The Royal Academy (RA) Summer Exhibition had run interrupted for 252 years; in 2020, the trend was broken. Determined to keep the exhibition alive, the RA prepared to open the newly retitled ‘Winter Exhibition’, but on November 5 2020, the second lockdown came into place, the institution was forced to close, and thus the virtual tour was born.
“At the RA, Summer is a state of mind, not a time of year,” they say on their exhibition page. They add, “If art has taught us anything over the past months, it is that it can act as a global symbol of hope, offer individual moments of solace, and create much-needed daily distractions from the enormity of our new situation.” Considering how many exhibitions have been cancelled due to lockdown, the mission of this hugely respected institution – to bring the exhibition to art lovers at home – does not go amiss.
Within the virtual tour, the viewer is taken on a continuous journey through every gallery. The camera pans across each wall and zooms in to a select few pieces, and artist details are provided in a caption. The virtual exhibition provides a chance to examine every single work of art, from traditional paintings to sculptures, digital, and mixed media works.
The RA’s virtual exhibition serves to remind us, in a way, that all viewing experiences are individual, and perhaps how lucky we used to be to examine art at our own pace. No two people would walk through an exhibition and be drawn to the exact same set of works, but unfortunately this is something we do not control in the online exhibition. However, every work is interesting because it’s caught on camera. There is no avoiding sections of work because there’s people standing in front of them, and there is no glancing quickly around a room and walking straight
through because nothing grabs your immediate attention. The RA’s video tour is slow and deliberate. It makes you pay attention in a way you might not have before.
There is a particular emphasis this year on the abstract and the political, a product of a contemporary time that has been incredibly tumultuous. Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Vier Plus Eins’ (Gallery III) resembles a deadly Pollock piece. On top of a messy background made from emulsion, oil, shellac, acrylic, metal and other materials, five numbered wooden scythes cut vertically through the horizontal canvas. Its rust-coloured palette is reminiscent of blood, and the camera zooms in incredibly closely (closer than a viewer feasibly would be able to get), enough to see the frantic impasto texture, invoking something raw and visceral in the viewer.
Grayson Perry’s ‘The American Dream’ (Gallery VII) is a complex blue and orange commentary on the anxieties of social media. An omnipresent Mark Zuckerberg sun-creature shoots out arrows labelled with adjectives such as FEAR, RESENTMENT, and SEETHING. He overlooks a map of America overloaded with current societal concerns (SOCIAL JUSTICE, CLIMATE CHANGE, HIPSTERS, HETERONORMATIVE, and others). The RA has never shied away from overtly politicised art, and it’s a blessing that we get to see their selection from this year.
The exhibition would still be better in person. This goes without saying. But with what the Royal Academy has provided, we are in a much better position than expected – that is, a position where we can look at fantastically curated galleries for free. We are adapting to new ways in which we view and enjoy art, and the RA have taken a step in the right direction, reinventing one of the biggest annual exhibitions in the country.