The highs and lows of art in 2014: early on the Whitechapel Gallery scored a big hit with deco-haired Hannah Höch’s impressively hard-hitting collages, an under-valued figure operating with relative independence alongside the Dadaists and a clear precursor to the celebrated current collage work of John Stezaker. A palpable hit for feminist art history.
Aside from the recent blip of Maggi Hambling’s ‘Walls of Water’, or porridge painting as it should be called, the National Gallery has mounted one satisfying blockbuster after another, almost singularly due to its pulling power in obtaining loans of staggering quality and quantity for Veronese and then Rembrandt. These alone demanded to be seen, though the confidence that thus exuded itself threatened to undermine the shows’ academic integrity: curators claimed that one Rembrandt painting signalled the first use of the palette knife to blend directly on canvas. Cue the loud klaxon of DUBIOUS AMBITIOUS ART HISTORICAL CLAIM. But the National also demonstrated imaginative shows without loans: instead of lazily ambling through its permanent collections and scrambling together a disappointing squib as has happened disappointingly often recently (guilty: ‘Vermeer and Music’ aka store-cupboard curating), it successfully drew on its lesser known pieces to give a technical study with the left field ‘Making Colour’ that was illuminating, enlightening, and further pun-based praising.
It is also interesting that the National has changed its policy to allow photography, now regretting not having a work of Mona Lisa-level visual cliché to fulfil the inevitable daily quota of tourist selfies. But it still nearly chopped my hand off repeatedly for pointing at the works, which indicates clearly that two fingers bad, Smartphone good.
Tracey Emin managed to inflate herself to assuming the role of an auteur draughtsman at the White Cube Gallery with naïve drawings of nudes in crass and ill-disciplined manner, which some people somewhere evidently think is profound. Across town, Egon Schiele was blowing her crude and explicit nudes out of the water with his own collection of camel toes; the Courtauld display of his unflinchingly vigorous and disturbing nudes, rendered in savagely strong and angular hand, showed a cutting grasp and obsession with the power of the human body that left Emin’s withered sketchings flaccid and impotent.
The Royal Academy managed to straddle both chairs in both pulling in visitors for the interactive ‘Sensing Spaces’, equally an intelligent response by global architecture practices as a ticket-selling kiddie crèche, and fulfilling the older, more traditional crowd with the quietly magnificent Giovanni Battista Moroni survey not to forget the Anselm Kiefer exhibition. Then it ruined everything by filling its rooms with Allen Jones’s hideously outdated misogynistic women-furniture; certainly objectifying the female form in cartoonish, doll-like manner may have made a Pop art point back in the 60s, but the continuing credence given to an artist who continues to make the same stuff negates the original point as simply a fulfilment of his own fetishistic fantasies, which are in fact continuing to be indulged long after feminism gained more ground. It left a bad taste in the mouth.
The Tate similarly hit two extremes: Tate Modern found colour – the bigger and bolder the better – drew in the punters with Malevich and ‘Matisse: the Cut-Outs’, all featuring assorted single-colour 2D shapes in an infinite flatness, while Tate Britain had a bit of a barmy year with its crazy ‘Ruin Lust’ and ‘Folk Art’, studying the abstract/near indefinable concepts of destroyed art and folk traditions respectively, with suitably mixed and baffling results (leading to critic Waldemar Januszczak to sensationally demand director Penelope Curtis’s sacking.) These shows, though not entirely successful, make valiant efforts to do something new with the captive audience of exhibitions, and worked the little grey cells a darned sight harder than the floating, unchallenging kiddie-friendly coloured paper of Matisse’s cut-outs. Which brings me to the next point: apparently the Turner Prize happened this year and it was terrible. And apparently it’ll happen again next year, and it will probably also be terrible. The Tate was more interesting when it infuriated by setting itself weird curatorial challenges; with the Turner, it’s just going through the motions.
Bring on 2015.