Summer Exhibition 2023 | Royal Academy

This week I’m writing about the Royal Academy’s annual summer blowout, mainly because of the dearth of other shows to talk about in London right now. Despite the comparatively cool temperatures, we are deep into summer, meaning most of Mayfair’s commercial galleries are shut - ready to return in September.

So it’s time for a spin around the 1,500 or so works on display at Burlington House. Difficult as it is to summarise overall themes and impressions from such a wildly, designedly diverse show, one thing’s for sure: the atmosphere at the Summer Exhibition’s very different this year than it was in 2020, when I last wrote about it.

Back then, I was sad about the “miserably empty, near-silent” galleries, which could only be accessed via pre-booked timed visits, even for members. The show itself took place in the autumn, lockdown having been too tight over the summer. And many of the works, unavoidably, referenced the pandemic.

Marco Bizzarri ‘Outskirts’ (2023)

This time, you could walk right in to the galleries, press yourself into the crowds, and have a drink as you took it all in. Even the theme for this year, Only Connect, is un-socially-distanced. The hang on some of the larger galleries was notably more sparse than before, and I think the works in sum were less politicised, despite the pretty dire economic situation: I couldn’t spot any works referencing Brexit, for example, which has to be a first since 2016.

A single work to pick out, then, pictured above. It’s one that cut against the festive atmosphere. Marco Bizzarri is a Chilean artist who lives in London, and whose painting, Outskirts, high up on a wall of one of the galleries, caught my eye. It’s a semi-obliterated interior scene. White light tentatively makes its way in through the windows, through the outskirts, hitting crooked wooden floorboards but petering out by the time it reaches the centre of the canvas - and the room. What’s there? A formless black mass - perhaps a chair - perhaps a person.

The gloomy mystery of the scene brought to mind Giacometti’s late portraits of his wife Annette, glowering towards us in silhouette, face on, in a similar-looking room. Or perhaps Hammershøi, master of the withholding interior, distancing itself from us even as we look.

A lucky red dot was stuck below the frame. So, among the other 1,500 paintings, sculptures and prints, someone ignored the crowds and connections and bought Bizzarri’s ambiguously empty room for £15,000. Lucky them!

The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy. 13 June - 20 August 2023