February 25, 2018

Exhibitions of 2017: my five favourites

This article was originally published on my Medium Account on January 3rd, 2018

Coming into 2018, there’s plenty coming up in museum world that I’m looking forward to — with some fantastic exhibitions due to come to the UK, a brand new V&A in the heart of Dundee and hopefully some more projects I’ve been working on coming to fruition in the next few months. However, before I really get back to the grind, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the exhibitions I saw in 2017, recalling the narratives they told and the experience each gave to me as a visitor. Here, I write about five shows that made the most impact to me over the last twelve months:

America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930's

Royal Academy of Arts, February 25th — June 4th
The RA put on some first-rate exhibitions on this year, ahead of its big 250 in 2018 — from its extensive survey of art from the Russian Revolution and its retrospective of Jasper Johns to the examination of the relationship between the Surrealist titans Dali and Duchamp. However, as I predicted back at the start of the year, it was its survey of art in the Great Depression, America After the Fall that struck me the most in 2017.

Grant Wood, Death on the Ridge Road, 1935. Williams College Museum of Art

It was fascinating to see the range of work created in response to the crises affecting the US and the rest of the world during the 1930’s. Different artists of the time explored several different notions about what road American culture and artistic identity should go down at this time, swerving from the forward-looking and cautiously optimistic to the dystopian and isolating; reflecting the economic and social struggles America experienced in that decade. Although nearly eighty years have passed since the creation of the work, the questions raised by it continue to speak to us today, and pose questions about our modern society.

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

National Museum of Scotland, 23rd June — 12th November
The story of the five Jacobite challenges filled countless history lessons in my time at primary school, so by the time I moved on, I was well versed on the topic and its key players (and to a point thoroughly sick of it). I wasn’t sure therefore what I’d get out of the National Museum of Scotland’s extensive survey of the Jacobites, the first major exhibition of its kind in seventy years.

I was pleasantly surprised and delighted by the way that the exhibition was presented, placing the story of the exiled Stuart dynasty into its rightful European context. A vibrant arrangement of objects and documents loaned from across the UK and Europe gave a new insight into the life of the Jacobite court in exile, as well as events in Europe and Britain. 
This included one of the most humanising objects I’ve seen related to Charles Edward Stuart; a short note to his father written at the age of five apologising for “jumping out at mamma”. Such objects serve to remind us that these legendary characters were actual people, with traits, flaws and ambitions they were personal, yet consumed by the overarching goal to return to power.

These dynastic objectives were made clear with objects more symbolic, showing the rich visual and material culture that surrounded the Jacobite cause; from its culmination in the court at Holyrood Palace to its downfall at the Battle of Culloden. It closed with the aftermath, felt in Scotland and back in Rome, as the Stuarts (mostly) came to terms with the loss of their kingdom, which in turn was changed forever by the ‘45.

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

British Museum, 25 May — 13 August 2017
The Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the first “great” artworks I remember coming across in my life, through a reproduction print owned by one of my schoolteachers. This powerful image stuck with me throughout, inspiring my enthusiasm for East Asian art. Although over the years I have tried to learn a little bit more about this area of art history, my knowledge remains shallow. I, therefore, loved to be able to experience first hand more works from the extensive career of Hokusai, in the British Museum’s major exhibition.

Hokusai, Fine Wind, Clear Day With a Southern Breeze (Red Fuji) from Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1831. Image: British Museum

Despite some issues with the gallery being a bit of a tight squeeze (testimony to both the familiarity and enduring appeal of Hokusai in the west), his work takes the breath away in real life. The prints that had come from British, Japanese and American collections were in perfect condition, bright and as detailed as the day they were made. The stars of this exhibition though were his late scroll paintings, made in his eighties. Despite his age, they never reduced in quality; arguably getting more exceptional with each passing year. His final paintings possess a detail and energy unsurpassed by his contemporaries; a tiger that could leap off the page, two ducks that could dive in an instant, a dragon over Mount Fuji that could ascend to the heavens in an instant as you looked closer.

In a postscript to a later Mount Fuji series, he wrote that when he had reached 100, his work would have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. Seeing these last paintings at the end of the exhibition, I could only wonder what they would have been if he had lived to then.

Queer British Art 1861–1967

Tate Britain, April 5th — October 1st
The Tate’s landmark exhibition, which explored the expression of sexuality and gender between 1861 and 1967 was an eye-opening exploration of the perspectives and experiences of LGBT culture and identity in Britain, expressed through art that ranged from the subtle and coded to the explicit and defiant.

Despite no longer being a capital offence, the punishment for gay men in Victorian society remained harsh and callous — the hardest hitting display telling this was through the compelling juxtaposition of the Pennington portrait of Oscar Wilde alongside the door from his cell in Pentonville prison. One of the sharpest wits of the Victorian age, his incarceration and expulsion from society was not the only example of this tragic outcome. The exhibition also told us of the denunciation of Aubrey Beardsley (condemned through simple association), Simeon Solomon (whose descent into alcoholism after his conviction contributed to his death) and Radclyffe Hall, whose Well of Loneliness was subject to an obscenity trial, with all copies of the novel ordered destroyed.

As you worked through the exhibition, you began to see some emergence of freer thinking and expression, taking a defiant stand against the expectations and cultural norms of the day. Duncan Grant If a single artwork were to summarise this for me, it would be the powerful self-portrait of Gluck from 1942. Unapologetic in all that she stood for in art and life, her androgynous, determined character bleeds from the canvas, as uncompromising as the demand that the name Gluck be reproduced ‘with no prefix, suffix or quotes’. Also included was work by Claude Cahun, an artist whose work had until recently, was largely overlooked in the history of Surrealism. Another welcome inclusion from a Scottish perspective was the work of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, described as inseparable, not only emotionally but artistically — drawing inspiration and support from each other in their practice, and subtly including each other in their work.

It was interesting to note that while broadly welcomed and acclaimed, there was some critique around this exhibition, (observed both in the comments at the exit and in broader discussions). There was a feeling that it was too male, too white and too cisgendered. Although I’d agree that these aspects were not fully explored here, I’d argue that there’s only so much of a story you can tell in one exhibition. These contexts and stories deserve a fuller and more in-depth exploration than a small part of Queer British Art’s gallery space could have done justice. 
I’d like to think that the show should in fact act as an opening shot, a call to arms for museums and galleries to begin exploring queer life and culture deeper, researching its place within their collections, and presenting it to their audiences; whether in their permanent displays or through further exhibitions. This call has been taking up with vigour by museums in England keen to celebrate the 1967 Act, Brighton and Birmingham being two notable examples; yet it would be wonderful to see this exhibition (and those just mentioned) have a legacy on UK museums far beyond the marking of a major step on what remains a very long road. In a polite nudge to the Tate therefore, if they chose to make Queer British Art the first of a series, it would certainly go down very well with this museum enthusiast.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry

National Gallery of Ireland, June 17th — September 29th
In September, I travelled to Dublin to take my first look at the National Gallery of Ireland, which a few months earlier had celebrated a triumphant reopening after an extensive overhaul of its historic wings. I also went across specifically for the chance to experience a unique opportunity first hand — ten works by Johannes Vermeer, shown together alongside those of his contemporaries of genre painting in the Dutch Golden Age. 
Vermeer’s appeal as the greatest amongst these lies in his technical brilliance and the scarcity of his output. With only 34 paintings attributed to him today, each amongst the prize artworks of the museums they reside in — a chance to examine and compare them practically side by side is, therefore, a once in a lifetime experience in itself.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1662-63. Image: National Gallery of Art, Washington

Putting this fact aside (if such a thing is possible), it was fascinating to see first hand how the works of each artist influenced the other — Vermeer included. To look at the influences, repetitions and new directions in approach by successive artists illustrated the relationships that existed between these figures, the vibrant network driving each artist in competition, in contrast to the viewpoint of the artist in isolation. The topic is further explored in a rich, scholarly and sumptuous accompanying catalogue; ranking alongside Hokusai as the best one I’ve added to my collection this year.

Overall, its been a fantastic year for this museum-goer and I look forward to seeing what they have to offer in 2018.