Without doubt the best exhibition all year has been Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery. What makes a great exhibition is a fantastic concept, executed with diligence and rigour. The National has achieved the rarity of finding a new angle through which to explore an otherwise heavily exposed artist. This is something that can appear just naff if done incorrectly – see Tate Britain shows Ruin Lust and Art Under Attack. Yet it was a refreshing an illuminating re-examination of his work chronologically, avoiding breaking up the chronology with the usual cartoons > etchings of Los Caprichos etc. > dark disturbing periods. Also in its favour was diplomatic clout in securing no fewer than sixty works by Goya; there was no filler whatsoever. It takes balls to put ones, well, balls on the line and pick a slant so simple and thoroughly stick to it, without the need for nervously bolstering the cause using supporting artists or side theories. Well done uber-curator Xavier Bray, once again.
Also unsung but no less brilliant was the Royal Academy’s examination of Liotard. There are several parallels here: Liotard was a Swiss artist specialising in pastels and, again, in portraits. Where Goya struggled in some pieces, the many, many works here (gathered mostly from Geneva but also a staggering number from private collections) are uniformly perfect, precise and minutely observed. Each is a masterclass in technical skill, with breathtakingly difficult renderings of refraction, costume, reflections on all manner of surfaces. An absolute joy.
Yet while Liotard was so quiet one could enjoy the show at leisurely pace, the RA also featured Ai Weiwei downstairs, a queue for which was snaking around the courtyard and out the door on the weekend I went, well into its opening. I wouldn’t say it was the worst exhibition. But I find troubling its popularity given the seemingly bulletproof status Ai Weiwei now enjoys, free from artistic criticism. Everyone was instagramming the fuck out of each piece: everything looks great – just like the schools of Hirst and Koons – and yet I felt one could grasp its meaning with minimum brain power. I could spend the same amount of time I spent milling around the vast galleries with not much to mull over, as I could on one of the many portraits by Liotard upstairs. Alas, I seem to be the single person holding this opinion in a year in which everyone in the art world has fallen over themselves to worship at his infallibility.
I also chose to dislike Casten Holler at the Hayward, for which I went to the preview and enjoyed whizzing down some slides. It was also amusing witnessing several attendees stumbling over their heels inside the metal tubings which led into the gallery in pitch blackness. But is it art? A rather loud, resounding NO. Once again, the Hayward plays on our infantile need to be engaged by playful, simplistic superfunhappyslides and other play school activities.
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