2013: The Best & Worst of the Visual Arts

January 6, 2014
Installation piece: Xu Zhen's In Just a Blink of an Eye, in the 27th Kaldor Art Project 13 Rooms. Photo: Janie Barrett
Installation piece: Xu Zhen's In Just a Blink of an Eye, in the 27th Kaldor Art Project 13 Rooms. Photo: Janie Barrett

My best art experience of the year happened on the other side of the planet, in a retrospective celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edvard Munch. The show, divided between the National Gallery and the Munch Museum in Olso, revealed an unrelenting intensity of vision. It featured the most complete collection of paintings from the artist’s Frieze of Life series, including The Scream, The Kiss, Jealousy, and The Sick Child. For many viewers the real revelation would have been the later works, which were less doom-laden, but just as powerful.

The great Georges Braque retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, was a completely different experience. Although no less intense than the Munch show, it was a celebration of a consummate craftsman – a thinker, an innovator, a perfectionist. Braque has often played second fiddle to Picasso in discussions of Cubism, but he was almost certainly the inventor of this revolutionary style.

In Sydney, the year started well with an impressive survey of Angus Nivsion’s work at the S.H.Ervin Gallery. I thought I knew all about these paintings but the cumulative force of seeing them gathered in one place could not have been anticipated.

In August the S.H.Ervin held another important retrospective, by Peter Rushforth, arguably Australia’s greatest living potter. Although pottery is often the poor relation in the contemporary art scene, this stunning show was a reminder of all those ineffable qualities – truth, beauty, etc. – that keeps us coming back to the galleries.

One always hopes to be surprised and the most surprising show of the year was Roy Jackson’s retrospective at the Drill Hall Galleryin Canberra. Jackson, who died a few weeks before the exhibition opened, was an inspirational figure to many younger artists. He was a painter whose achievements were obscured by his willingness to experiment, although an underlying logic was laid bare in this retrospective. The public galleries need to respond to Jackson’s work by acquiring major pieces that remain in the artist’s estate. But will they rise to the challenge?

It has been a disappointing year for the big galleries, who have struggled with inadequate funds and constant increases in the cost of touring exhibitions. There was more fun to be had at privately-run museums such as White Rabbit, or David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. However, the two major blockbusters of the year – Monet’s Garden at the National Gallery of Victoria, and Turner From the Tate, in Adelaide and Canberra, were strong, well planned exhibitions that deserved large audiences. The presentation of Turner’s pictures at the Art Gallery of South Australia was quite exceptional.

The best the Art Gallery of NSW had to offer, in a pretty dismal year, was Sydney Moderns – a fascinating survey of modernist art in this city between the wars. Although it was largely a collection-based exhibition, the choice of works, the hang, and the catalogue could hardly have been bettered. It was a triumph for old-fashioned scholarship in a museum world that takes too many shortcuts.

The 27th Kaldor Art Project, 13 Rooms, proved to be a popular drawcard, attracting three times as many viewers as expected. This anthology of performance art pieces – some old, some new – fired the imagination of the public. It would be nice to believe it wasn’t just the occasional naked body that did the trick.

The Museum of Contemporary Art had two significant international shows – Anish Kapoor at the start of the year, and Yoko Ono at the end – that never really lived up to expectations. Nevertheless, it was a solid year for the museum, with a varied program and a series of popular side events such the art bar.

Finally, the inaugural Sydney Contemporary Art Fair, which I didn’t see first-hand, seems to have been a qualified success. While the organisers were predictably bullish about the results, the participants had mixed feelings. All agreed that attendances were tremendous, even if VIP passes had been scattered like confetti.

As the continued popularity of Sculpture by the Sea proves, Sydney loves an event, and it is to be hoped the biennial Art Fair survives and prospers.

As for the worst of 2013, there is nothing within coo-ee of Australia at the Royal Academy, London. This long-awaited survey of Australian art, organised by the NGA, was a shambles – a crammed, confusing, poorly-chosen show that has set back the international profile of Australian art for the next 20 years. There can be no excuses for such a performance when one considers the stature of the organisations involved. It represented a failure of both planning and execution. I’ve seen more cohesive hangs at the Royal Easter Show.

The NGA had other woes as well, with an ongoing scandal about looted Indian artefacts making their way into the permanent collection at a cost of some $11 million. First the gallery denied there was any substance to the allegations, now they are sueing the corrupt dealer, Subash Kapoor, when it is probably too late to hope for any positive result. The buck stops with director, Ron Radford, who has become a master at avoiding interviews.

The AGNSW had no major scandals, but not much else to report. With the exception of Sydney Moderns, the exhibitions were lacklustre, including the summer would-be blockbuster, America: Painting a Nation. To say the Archibald Prize was disappointing is a redundancy. The non-event of the year was the gallery’s announcement of plans for a massive new extension, which arrived without a promise of cash from any of the stakeholders, public or private In the United States, any gallery that pulled such a stunt would have left itself open to ridicule.

It takes time for a new director to make his mark, but Michael Brand must start to deliver soon, as Sydney is falling behind the pack. The 2014 exhibition program does not look especially promising, but hope springs eternal.

Finally, it was a year with many casualties. Among those who passed away, apart from Roy Jackson, were Gunter Christmann, Marea Gazzard, John Peart and Martin Sharp. John Peart was the only unexpected loss, but it’s still a terrible toll. Hurry on 2014! For the new year we need more enterprise from the art galleries, more generosity from governments and sponsors, and a willingness to forget about the spin and refocus on substance.