Hang-ups and put-downs

The RA's Summer Exhibition is a glorious celebration of amateur aspiration, writes Rebecca Fowler
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An imperious woman in a lilac beret surveys the paintings, shaded from the sweltering English sunshine, and points with a derisory smile to one of the more startling exhibits at the Royal Academy's 228th Summer Exhibition. It features a balding woman with large breasts surveying a bald bird with a large beak, and is identified only by the number 627.

"I've been coming for 40 years and it just gets worse each time," says Lisa Holditch, 71, with some satisfaction at a safe distance from the exhibit. "The type of work and the colours have become so much more violent, while some of them are just hysterically funny, and that one, well that one is just hideous. Then you look them up and see the prices and it's even funnier."

This is what makes the Summer Exhibition unique: each year the academy receives more than 12,000 entries, from Sunday afternoon painters to established artists, and a committee pick 1,200. They are squashed into the rooms at Burlington House in Piccadilly, where throngs of people survey the work of acclaimed masters beside unknown amateurs, often indiscernible from each other.

The offending work is by John Bellany, a renowned painter, a CBE and a Royal Academician. It is entitled Bounteous Sea (Triptych) and is priced at pounds 55,000. It invited as many enthusiastic hyperboles as scoffs yesterday, as the endless stream tripped past in Panamas and floral dresses, in jeans, with earrings through their noses, young and old, clutching glasses of Pimm's.

This year's cause celebre, Critic Kills by RB Kitaj, dedicated to his late wife who died of a stroke after a savaging of the artist's works at the Tate, must be strangely at home here. Because of the sheer variety and volume, no other exhibition lends itself less readily to the scrutiny of critics. It is the public who criticise, and it is also the public who buy these paintings.

There is also comfort to be drawn for aspiring masters from the fact that when John Constable persuaded the academy to hang the Haywain, an unusually realistic painting for its day, it was so badly received he was offered a price for the frame not the painting. It would fetch more than pounds 20m at auction today.

For its critics the exhibition has become nothing more than a tawdry jumble sale, an overcrowded selection of works that are overly traditional and fail to represent progress in art. But for its followers, it is the one date in the artistic calendar on which artists have an almost equal chance of showing their work in one of the most prestigious galleries in Europe.

Gill Hutchinson, an economics lecturer in London, says: "I've been coming to the exhibition every year and I think this is the best yet."

Of course, the exhibition will never fail to invite derision: there are simply too many exhibits for it ever to succeed on purely artistic grounds. But as an institution it is a glory, a mishmash of the good, the not so good, and occasionally the great, and more so than ever the possible greats of the future.

It is also one of the rare occasions in which the toffs do not offend. Instead white-haired men in flowery shirts and floppy hats, who might have been destined for the army, stroll through the gallery enthusing about art; the sweat pours off them cheerfully in the famous Weston Rooms where the smallest paintings hang as crowded as any football terrace; and people are not what they seem.

A crop-haired waiter serving the Pimm's is delighted to be asked his opinion. "Go and look at 1130. That's mine," he says. The waiter is Michael Gill, 26, an art student from Liverpool whose abstract work, entitled City III-Oil, is priced at pounds 1,800.

Sure enough his work of swirling blue, grey and brown images dominates a wall in the next room where it is being surveyed by visitors.

"I don't like it at all, maybe if it was smaller," says Ben Gifford, 32, a struggling artist. "I don't know what it represents, but the picture of the thing in the corner that looks like a fan is rather cooling on a day like this," says Pamela Patman, 51, a housewife from Woking.

The most enduring criticism of the exhibition remains the dominance of the Royal Academicians, who have the divine right to show six paintings, while outsiders are forced to go through the selection process. The Academicians' paintings often dominate and overshadow the works of commoners, who have fought tooth and nail for their few inches of wall.

"There are so few chances for unknown artists to get their works seen, and that is what makes this exhibition so special," says Sue Bell, 48, a caterer from Cardiff. "That was the original idea, that anybody could exhibit their works regardless of who they are. If you're an established Royal Academician you will get your works shown anyway."

Despite the claims that it remains traditional, elitist, and a hotchpotch of flower arrangements and fuddy-duddy old has-beens, the Summer Exhibition is a glorious celebration of the amateurish aspirations, and genuine achievement, where tomorrow's Haywain may hang beside august works and a painting of a pet spaniel.