The Art of the State: 2020 Exhibitions Part One

I guess it’s unlikely (Tier 4) that I will see any more exhibitions before and so a year that began with Jarman and Freud didn’t continue with Van Eyck, Chagall and Astrup … but did manage to include Munch.

I got my money’s worth out of my Art Fund card, just about, and Tate membership and the RAA card makes life a little easier, but you need to be fast to catch the members’ previews.

I have a top ten which is — go figger — a) subjective and b) only mentions artists once.

The Tate was perhaps a little underwhelming — Blake works better on the page than the wall, Beardsley didn’t quite do it for me, Warhol is Warhol and Turner is showing us mostly what we ought to be able to see for free. Dora Maar just got edged out.

I also seem to be rubbish at writing exhibitions up.

2020 Exhaustive and Yet Probably Incomplete List Here / 2020 theatre here

The Top Ten

10 Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul (Royal Academy of Arts)

Say what you will about Emin, but her works make second rate Munch look fantastic. I must come back to this — the paintings weren’t all bad, but I got more Cy Twombly than Munch. You never know, I might get to see this again in Oslo.

9 Quentin Blake: We Live in Worrying Times (Hastings Contemporary)

The rebranded and presumably refunded Jerwood had a Burra et al exhibition I missed and I returned to see if I liked Victor Pasmore any more than last time (spoiler: no). At the heart of this exhibition is Blake’s Guernica — and, no, that isn’t meant to be a joke. I was in tears.

8 British Surrealism (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Dulwich rather oddly twins twentieth-century exhibitions (mostly) with old masters and this brought together some familiar names and some people I’d never heard of. Endlessly fascinating, but shame about the other viewers. (Who say the same about me.)

7 Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age (National Gallery)

A talented pupil of Rembrandt, who goes in his own direction. I went back several times (it was hidden in the ground floor galleries) and later spent time with his work at the Wallace Collection, the Ashmolean and the Queen’s Gallery, Buck House.

6 Rembrandt’s Light (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Dulwich sometimes ventures back pre-1900 and this was a stunning display of the ten years of Rembrandt climbing to his height. You could argue that Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb didn’t need buggering about with by adding a fake dawn lighting effect, or hold out and see it in much brighter light at the Queen’s Gallery. This just about edges out the Ashmolean Young Rembrandt and individual paintings at the Wallace Collection and National (London and Irish).

5 Leon Spilliaert (Royal Academy of Arts)

A stunning, overlooked, Belgian artist, whose work I must have seen in Brussels, and who would be worth a trip to Ostend for (where there are works by his crush James Ensor). I suspect overlooked because he did watercolours rather than oils.

4 Derek Jarman: Protest (IMMA)

I went to Dublin to see this — and nearly kicked myself as it was going to Manchester in April. Should have left it for the spring…. ha ha ha haha (etc.). They seemed unbothered that the catalogue had yet to be published, but having seen it I’m glad I didn’t have to carry it home. I spent a couple of hours going around it and returned a couple of days later. If I’m honest, he’s not a great artist, but he embraces multiple styles and is very moving at times. There was a small exhibition at The Garden Museum, with mainly late work and his gardening tools.

3 Bridget Riley (Hayward Gallery)

I think Riley was one of the first artists I saw, when I started going to see exhibitions more than twice a year and I was still wondering if actually I like design rather than art (see also: Ben Nicholson, Piet Mondrian.) This was a major retrospective, although I suspect I’ve seen most of them before. Like Rothko, she is an artist to surrender to. I can take or leave the spot paintings and, indeed, her colour work, but the stripes are the thing. However, I did like the cartoons — some of which were shown at one of the Mayfair Galleries.

2 Davie and Hockney: Early Works (Towner Gallery)

There was a retrospective of Hockney’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and some contemporary works at a Mayfair Gallery — although the Lightbox single room in Woking gave a better sense of his range. Indeed, I think you could easily do three or four major coherent surveys and only repeat some of the sixties works. But this Eastbourne exhibition edges ahead because, in a rare move, I was accompanied by a friend, and I’d assumed Hockney would wipe the floor with Alan Davie in the same way that Munch did with Emin. In fact, it was probably a score draw, and I almost got the sense that Jarman had tried not to be Hockney and ended up more like Davie.

1 Artemisia (National Gallery)

The exhibition that nearly wasn’t, thanks to COVID. One of the key early woman artists and it is easy to be drawn in by the horrors of her rape and the subsequent trial — but there is a solid career and a canny businesswoman at work. We were perhaps a little short changed by few portraits included — her bread and butter — and the altarpieces are a little off, but almost every picture is a masterpiece. I hope it reopens, but I fear not.

Eavesdropping

Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age (National Gallery, London)

Tucked away on the ground floor of the National Gallery has been an exhibition devoted to Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693), an almost industrial producer of portraits – some 900, apparently – but earlier in his career better known genre pictures. In fact, such is the divide, that some critics have suggested there were two artists on the same name.

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The Young One

Young Rembrandt (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn has all the makings of a tragic hero — with perhaps his fatal flaw of pride. He seems to have a meteoric rise — but as with the tulip bulb market, the bottom fell out and he, overstretched, crashed. He gets up to a couple of nasties — but that is a tale for another day.

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Barbikane

Tangerine Dream: Zeitraffer (Barbican Music Library, 16 January-2 May 2020)
Trevor Paglen: From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ (The Curve, Barbican, 26 Sep 2019—Sun 16 Feb 2020)

BoardSo, the Barbican – aka the alcohol-free concert hall – was heaving and so the slightly complicated but with good sight lines for a rendezvous foyer turned out not to be a smart move. Especially when Dennis was playing havoc with the trains. But that didn’t dissuade the thousands of people who had descended for a wellness fête (and who were queueing in their hundreds for the ladies loos hidden in the bowels of the building).
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Etches at an Exhibition

Edvard Munch, Love and Angst (British Museum)

img_7864This is a slice of Edvard Munch’s career — one of my top five favourite Norwegian artists — between about 1890 and 1910, which perhaps doesn’t make sense without knowing the rest of his career. For a start, there is a Norwegian habit of repeating the same motif in a way I’ve not seen with other artists other than Picasso. Munch has several paintings of Puberty or The Vampire, for example, and this raises questions about whether he is obsessively exploring a theme, seeking out the perfect version, displaying artistic unity or exploiting the design for maximum revenue. Or all of the above.

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Figuring It Out

Face to Face: The Figurative Sculpture of Sean Henry (The Lightbox, Woking, 12 August-5 November 2017)

I first knowingly encountered the sculptures of Sean Henry on a day trip to Newbiggin by the Sea with the Aged P. Faced with the problem of being a north eastern coastal town — and the last pub before Norway not being necessary nor sufficient — they turned to Art and commissioned a giant double statue, Couple, to be placed in the bay, an implicit answer to whatever question was being asked by a certain northern angel.

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HisWorld and Welcome to It

Terry Pratchett: HisWorld (Salisbury Museum, 16 September 2017–13 January 2018)

I’m always a little agnostic when it comes to exhibitions about writers. What is there to show? There was a little confusion when I was writing a critical book about an author as to whether I was writing a biography, and his agent contacted me with the reasonable objection that I hadn’t talked to anyone he knew. I corrected the confusion, but not before the author asserted that he wouldn’t object to a biography.

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Meh Fetishism

Seeing three exhibitions in one day was a mistake, but two were about to end and the third was next door to the first so I booked slots for Their Mortal Remains and Into the Unknown and shouted at the Science Museum website for not having the complete list of tickets. I allowed about two hours for the first — not enough as it happens — and booked at five for the the Barbican, which would give me an hour to do Robots and an hour to get across London.

I reckoned without the Victoria and Albert Museum’s crappy signage — it would be helpful to know the toilet is on a staircase and not easier accessed — and the Science Museum’s layout — the main lifts are out of action and you have to navigate around the block from lift B to the exhibition (not that lift B is obviously signed from what I assume are Lifts A and none of them have labels).

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Underground, Overground

Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights (People’s History Museum, 25 February-3 September 2017)

I had a bit of a mooch around this, although I think that I spent an hour in here. It is an interesting example of history from below, curated by members of the Manchester LGBT+ community, which I suspect meant that things were selected that might otherwise have been missed. It also meant that there were overlaps between sections and probably gaps. There was probably more stuff from post 1968 than pre-1968, but it was good to see a copy of the Wolfenden Report. There were posters, badeges, photos, fanzines, newsletters, tickets and so on.

It was hard to navigate, although perhaps it made sense to have a section on protest and another on Queers of Color, even if Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners weren’t in the former section. There was a front page of a tabloid covering Sue Lawley’s experience of a protest on the Six O’Clock News but a photo of four of the five lesbians who abseiled into the House of Lords. The context for this, Clause 28, is explained elsewhere with a copy of Jennie Lives with Eric and Martin, the book that triggered Tory homophobia.

I suspect the last thing that you are likely to see is a timeline, from 1533 or thereabouts, to the present day, noting significant moments in LGBT+ history and law. The temptation is to go round again, slotting everything into its rightful place, restoring the master narrative. Perhaps this needs to be avoided? Perhaps you can’t separate issues of ethnicity and suffragism out from each other, although the exhibition does. I think I would have placed this first, or on the way in.

For the third time this year, I saw some Claude Cahun photographs — in two parts of the exhibition — although this was clearer than the Sidney Copper Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery in suggesting Marcel Moore took them. Like the other two exhibitions, they insisted on naming them by birth name or deadnaming them. Did this need thinking through? Is it different from an artist going by a name other than their birth one?

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Meanwhile, upstairs in the main gallery you can see the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners banner. There’s also a group of photos covering the 1970s and 1980s music scene in Manchester, which overlapped with the queer communities. I overheard a group of young men discussing Queer as Folk and being nostalgic about its depiction of Manchester “even though I wasn’t there”.

I suddenly felt very old.

Alibis

Matisse in the Studio (Royal Academy of Arts, 5 August-12 November 2017)

A few years ago, Tate Modern had a large exhibition of Matisse’s paper cut outs and collages — making grand claims for his having invented the form and ignoring Mrs Delaney and various Bluestockings in the process. I was more impressed by a smaller show (I think an Arts Council Collection tour?) I stumbled upon in Berwick whilst on a Lowry trail. It was impressive, but I realised that I had not knowingly seen a Matisse oil painting.

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