Ask who are my favourite artists and the answer comes without hesitation: Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Ask who I think is the greatest artist of the last 150 years – great in terms of the overall quality of the work and the pleasures it brings, great in terms of its originality and influence – and I’ll turn slightly pale and tell you such a distinction is not only worthless but impossible. And then, when my arm is metaphorically up my back and the pressure is on, I’ll say, well, of course, it’s Cezanne.
The current show at the National Portrait Gallery [till February 11th, 2018] concentrates on the portraits (Duh!) which formed a significant part of Cezanne’s work, although he’s not, I think, primarily thought of as a portrait painter. What they illustrate is his growing confidence as an artist, his expanding love of colour, of the richness of paint on canvas, the mark, as he progressed from impressionism towards a burgeoning modernism that held within itself the beginnings of cubism – of Modern Art. And this without losing sight of the sitter, his or her individuality.
Without being (thankfully) of block-busting proportions, it’s a large show, with the works well-displayed and aided rather than, as if too often the case, detracted from, by the wall captions, which are clearly and sensible written, giving just the right amount and kind of information, avoiding the all-too-typical ‘art speak’ that mars far too many exhibitions with over-intellectualised gobbledygook.
Perhaps the most important single exhibition of the year, however, was Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern. Sub-titled Art in the Age of Black Power, and concentrating on work from the two decades following the struggle for Civil Rights, this gave a first showing in this country to a large number of black artists whose work had previously been overlooked, at the same time as giving a wider platform to painters such as Norman Lewis and David Hammons and the photographer Roy DeCarava.
The Place is Here, at Nottingham Contemporary, was the perfect companion piece to Soul of a Nation, concentrating as it did on the work of Black British artists during the 1980s, including Lubaina Himid’s “A Fashionable Marriage”, one of the pieces for which she was awarded this year’s Turner Prize.
American Art was generally well represented. America After The Fall at the Royal Academy and American Prints: Pop to the Present at the British Museum were absorbing surveys, in the case of the BM quite splendidly displayed. And both the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work at Tate Modern at the beginning of the year, and that of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy towards the end, were testimony to the breadth and seriousness of their practice. [Johns, he’s that bloke that paints flags, yeah? Well, look again.]
Amongst the other shows I visited during the year, these also stood out …
- Walhalla – Anselm Kiefer : White Cube, Bermondsey
- Wolfgang Tillmanns 2017 : Tate Modern
- The Discovery of Mondrian : Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag
- Revolution – Russian Art 1917-1932 : Royal Academy
- Alice Neel, Uptown : Victoria Miro
- States of America : Nottingham Contemporary
- Instant Stories – Wim Wenders’ Polaroids : Photographers’ Gallery
- Impulse – Pace Gallery
- Soutine – Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys : Courtauld Gallery