The Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, which runs until 16 August, is such an established perennial that it is easy to forget just what an extraordinary event it is. Staged annually since 1769, it is the world's longest-running open submission art exhibition and this year about 10,000 applicants have been winnowed down to 1,200. This great bazaar, where Sunday painters hang alongside Royal Academicians, is inevitably overwhelming, often infuriating but never less than entertaining.
This year's exhibition is no different. The slight changes — a film room for the first time and a revamped architecture room — do little to damp down the visual cacophony. The exhibition has a nominal theme, "making space", but it is pretty meaningless. The only way to approach this vast hotchpotch is to meander around it and see what catches the eye.
Two of the most striking pieces are from honorary RAs: Anselm Kiefer's daunting Tryptique, a forest of tree trunks, some painted and some real saplings; and Cy Twombly's The Rose (III), one of his huge, dripping flower paintings. Kiefer's textured work is an updated version of one of Gustav Klimt's close-cropped beech woods but with an overlay of menace, while Twombly uses the liquidity of paint as a literal and effective metaphor for that most hackneyed of ideas, the transience of a rose in bloom.
The RAs themselves — there are 120 of them and each is allowed to exhibit up to six works — rather pale beside their guests. The likes of Anthony Gormley, Michael Craig-Martin and John Bellany all play safe with pieces that stretch neither artist nor viewer, while Tracey Emin exhibits a couple of typically maladroit works. Basil Beattie, however, shows more imagination. His No Known Way and The Sight of Night are pared down, near-abstract suites of landscape in flat tones of brown that show the receding lines of roads, railway tracks and horizon as if he were painting the empty American West as seen in a rear-view mirror or through the last window of a train. Images of great simplicity, they also invite viewers to make up accompanying stories.
I liked, too, Marcus Harvey's Gloria Mundi, a deflated leather football in bronze, and David Remfry's Pictures from Storyville, a nude girl elegantly drawn from the feet end with clusters of tattoos picked out in watercolour. If I had to pick just one work, however, it would be an untitled portrait by the non-RA Nadia Hebson. The subject, a slim woman with a weather-reddened, mournful face, is dressed in a sheer blouse and sits in a hilly landscape. There is the smack of Northern Romanticism about the picture, a mixture of rawness and otherworldliness. Among all the amorphous wafts of colour or calligraphically-precise depictions on the Academy's walls this modest oil on copper portrait has a startling clarity of vision.