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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

Summer Exhibition 2022: The Royal Academy


Exhibition Review: The Royal Academy, 21 June - 21 August 2022. Tickets from £20 - £22. Concessions Available. Book tickets here. #RASummer

Warning: Some of the images feature very coarse language.

[Disclosure: I attended the press day on 14 June for this exhibition for free, for the purposes of this review.]

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is the most democratic and fun artistic fixture in Britain’s cultural calendar. Each year, the Royal Academy puts out a call to artists, both professional and amateur, all over the world, to submit works for the Summer Exhibition.

Man Made Nature by Ben Edge in Gallery I curated by Bill Woodrow.

And, each year, the public responds by submitting an average of 15,000 works of art. The Summer Exhibition is the world’s largest open submission contemporary art show.

Partial view of Gallery V, curated by David Mach.

This year’s selection committee, made up of Royal Academicians, has chosen approximately 1,500 works of art to display. Each committee member has been given one or more rooms curate.

David Noble A Latere Extensa by John Humphreys in Gallery V curated by David Mach.

The exhibition is set in Burlington House’s entire upper floor gallery space – thirteen gorgeous galleries – a vast expanse – which has been lovingly curated by the committee members.

Gallery V, curated by David Mach.

The thing I love most about the Summer Exhibition is the feeling of walking into the beautiful spaces and being utterly overwhelmed. The Summer Exhibition is colourful sensory overload, in the best possible way.

Partial view of Gallery IV, curated by Grayson Perry.

Some years, the head of the committee choses a theme – and this year, committee head, Alison Wilding, has chosen the theme of climate. While Wilding makes clear that the theme climate isn’t just about crisis but encompasses climate in all its manifestations – it’s a bit of a tricky sell in my opinion. The theme of climate can be manipulated to mean almost anything – and indeed, the diversity of the subject matter on display stretches the idea of what climate means to breaking point.

Mickey Mouse Art by Robert Mach in the Wohl Central Hall.

In my opinion, the most successful rooms – that give the visitor that genuine hallucinogenic Summer Exhibition experience - are the two galleries curated by Grayson Perry, who has pretty much ignored this year’s theme.

Gallery VIII, curated by Grayson Perry.

Perry has unapologetically painted his two galleries, gallery IV and VIII bright yellow, which makes a cheerful contrast to the tasteful greys and off whites of many of the other galleries.

Gallery IV, curated by Grayson Perry.

Perry has chosen a hugely diverse and engaging range of work, arranging them together in a way that creates that joyous sense of overload. Perry has also chosen by far the greatest number of works of any of the curators and in his rooms, you will find works that challenge, engage, and outrage.

Partial view of Gallery VIII, curated by Grayson Perry.

Grayson Perry’s two galleries were by far my favourite galleries in the whole exhibition both for the quality of the works he chose and for the overall authentic Summer Exhibition experience he presents.

Salt, by David Mach in Grayson Perry's Gallery IV. Please forgive the reflections in this image.

Some Academicians tried to stick to the climate theme conscientiously – such as Conrad Shawcross who curated the Lecture Room. Yet, I felt strangely disengaged by the display. One of the walls of his large gallery is covered in pictures of clouds. My instant impression was of a cloud themed Pinterest board.

The cloud wall in the Lecture Room, curated by Conrad Shawcross - made me think of a cloud-themed Pinterest board.

The opposite wall is almost empty except for a big screen and two works tucked to the side of the screen.

The Lecture Room, the wall opposite the cloud themed wall.

One of those works, tucked away, is the extraordinarily beautiful Anthropic System by Emilie Pugh. It’s a strangely insignificant space to put such a significant work.

Detail of Emilie Pugh's Anthropic System, which is tucked away at the side of a large screen in the Lecture Room - which you can see in the photo above.

The Wohl Central Hall, curated by Alison Wilding, uses a special stand (which the RA calls a “ziggurat style structure”) to display small sculptures.

The display stand in the Wohl Central Hall, curated by Alison Wilding.

There’s usually a lot of cool stuff on this stand but this year it didn’t feel that fun. The cute pair of Courgette Shoes by Sandra Lane and the Mickey Mouse Art by Robert Mach (see picture above) saved the day.

Courgette Shoes by Sandra Lane in the Wohl Central Hall.

This year, for the first time, architecture, which is usually only in the Large Weston Room, has been combined with other artworks and has been given an additional gallery, Gallery II.

The Large Weston Room, curated by Rana Begum and Niall McLaughlin.

In theory, I think the idea of mixing architecture with other artworks is a great one – architecture is one of the artistic disciplines that has had to face the climate crisis head-on, and displaying architectural designs that address the climate crisis with climate-based artworks is rather brilliant.

Partial view of Gallery II, curated by Rana Begum and Niall McLaughlin.

For the most part, this new collaboration works really well though both galleries do feel a bit cluttered. It does disrupt the theme a tad when occasionally the two curators of the architecture space, Rana Begum and Niall McLaughlin, have thrown caution to the wind and ignored the climate theme to choose artwork that they just love.

Partial view of the Large Weston Room, curated by Rana Begum and Niall McLaughlin.

It is quite an abrupt change of pace when your eye, wandering over climate themed art and architecture, comes across the fabulous nude, Like a Cloud of Blood, by Tracey Emin or the rather beautiful portrait, Chiggywig, by Edwin Aiken.

Chiggywig by Edwin Aiken, in the Large Weston Hall. The strange angle of the photo is because the picture is displayed very high up.

However, I’m a huge fan of Tracey Emin’s work and I’m never going to criticise anybody for including an Emin in their galleries – no matter what the theme.

Like a Cloud of Blood, by Tracey Emin, displayed in Gallery II.

Gallery VI, curated by Alison Wilding, was one of my least favourite galleries. Gallery VI had comparatively few works on display and large expanses of strangely spaced empty wall space.

Strangely spaced empty wall space in Gallery VI, curated by Alison Wilding.

Many works in Gallery VI depict some of the most cliched climate crisis tropes.

Gallery VI shows a lot of cliches climate crisis tropes.

For me, Gallery VI was confusing, unchallenging and left me unexpectedly disengaged.

Endangered Species by Neil Carter in Gallery V curated by David Mach.

In the 1500 works on display there is a huge diversity of themes, subject matters, media and approaches. You will find work that you love and connect with and work that you hate and makes you angry. This is the joy of the Summer Exhibition. Giving yourself time to unpick your own responses to the work is such a rare and precious privilege.

Short Stories II by Jack Milroy in Gallery I curated by Bill Woodrow.

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition will be a special and blissful moment of artistic engagement in your year.


All photos © Catherine Flutsch 2022. Feature imageL Bad Lemon (Josh) by Kathleen Ryan, in the Large Weston Room.

If you enjoyed reading about the Summer Exhibition 2022, you may enjoy my post about the Summer Exhibition 2021, which you can find here.


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