Review of the year

2012 was above all a great year for exhibitions about British art, mostly modern and contemporary. “David Hockney: A Bigger Picture” was one of the most eagerly anticipated and astonishingly well attended shows the Royal Academy has ever staged. It was also invigoratingly eccentric: a yowling, colour-saturated blockbuster, teeming with more than 150 of the landscapes that Hockney has painted in Bridlington, North Yorkshire, during the last eight years. In one sense, this was Hockney’s celebration of finally coming home, after all his transatlantic peregrinations. But it was also a reminder of his continuing, restless odyssey through the history of art: these were paintings that in their sheer, shape-shifting variety, continually seemed to proclaim his admiration of the work of other artists, from Hokusai to Claude Lorrain, from Van Gogh to Matisse, to Picasso and beyond. It is very unusual for a painter in his later years still to be creating homages of this kind, let alone with such madcap scatterfire brio. Perhaps Hockney’s long and apparently still unresolved struggle to fix his own artistic identity accounts for his enduring popularity. What on earth will he do next?

Then there was the very different experience of Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery, a memorial exhibition to one of the most remarkable painters of the human face and figure. Like Hockney, Freud made his own journey through the history of art. He moved from the tensed, fraught linearity of his early work, inspired by the sharp-eyed art of the early Flemish Renaissance, to the full, fleshy, painterly incarnations of humanity of his later years – a voyage from Van Eyck, so to speak, towards Titian and Velazquez. Yet for all his stylistic migrations, Freud retained the same hard, disillusioned outlook on man (and woman). It was...

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