscape at last year’s event was one of the pleasures of the summer. I didn’t much like the painting itself, and regretted, as I always do with Hockney, his fondness for childish colours popularised by the Xerox machine, but watching him use the occasion to promote his appalling views on smoking was an object lesson in the skilful acquisition of potency. Like Rosenthal, Hockney is an instinctive lawbreaker, and every society needs men of his cut. Indeed, the RA needs more of them.
The greatest weakness of the summer show is not its bad art, but its irrelevance. For reasons that are too complicated and historical to go into here, the event ceased long ago to matter a fig. Its mood is plucked from an early Miss Marple story. Its artists are the nation’s also-rans. Its pertinence vies with that of a boater. White, middle-class, middlebrow and allergic to progress, the summer show caters only for the out of touch. But you know all that. We’ve been saying it for years. So why might this year’s event be different?
Chiefly because Tracey Emin has been given a room to herself, in which she displays a selection of works by her friends and her. Say what you like about Emin, but she walks the walk. The qualities she brings to British art – lippiness, sexiness, fractured femininity, spiritual turmoil, hard-core experience of the other side of the tracks, total fearlessness, beautiful thinking, beautiful dreaming, a refusal to shut up, a refusal to go “normal” on us, an unshakable faith in art, a ton of experience with progressive techniques allied to a blossoming talent as a painter – are qualities the RA needs as desperately as a desert needs water.
Heaven knows what tempted her to join the academy when so many significant British artists – Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Freud, Frank Auerbach – have refused. Perhaps it was a hunger for respectability. Unlike most modern academicians, she already has a thriving and active career on art’s front line, and it would make no difference to her if the academy did not exist. For most RAs, the chance to show their work once a year in this great location in central London is the equivalent of an annual blood transfusion.
Emin, meanwhile, is constitutionally incapable of middle-browness. She just can’t do it. So, the deliciously outrageous display she has inflicted on the summer show is chiefly about nudity and sex. There’s even a sign outside warning visitors that some of the exhibits “may cause offence”. The “may” is optimistic. Miss Marple will run a mile at the sight of Mat Collishaw’s wonky pseudo-Victorian automaton, featuring a life-sized zebra having sex with a woman in what the title assures us is “the old-fashioned way”. Or the gory collages of that crazy Austrian proto-Emin Elke Krystufek, who pictures a menstruating mother inserting her fingers into herself and showing us the blood. The Israeli artist Sigalit Landau gives us a powerful video of a naked woman doing a Hula Hoop routine with a ring of barbed wire on a seashore. There’s a big gold painting by Gary Hume of a fuzzily gendered figure in underpants. And a lovely work by Emin, full of gentle pink hesitations, which finally reveals itself to be a reclining nude opening her legs.
For Emin, this is a return to form after her outing as Britain’s representative at the Venice Biennale, where she chose to indulge her timid side. Free-for-alls like the Biennale or the summer show are occasions for capital letters, not lower casings. Here, she manages to be noisy and sensitive at the same time. Her display stands out not just for its sizzling content, but for its sparseness. The usual rule at the summer show is for the works to be crammed together like urchins in a poorhouse. The revolutionary airiness of Emin’s selection, with each work given room to have an impact, must have filled the other academicians withdesper-ate envy. Bravo, Tracey. This is how art should be displayed.
The show begins gloomily with a gallery devoted to Ron Kitaj, who died last year. As one of those who took at a pop at Kitaj’s Tate retrospective in 1994, and was subsequently and ludicrously accused of causing the death of his wife, I happily admit that this brief resumé of his career looks significantly better without the book-length captions on which Kitaj insisted. Watching him is better than reading him. Still, I take issue with the claim on the wall that “there can be no doubt about Kitaj’s art-historical importance”. Yes, there can. He was an interesting pop artist. Full stop.
Emin’s selection and Kitaj’s memorial form islands of coherence in the usual sea of chaos. I was amazed to see a punchy pair of lithographs by Paula Rego embedded in the print section, featuring her new-found interest in the alcoholic degeneration of the older woman. One shows her vomiting into a toilet; the other sees her slumped comatose on a settee. Also among the prints, I admired, for the first time in my long career as a critic, the contribution of the RA veteran Anthony Green, who offers us a self-portrait chasing his wife around the garden reflected in a circle of hexagonal mirrors. It’s an audacious, inventive piece of printmaking. After countless revolutions through the many ages of fashion, I do believe Green’s cheeky mix of Benny Hill humour and Dutch exactitude is suddenly looking cool