Let me take you on an experiential review of Savage Beauty – with videos, music and imagery – in an attempt to capture the splendour of this immersive fashion exhibition.


Though hailed the great painter of the Industrial Revolution, Lowry has been under much rhetoric of being an outsider, an overlooked artist and particularly one pushed away by the Tate. In fact, he has nearly always held a much more privileged position in British art than this view has supposed. He secured a national reputation in his lifetime from 1938, after being spotted by chance by a London dealer, and has rarely left Britain’s cultural eye since.

As a relative newcomer to Lowry’s works, the non-chronological, thematic curation of the exhibition made it more difficult to follow the artist’s career progression. This did in itself become an exciting quest, though, looking at dates and comparing the differences between his late and early work in each room. For instance, in some of his earlier work, such as ‘Coming out of School’ (1927) there is a misty wash over the painting, as though seen through a filter. There is also a flatness, as if the neatly rectangular buildings had been meticulously outlined and ruler-drawn in paintings like ‘Coming from the Mill’ (1930), without the deep perspective or depth of colour that seems to come into the later townscapes.

This exhibition begins with what the Tate deem Lowry’s most respected, smaller-scale works. There is also a room which offers comparisons between Lowry and the paintings of other ‘modern’ artists, such as Van Gogh, Seurat, Valette and Utrillo. Then there is a room  of paintings depicting domestic disaster, entitled ‘Street Life: Incident and Accident’. By the time you reach this, the third room, you feel as though you have seen certain images a thousand times – the rosy, red-brick mills and chimney stacks, with obedient crowds of ‘match-stick men’, precise rows of identical houses and the whitened park in the foreground. Like the cramped and monotonous life in the slums and industrial outskirts, Lowry’s vision is repetitive.

El Anatsui, TSIATSIA - searching for connection, 2013,  Aluminium, (bottle-tops, printing plates, roofing sheets) and copper wire, 15 x 23 metres.  © Benedict Johnson
El Anatsui, TSIATSIA – searching for connection, 2013,
Aluminium, (bottle-tops, printing plates, roofing sheets) and copper wire, 15 x 23 metres.
© Benedict Johnson

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, for a Summer Exhibition first-timer such as myself, is a bewildering experience. Now in it’s 245th year, it is steeped in history and an institutional event I really should have attended before. But how are you meant to go about digesting the chocka-block walls of artwork, the rooms filled with sculptures and models and paintings? How, in fact, do you negotiate the hoards of visitors each peering precisely where you want to peer?

I recommend attending with a friend, particularly an artsy and knowledgable one, with whom you have double the chance of recognising the famous paintings and double the body space to barge, nicely, into spaces. The little guide book that lists all 1264 of the works is essential if you want to leave thinking that you have any chance of remembering anything you have seen. Write notes, scribble, circle and star, so then at least you can look up all the artists later. I’d say take some sneaky photos on your phone, but that’s definitely not allowed and the stewards will get very politely cross.

The highlights, this year have got to be twofold: the impressive installation piece by El Anatsu covering the facade of Burlington House and Vanity of Small Differences, the class satire tapestries by Grayson Perry. You can go and see wall hanging just outside in the court yard, for free. Of course, the recycling of materials in art is a trope that has been regurgitated about as many times as we would probably need to recycle plastic to be anything like sustainable. But nonetheless, it’s an impressive spectacle.

Ruud van Empel constructs magic realist images, collating and editing photographs with photoshop to create eerie portraits, with afronting and innocent stares. The images are startlingly beautiful, especially in a era where ugly photographs of modern vistas have become normal. The pastoral quality and van Empel’s usual subject, black children, reminded me of a poem by William Black from his Songs of Innocence and Experience called ‘The Little Black Boy’. Both artists deconstruct the image of the white child as the traditionally innocent subject in western art.