Top 5 London Art Exhibitions 2017: A Personal Selection

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone! As festive cheer spreads throughout the country, let’s look at some of the best exhibitions this year. Below are my top 5 exhibitions of 2017 in London, in addition to some special honourable mentions:

Cézanne Portraits – National Portrait Gallery

Paul Cézanne, Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-90. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1995.47.5

This exhibition was thoroughly impressive with every room. The choice of works was of the highest quality and their display exceptionally insightful. Brilliant and colourful highlights were the walls reuniting Cézanne’s portraits of his wife, sometimes juxtaposed with the artist’s own self-portraits. These portraits emphasised his methodical approach to art, painting multiple versions of the same subject in a process akin to trial and error. I was particularly impressed by Cezanne’s pursuit of visual truth, painting only what he saw in front him instead of grasping for the psychological ‘essence’ of the sitter. This is best conveyed in his use of varying levels of finish, thick impasto, and shifting hues and colours to denote the effects of light. It was an enlightening show that kept my attention throughout and left wanting more!

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia – British Museum

Funerary scene
Funerary scene A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene; Gold; 4th – 3rd century BC; Siberian Collection of Peter the Great. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

It is a well-known fact among museum professionals that borrowing objects from The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is a notoriously difficult process. This exhibition showed just how incredible a successful negotiation can be, with at least half of the exhibition’s objects coming from the largest museum in the world and largest repository of Scythian objects. Included were carefully preserved tattooed skin fragments, posthumously decapitated skulls bearing death masks, expertly-crafted gold decorative objects of every type, and even many fragments of clothing! Every aspect of the undocumented Scythian culture has been explored and illustrated in detail, creating an exhibition that gave a wonderful sense of the value of visual research in discovering lost civilisations.

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection – Tate Modern

A wall of photographs belonging to Sir Elton John. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Who would have guessed that Sir Elton John amassed such an outstanding collection of 20th-century photography?! The show was dazzling with photographs by eminent figures, including a series of portraits of artists by Man Ray, documentary images by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, abstractions by László Moholy-Nagy, and many wonderful little negatives by André Kertész. In fact, Man Ray features heavily in his collection. All were framed in silver or gold (the Man Ray photographs especially), and thematically explored (portraits, experiments, documents, bodies, objects, perspectives, and abstractions). It was a great opportunity to see not only some of the world’s most iconic images, but also a rare insight in the collecting habits of one of the world’s most famous musical talents.

Monochrome – The National Gallery

Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza
Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary), about 1433–5. © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Many welcome surprises were had at this gorgeous exhibition devoted to the genre of grisaille and monochromatic art. As a Renaissance nerd, I could barely contain my excitement upon coming face-to-face with two of Jan van Eyck’s most brilliant works: The Annunciation diptych (about 1433-35) and Saint Barbara (1437). Other notable highlights include the State Hermitage Museum’s large ‘pen painting’ Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1606) by Hendrick Goltzius, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Odalisque in Grisaille (about 1824-34) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop, and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s detached fresco from a private collection. There were also some captivating works on paper by Albrecht Dürer. Suddenly, it transitions into modernist abstract works by the likes of Kazimir Malevich, Josef Albers, Cy Twombly, and Gerhard Richter, before ending in Olafur Eliasson’s disorienting installation, Room for one colour (1997). The latter sections provided fresh interpretations of a genre historically associated with theoretical discussions about painting’s ability to imitate sculpture.

From Selfie to Self-Expression – Saatchi Gallery

A wall featuring Ellen DeGeneres’ 2014 Oscars celebrity group selfie. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images Europe

I expected this show to be exactly as it sounds: cheesy, kitsch, and unoriginal. What I witnessed was a surprisingly engaging exhibition that was both fun and critical. On the ground floor, changing projections of famous self-portraits by some of art history’s finest (Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, Parmigianino, Frida Khalo, Gustave Courbet, etc.) transitioned wonderfully into a room filled with modern works by Chuck Close, Tracey Emin, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, and Lucian Freud, to name a few. These became crucial foundations for a critical reception of the selfie phenomenon in the digital age. Many of the most iconic selfies, self-portraits, and images of selfie-taking and self-expression from the 21st century filled the next two rooms on this floor. These obviously included the macaque monkey selfie of 2011, Barack Obama’s controversial selfie with David Cameron and Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the 2013 Johannesburg memorial service for Nelson Mandela, Ellen DeGeneres’ celebrity group selfie at the 2014 Oscars, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s photobomb behind U2 at the 86th Academy Awards the same year. However, it was the first-floor galleries which really took me by surprise, each containing innovative creations that redefined and expanded the genre of self-portraiture. For example, Raphael Lozano Hemmer’s This Year’s Midnight played with live filters akin to those used in Snapchat; whoever stood in front of its camera had their eyes turned to smoke on the digital screen. A truly wonderful highlight for me was Daniel Rozin’s PomPom Mirror (2015) which created a live mirror-image of the participant using black and white pom-poms. All throughout, participants were encouraged to interact with the exhibits, ‘liking’ Old Master self-portraits, and obviously taking copious selfies of their own. The exhibition was a clever and effective parody of its own narrative which sought to evaluate selfies as an artform and perhaps, ultimately, art.

Honourable Mention:

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano – The National Gallery

Sebastiano del Piombo, after partial designs by Michelangelo, The Lamentation of the Dead Christ (Pietà), about 1512-16. Museo Civico, Viterbo. Photo: National Gallery

There were many admirable feats to be congratulated regarding this overdue exhibition exploring the canonical artistic collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo. The curators managed to represent the duo’s three most famous collaborations in some form or another, supplemented by related drawings: the Viterbo Pietà (1512-16), the Borgherini Chapel (1516-20) in Rome’s San Pietro in Montorio, and The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) which the National Gallery owns. The National Gallery’s ownership of the latter effectively justified why this exhibition could only have been held here; they commemorated the occasion by reframing the painting using authentic, sixteenth-century elements and replicating the only surviving fragment of the original frame. Factum Foundation were also commissioned to create an impressive reduced replica of the Borgherini Chapel, allowing one to fully understand each process of its development alongside early drawings and even Sebastiano’s only surviving cartoon fragment. Another rare highlight included the opportunity to view the first and final versions of the Santa Maria sopra Minerva Risen Christ (1519-21), thanks to the loan of rediscovered first version, dubbed the ‘Giustianini Christ’ (1514-15, finished in the early seventeenth century) from Bassano Romano. The show was well-balanced and gave the artists’ entertaining letters their time in the spotlight. Overall, it was textbook art history in exhibition form.

Read my review of the exhibition here!

EXTRA SPECIAL Honourable Mention:

Raphael: The Drawings – Ashmolean Museum

23. Two Apostles (c) Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Raphael, The heads and hands of two apostles, c.1519–20. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Although not held in London, this gathering of 120 drawings by Raphael from international and private collections made an indelible mark on the UK’s exhibition programme with Apollo magazine crowning it ‘Exhibition of the Year’. It was a fruitful and highly rewarding partnership between the two largest repositories of Raphael’s drawings: Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and the Albertina in Vienna. For everyone – not just art historians – it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many of his drawings in one place, all of which are usually hidden behind ‘appointment only’ print room doors. These included his auxiliary cartoons for the Transfiguration (1517-20), all three surviving modello drawings for the Massacre of the Innocents engraving (c.1510), a rarely-seen cartoon for the head of a horse in one of the Vatican frescoes, and a head of a muse that sold at Christie’s in 2009 for roughly £29 million! His early drawings in metalpoint and pen-and-ink showed a rapid curiosity for experimentation, featuring many studies for his well-known Madonnas, as well as a drawing of Michelangelo’s marble David (1501-04) seen from behind. There were many delightful insights in this exhibition of which the core aim was to discover Raphael’s graphic style and creative process, focusing far less on attribution and their function as merely preparatory media towards a finished fresco or painting. It was a very popular exhibition and has currently travelled to the Albertina for a fresh interpretation that includes additional drawings and several paintings.

Read my review of the splendid exhibition catalogue over at Museum Bookstore!


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