This has been a vintage year for exhibitions, starting with “Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism” at Tate Modern and “Picasso and the Past” at the National Gallery. They turned out to be harbingers of what was to come, the first in a series of shows exploring pivotal figures and key movements in the transformation of twentieth-century art.
Tate Modern’s main show of the summer, “Futurism”, examined the art and legacy of the Italian avant-gardists who once said that they wanted to burn down the world’s museums, and who proclaimed that the sight of a motorcycle at full throttle was more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace. In the autumn, the same institution put on “Pop Life”, a polemical show which provocatively asserted that Andy Warhol should be regarded as the single most influential artist of the last fifty years.
Meanwhile, the Royal Academy staged a thrilling exploration of a seminal moment in the formation of modern British art. “Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill” told the story of the dramatic transformation of British sculpture, in the years immediately before the First World War, by three young artists from radically differing backgrounds. “Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites 1952-62”, at the Courtauld Institute, was a magnificently rich study of a great painter’s breakthrough years. Dense with thought, deeply moving, the exhibition was like a bildungsroman written in oil paint.
“Pop Life”, “Wild Thing” and the Frank Auerbach show can all still be seen until the middle or end of January. The same is true of the most adventurous and ground-breaking exhibition of Old Master art of the year. “The Sacred Made Real”, at the National Gallery, is a thoroughly absorbing display of art from Spain’s so-called golden age, the period that produced the work of painters such as Velazquez, Zurbaran and Murillo. Alongside paintings by those artists, the show also includes a range of breathtakingly life-like masterpieces of Spanish polychrome statuary – bloodily realistic images of the suffering, dying Christ, designed to strengthen the people of Catholic Spain in their faith and stave off the threat of the Protestant Reformation.
There was a Spanish theme too to the principal Old Master exhibition in Scotland in 2009, “The Discovery of Spain”, a skilful balancing act of a show which focussed not only on the history of British collecting of Spanish art, but also on the story of how British artists represented Spain from the Napeolonic Wars until the 1930s. The year saw a number of other compelling exhibitions, ranging from the brilliantly quirky “Medals of Dishonour”, at the British Museum, to “Turner and the Masters” at Tate Britain. But perhaps the pick of them all was an unexpectedly revelatory show of marine painting at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery. “The Call of the Sea” was devoted to the work of two exceptional but still little-known English painters of the eighteenth century, Peter Monamy and Charles Brooking. Brooking, in particular, was confirmed by this brilliant small show as one of the very finest marine painters ever to have lived. In the words of the late Basil Taylor, the art historian largely responsible for the rediscovery of Stubbs in the 1950s, “Brooking is to the painting of the sea what Stubbs was to the painting of horses.” It is greatly to be hoped that the National Gallery will be stirred, by the reawakening of interest in Brooking’s art, to acquire one of his works and display it in the same room as Stubbs’s great Whistlejacket.