Visual Arts

A disrupted and disruptive year for visual arts

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Like Abbé Sieyès explaining what he did during the Terror that followed the French Revolution — “I survived” — art has come through 2020: struggling, disrupted, reconfigured and resilient. 

For months the world’s most beautiful pictures hung unseen. The merciless goddess, limpid nymphs and doomed hunter played across the “Diana” paintings in darkened silence at the National Gallery’s landmark Titian show, closed in March a week into its run, reopened, shut again, reopened once more in July, November, December. 

A decade in the making, the revelatory Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Art was on display a mere 41 days. But its sensuous red-winged angel, just landed from heaven on to the St Bavo altarpiece, its uncannily naturalistic saints and Flemish burghers, burn bright still as consoling memories. 

Van Eyck has just won the Apollo Exhibition of the Year award, beating a terrific shortlist — London’s feisty Artemisia and the Louvre’s Leonardo. Post-pandemic, if collapsing museum budgets make blockbuster shows scarce and global cultural travel never recovers, then 2020 was a swan song: Raphael in Rome, Matisse in Paris, Monet in Berlin, El Greco in Chicago. 

‘Two Angels with the Instruments of the Passion’ (c1425-35) by Tydeman Maes, a contemporary of Jan van Eyck © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Shuttered museums told us what we missed, cancelled fairs told us what we didn’t. And for ill and good, art mirrored the Covid-driven economic and social change. Gaps between the top and the rest widened: £13.9m for Peter Doig’s magnificent lonely-modernism-in-the forest “Boiler House” at Christie’s in October, but 95 per cent of artists reporting drops in income. Many sold nothing all year.

Art, like people, stayed at home. A rare biennial, Riga’s quixotic And Suddenly It All Blossoms, proved that local can be universal and compelling. In Lina Lapelyte and Mantas Petraitis’s “Currents”, 2,000 pine logs floated down the Daugava river, a “highway of rafts”, harmony between man and nature. Augustus Serapinas’s soil/hay installation “Mudmen” — supposed to be snowmen, but snow never fell — were climate change sirens crossing references to Monet’s haystacks with Malevich’s faceless peasants.

‘Mudmen’ by Augustas Serapinas © Courtesy Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art; photograph by Hedi Jaansoo

Although art moved online along with the rest of life, it soon palled there. Everything began to look the same — and viewing an exhibition is, after all, a social pleasure. In the absence of physical engagement with objects, the real move was conceptual: art became more than ever tied to ideas, information and politics — which, unlike paintings, travel virtually. This strengthened what would have happened anyway: while Covid-19 threw museums into economic crisis, the momentum gathered by protests from the Black Lives Matter movement forced something deeper: a moral crisis, apparent in several defining moments following reopenings in summer and autumn. 

In August the British Museum removed the bust of its slave-owning founder Hans Sloane to a cabinet in its so-called “Enlightenment gallery”, contextualising imperialism and slavery. Director Hartwig Fischer said, “We have pushed him off the pedestal where nobody looked at him, and placed him in the limelight” — where the museum scrutinises itself and its past. 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Windrush-themed mural ‘Remain, Thriving’, which was on show at Brixton Tube station until March 2019 © GG Archard

In September Tate, along with partner American museums, postponed its 2021 retrospective of mid-20th century white Jewish painter Philip Guston until 2024. Guston’s use of Ku Klux Klan imagery confronted the banality of evil, the complicity in racism. “In today’s America, because Guston appropriated images of black trauma, the show needs to be about more than Guston,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of Washington’s National Gallery. “We weren’t prepared for that . . . An exhibition with such strong commentary on race cannot be done by all white curators.” Tate curator Mark Godfrey, speaking against the decision — “extremely patronising to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works” — was suspended. 

In November, Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly was forced by a French Senate ruling to return to Benin 26 sculptures that were looted a century ago. “It’s a matter of justice . . . a putting in place of a new relational ethics” said Benedicte Savoy, a Paris professor commissioned alongside Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr by President Emmanuel Macron to report on colonial-era restitution. 

British artist Frank Bowling in his studio © Photographed for the FT by Toby Coulson

Even before the colonial statues were toppled, Europe’s public institutions were questioning cultural memory. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, famous for Rembrandt, had already scheduled Slavery as 2021’s lead show; Tate had planned next year’s Britain and the Caribbean. Now, keen to diversify rosters, commercial galleries too are seeking black names. Hauser & Wirth has just signed black abstract painter Frank Bowling — and dropped important dead white sculptor Hans Josephsohn.

Gloomy market conditions — art revenue down 36 per cent mid-year, according to Art Basel/UBS’s survey — has not deterred Accra’s Gallery 1957 from inaugurating London premises this winter, with a show of charismatically elegant figure paintings by 26-year-old Ghanaian Kwesi Botchway. These are chromatically stunning — purple as the new black, with its connotations of privilege; brilliant orange eyes, piercing, powerful; impressionist flurries of smooth dark skin against soft mint fur in “Green Fluffy Coat”. 

Botchway is one of the most thrilling painters emerging anywhere — which may be because he is not just prodigiously talented but has something to say. Curator Eskow Eshun titled Gallery 1957’s show Becoming as Well as Being, arguing that the paintings are “about how we understand blackness not as a fixed proposition, but as a way of navigating the world.” The title comes from Stuart Hall’s 1996 essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”. Because representation of black lives brings a political edge to painting, one fascinating aspect of museums’ rush to showcase black artists is that they legitimise a medium, figurative painting, in institutions that have long been conceptualist hotbeds. 

‘Say Her Name’ (2017) by Jennifer Packer © Courtesy the artist, Corvi-Mora, London, and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York

An exquisite flower painting currently hangs at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Titled “Say Her Name”, it commemorates the death in custody of Sandra Bland, and is painted by 36-year-old African-American Jennifer Packer. The Serpentine is staging her first European museum show. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s “Remain, Thriving”, the original for the mural at Brixton Underground station showing a black British family watching the Windrush scandal unfold, has just entered Tate’s collection.

A new history painting is being born of the urgency of narratives of trauma, injustice and exclusion. Image of the year in paint, on show at New York’s Petzel Gallery, is Derek Fordjour’s sumptuous “The Pall Bearers”: six black men in mulberry suits, glamorous yet downcast and vulnerable, descend the picture with a gold coffin reminiscent of George Floyd’s. 

Black Lives Matter took the number one slot this month in Art Review’s annual “Art Power 100”. Only one individual artist — African-American Arthur Jafa — made the top 10, along with black writers Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Feline Sarr, curator Thelma Golden, in an unprecedented list dominated by protest movements, collectives and theorists. 

‘The Adoration of the Kings’ (1510) by Jan Gossaert © Photograph: National Gallery, London

Art Review is an insider magazine, usually tangential to that other mainstream milieu of Old Master exhibitions — but 2020’s chart declares influence that will shape how art is shown and read everywhere for the next decade, as racial balance in collections and institutionally is redressed. Opened last week, the National Gallery’s final show of 2020 is a resonant herald of change from within hallowed Renaissance scholarship. It focuses on Jan Gossaert’s “Adoration of the Kings” (1510), a packed ornamental tableau of figures, animals, textiles, all animated by the dynamic positioning and gesture of the gold-clad black king. Balthazar — his name inscribed on his jewelled headdress — steps out, nervously though with commitment, from the ruined buildings of the old dispensation, into a new world, uncertain but full of hope. 

‘Titian’ at the National Gallery, London, to January 19; ‘Jennifer Packer: the Eye is Not Satisfied With Seeing’, Serpentine Gallery, London, to March 14; Derek Fordjour at Petzel Gallery, New York, to December 23; Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, National Gallery, London, to February 28; ‘Slavery’, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, February 12-May 30; ‘Britain and the Caribbean’, Tate Britain, London, December 1 2021-April 3 2022

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