How often do images of artwork remain with one long after going to the exhibition? I always find it to be a good test of how much I like a piece of art, how much it has spoken to me, and how it has become embedded in my mind.
I was thinking about this aspect of viewing art in relation, for instance, to the Summer Exhibition 2011 at the Royal Academy in London. I went to see this huge show in early June - it stays up until 15th August. Now, nearly six weeks after I saw the exhibition, I find that there are only a few of the thousand-plus works of art that remain fresh in my mind and still interest me. Naturally, as I invariably find, the art I like is seldom illustrated in any catalogue (let alone postcards in a museum)! So it is even more an acid test that I need to remember the artwork entirely without prompts, save for any notes or quick drawings I might have made at the time.
The RA Summer Exhibition, a selling exhibition, is a giant affair, with eminent Academicians in charge of hanging different rooms. Christopher Le Brun was the show's main co-ordinator; he operated under the thesis, "There are two ways of showing paintings. One is the classic orthodox hang with lots of space around every single piece. But here it's like a battle of the paintings - forty big pictures on one wall alone!" By contrast, Michael Craig-Martin, who curated another room, went in another direction. He explained, "Normally, the Royal Academicians are hidden among everyone else. I wanted to show their range and quality by focusing for the first time on RAs only, because there are lots of new ones and nobody quite realises that they have all arrived here."
Photographs, paintings, etchings and other prints, artist's books, architectural renderings and models, sculpture, drawings - the 1117 works gave everyone a taste of today's art. You need a few hours or several visits properly to absorb the diversity, quite apart from having to navigate the crowds which ebb and flow according to the hour. It makes the test of time even more demanding, in fact. But as I remember back, some works remain to delight me.
Frederick Cuming's large oils were a delight of subtle atmospherics, whose titles, "Crescent Moon and Sea" "Clouds Evening, Camber", "Clouds and Reflections" or "Dawn Garden, Frost" tell of his interest and skills in conveying almost abstractions that evoked northern climes. Later, I found his silkscreens, "Etna" and "Thaw", and promptly fell for them!
At the other end of the spectrum, a warm evocative abstraction in reds, "Window Screen Ajanta" took one far to the tropics - it was an oil by the late William Baillie. I have to say it was positively miserably hung, and almost impossible to view - shame on the RA for such a disservice to the artist.
In between, of course, there were the large and dramatic, the small and delightful, the ugly and strident, but more importantly, the gems. One, for me, was Edmund de Waal's "Untitled, 2011" white lacquered cabinet, hung on the wall, with clear laminated glass, containing 70 diminuitive celadon and white vessels. Discreet and elegant, interesting and evocative of so much history eastern and western in the ceramics world, I was not surprised that it was already sold. The other reason for my pleasure at seeing it was that the artist is also the author of one of the best books I have read for ages, "The Hare with Amber Eyes".
Another series of eight drawings, "Marks on the Edge of Space" were a fascinating use of conte, graphite and mylar by Ann Christopher RA. Layers, stainless steel rivets to attach them, use of shadows to evoke water, fields of grass, trees – so many plays of tone and shape to delight. Very sophisticated, lovely work.
There was another delight in the drawing section - a silverpoint. Small and quiet in its faintness, it was a lovely portrait, "Dulcie" by Dylan Waldron. Marvellous to find another silverpoint artist!
Of course there were many other stimulating or beautiful works of art at the RA. Nonetheless, the artworks which have stood the test of time for me and that come first to mind are, as I have mentioned above, but a handful. Of course, that is just my personal selection: vive la difference is definitely the operative phrase at a show like the RA Summer Exhibition. It is worth going to the exhibition if you are in London, for it is a good way of testing the pulse of a wide selection of British artists.