Arts feature

2015 in exhibitions - painting still rules

As the forthcoming Goya, Rubens and Dumas shows at the National Gallery and Tate prove, painting is in rude health

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

The New Year is a time for reflections as well as resolutions. So here is one of mine. In the art world, media and fashions come and go, but often what truly lasts — even in the 21st century — is painting. Over the past 12 months, there has been a series of triumphs for pigment on canvas, including the glorious Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery, and a demonstration by Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy that we still have painters of towering stature among us. What will 2015 hold?

Well, as far as painting is concerned — both old master and contemporary — there are some extremely promising items. As the year ends, Rembrandt: The Late Works — as eloquent a case for the power of the medium as could possibly be made — is still running at the National Gallery (until 18 January). Those who miss it here or would like a second look might consider popping over to Amsterdam to see its second incarnation at the Rijksmuseum: essentially the same exhibition but with several additional masterpieces slipped in (12 February to 17 May).

Meanwhile, London may be forgetting about Rembrandt and succumbing to Rubens-mania. That at least was the hope being expressed in the great man’s home town of Antwerp when I was there a few weeks ago, and one that is doubtless also shared at the Royal Academy where Rubens and his Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne is on show from 24 January to 10 April.

During his lifetime and for centuries after his death, Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was both hugely successful and vastly influential (far more so, for example, than Rembrandt or Vermeer). In the past few decades, however, his star has sunk in the old-master popularity ratings. Can it rise again? We shall soon see.

Completing a trio of exhibitions devoted to 17th-century giants will be Velázquez at the Grand Palais, Paris (25 March to 13 July). This exhibition, which is coming from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (where it will be on view until 15 February), is not quite the equal of the one seen in London a decade ago — or the array of Velázquez pictures on view every day at the Prado — but it is still well worth seeing.


The National Gallery is offering something distinctly unusual in the spring: an exhibition about an art dealer. Inventing Impressionism (4 March to 31 May) centres on the achievements of Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922), the man who established a market for Monet, Pissarro and Degas among others. Unsung heroes (or, in some eyes, villains), dealers are certainly important figures in the art world. Whether their careers are really exhibitable, however, is another matter. One suspects this will amount to a mixed bag of Monet et al.

With Goya: The Portraits (7 October–10 January 2016), on the other hand, the National Gallery will be offering what should be a splendid array of work by one of the most compelling depicters of the human face in the annals of art.

As I hinted above, the current era of art may seem to be dominated by installation, performance art, video art, sound art and so forth. Nonetheless, we still live in an age of mighty painters. In the past decade Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter and David Hockney have all produced magnificent works in a more or less traditional manner.

Another such master is Frank Auerbach, whose extraordinary power and originality will, I predict, be demonstrated by his retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain (9 October to 13 March 2016). He is an artist who, after centuries of people messing about with oil paint, has managed to do things with it — sometimes involving astonishingly thick whorls, encrustations and marbled slabs of the stuff — never before seen.

‘Helena’s Dream’, 2008, by Marlene Dumas
‘Helena’s Dream’, 2008, by Marlene Dumas

More of a dark horse, as far as London audiences are concerned, is Marlene Dumas, whose work is the subject of a big Tate Modern show (5 February–10 May). South African-born and based in the Netherlands, Dumas paints figurative pictures derived from photographs. This is a show that will probably not pull the crowds, but is nonetheless well worth doing. I look forward to it as an opportunity to make up my mind about her work.

There is, of course, a wide overlap between painting and photography. Many paintings — including Dumas’s and Richter’s figurative works — are based on photos. Less obviously, many photographs are influenced by painting. This was certainly the case in the early days of the medium, as doubtless will be borne out by two exhibitions about Victorian camera artists: Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840–1860 at Tate Britain (25 February to 7 June) and Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A (28 November to 14 February 2016).

In common with all arts, photography does not advance — it just changes. Many of the finest photographs were taken soon after the process was first unveiled in 1839. On the other hand, few photographic exhibitions have ever overcome a fundamental problem: most photographs look much better in a book — or even on your phone — than they do on a museum wall, a context that seems to minimise their impact.

Close readers of my first paragraph may have asked the question, ‘What about sculpture? Doesn’t that last too?’ I hasten to put the record straight: though great sculptors are perhaps rarer than outstanding painters, their output too is for the ages. Next year we will be offered overviews of two major 20th-century artists who worked in three dimensions. Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain (24 June to 25 October) and Alexander Calder at Tate Modern (11 November – 3 April 2016).

Hepworth was, in her abstract way, very traditional. Her art is all about stone and bronze and rounded form; the main question about a retrospective of her work is whether it is various enough to sustain interest after a room or two. Alexander Calder, however, made sculpture that did something that Donatello’s and even Bernini’s did not: it moved. As its subtitle — Performing Sculpture — suggests, the Tate exhibition will examine how his work was connected with film, theatre and other mobile arts.

For its big autumn offering, the RA is presenting Ai Weiwei (19 September to 13 December). Ai is, of course, a hugely celebrated figure whose work is not traditional at all. One of his better-known works is an image of him smashing an ancient ceramic pot. But he has attained global fame more for his outspoken political views (and even more for the Chinese government’s reaction to them, which was to imprison him briefly and curtail his movements). Is he truly an important exponent of various media, or a valiant activist? That is one of the intriguing questions that will be answered in the coming year. Another is whether Ai Weiwei will be able to attend his own opening.

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