Using words from E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, the 2023 Royal Academy of Arts ‘Summer Exhibition’ celebrates the notion of humanity coexisting ‘in fragments no longer’. Upon visiting the exhibition, now in its 254th year, one becomes intimately connected within a rich artistic tradition, standing in the very rooms where the works of Reynolds, Turner and Constable once hung. The theme ‘Only Connect’, chosen by co-ordinator David Remfry, acts as a powerful reminder that art is not a matter of now and then; each year since 1769, the collections displayed in Burlington House have connected the emerging and the established, the new and the old in vast collaborations of mediums and styles.
In a modern world of disunity and conflict, the Summer Exhibition offers a retreat at the heart of Piccadilly, a space for both reflection and innovation. Remfry writes in the opening passage of the exhibition’s catalogue that ‘connection is the only solution’, an ambition made achievable through the timelessness of art.
Remfry’s intent to connect the unconnected in the Summer Exhibition is undoubtedly clear, a motif captured in the unification of unrelated objects presented in Sir Michael Craig-Martin’s Interior (With Daybed). This bold acrylic piece introduces the idea of a modern world in paradox, simultaneously connected and unfamiliar. In an interview with the Royal Academy, Remfry addresses the issue of alienation in a modern world stating, ‘We have unprecedented ability to communicate, and we’re further away from one another than ever’. The duplicity of this statement aligns with the tension addressed throughout the exhibition, from Craig-Martin’s work to the monochrome screen-prints of Paul McBride.
Architecturally confined within the outline of the metropolitan cityscape, the faceless men in McBride’s The Shard by Night are arguably as impersonal and disconnected as the objects in Craig-Martin’s Interior (With Daybed); humanity coexists in isolation. Through drawing such comparisons when walking from room to room in the exhibition, the anxieties of the modern age are truly felt by the viewer. Through the development of social media, the world today is an inextricable web of cyber connections, yet do we really know our neighbour? This question is fundamentally rooted within the design and coordination of this year’s Summer Exhibition.
The Large Western Room houses a vast collection of architectural models and designs. This room, curated by Peter Barber, adheres physically to the theme ‘Only Connect’ while also offering a far deeper sociological meaning. Returning once again to the words of E. M. Forster, one could suggest that Barber curated the room to showcase the disjunct relationship between ‘the prose and the passion’ through the presentation of architectural scale-models where design and human life appear at a distance from one another.
For example, Barber’s own monochromatic work The Hyde, created using plain white card, appears absent of human activity; it is empty and clinical. This room powerfully captures a sense of alienation, the bi-product of urban living in the twenty-first century. This idea is presented through a piece entitled Cavalcade of Life: An Approach for Community Engagement in a Housing Project, Ahmedabad, India created by Sealab. This piece truly boasts the benefits of experiencing artwork in the flesh, rather than solely online. As shown in the image below, the creator effectively utilises two-dimensional cut-outs to powerfully show a building with and without human life. When viewed from above, colour, character and community disappear, only the emptiness of an architectural plot remains. The Sealab’s model, much like many of the works displayed in this year’s exhibition, simultaneously presents a world both connected and disconnected from humanity.
From architecture to the impressionistic works of Bill Jacklin, the Summer Exhibition presents a fear of the faceless man in a world evolving into anonymity. The Lecture Room presents visitors with a prophetic vision of an animatronic world, through the presentation of works such as Jemma Gowland’s Facebook Turns 18: Coming of Age in the Digital World. Gowland connects man to machine in an eerie presentation of porcelain adolescents, interpreting the theme ‘Only Connect’ from a new, futuristic perspective. The exhibition leaves one imagining the next link in the chain of evolution.
By walking from room to room in the Summer Exhibition or placing a red dot beneath an artwork, one becomes intimately connected within a creative project to rekindle man with man. Using the words of Bob and Sandra Smith, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, as the world’s oldest open submission exhibition, is a true embodiment of the phrase, ‘art is not interested in borders’; it strives simply to ‘Only Connect’.
Image credit: Suzannah Tostevin & Royal Academy of Arts