When writing a round-up of exhibitions in London in 2016, certain conflicts emerge. It’s easier to bring together than my esteemed colleague Will Gore’s film round-up, as seeing an exhibition can take minutes, while a film takes up a minimum of an hour. If you’re going to look at it like that, and a glance at an exhibition suffices – why then not pick up scraps from the internet, and piece together a long list of exhibitions from the turnmills of encoded artspeak bloggery? After all, is a description of what your eyes take with you from an exhibition anything more than another take-me-at-my-word opinion? I think I’ll just try to cast some winners’ trophies and aspersions with 500 words.
In a year that saw the Tate Modern open its new extension, the Royal Academy attempted to restore its Rubens-ruined reputation with its Abstract Expressionism exhibition. The National Gallery had a less successful year, with Beyond Caravaggio and Painter’s Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck lacking the frisson-inducing loans to merit megacity-blockbuster cachet.
The Courtauld took a risk, dedicating an exhibition to the spirit-medium painter Georgiana Houghton, her brush reputedly guided by exterior nudges from the spirit world. Mindfulness art or spirituality in art was modish this year: Hilma af Klint had a show at the Serpentine, as did Channa Horwitz at Raven Row in east London. The Courtauld also put on a beautiful Botticelli drawings show (concurrent with Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A).
Contemporary art commercial galleries shook their tail feathers with a show by the cartoonist Robert Crumb (accused of misogyny by some sceptics) over at David Zwirner; while collective-curator extraordinaire Julie Ault put on a show of Felix Gonzalez-Torres at Hauser & Wirth, which was a disservice to her invigorating art in New York in the 1980s, where she would print the budget sheets of her collective as pieces of art.
“Cool” galleries put on amazing exhibitions such as Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick, Somerset House’s tribute to the director across many rooms, from whence unholy, fusty red light would glow, and 114 radios played Dies Irae. Also, PM/AM – which had showed the scythe-sharp chronicler of the marginalised, Ivar Wigan – put on work from a similar artist, Doug Rickard, as well as celebrity-mocker Beni Bischof, in the gallery’s Oceans without Surfers, Cowboys without Marlboros.
The biggest photographic event of the year, however, was reserved for the Barbican’s Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, a tour de force of working-class Britain in the olden days, with pearly kings and lots of men in flannel coats.
Top plaudits go then to the aforementioned Abstract Expressionism, the amazing show still on at the Royal Academy, and Picasso Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery, which at their best provide a form of emotional support: to see the rush and trauma felt in our own emotions, re-enacted by the art.
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