Visual treats of 2004

Andrew Lambirth looks forward to this year’s exhibitions — from El Greco to Ken Kiff

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Andrew Lambirth looks forward to this year’s exhibitions — from El Greco to Ken Kiff

The chief thrill of this year’s gallery-going has to be the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery (11 February to 23 May). It will be the first major showing of his work in this country, and for many the first chance to study his visionary paintings in any depth. Domenikos Theotocopulos (1541–1614), who settled in the Spanish city of Toledo in 1577, was known as ‘the Greek’ because he hailed from Crete, whence he introduced a modern version of the Byzantine style to a shocked and admiring audience. Trained as an icon painter before studying Mannerism in Venice and Rome, he forged his own highly individual and luminous style from these components. His elongated figures writhe upwards like flames, flickering with intensely spiritual drama. Many of his paintings look as if they were painted by lightning rather than daylight. The divine Raphael just doesn’t have the same appeal, being over-saccharine to my taste, though I’m sure the National will do the master full justice in their monographic exhibition devoted to him this autumn (20 October to 16 January 2005). However phenomenally skilled Raphael was, it is El Greco who is the more interestingly modern.

The year 2004 promises a bumper crop of exhibitions. At Tate Modern is Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things (29 January to 23 May). The Romanian sculptor (1876– 1957) was a founding father of Modernism, pioneering abstraction with his simple yet resonant forms (birds, columns, ovals) and reintroducing the primitive as a driving force in art. Although a deeply sophisticated artist, a naturalness rather at odds with self-conscious Moder- nism clung to him. He didn’t quite fit. At any rate, he has been shamefully neglected: this exhibition will be the first substantial showing of his work in Britain, bringing together some 40 of his sculptures. Unmissable.

Timed to coincide at Tate Modern (5 February to 25 April) is an exhibition of that great Minimalist and heir of Brancusi, Donald Judd (1928–94). Here will be the gamut of Judd’s sensually polished and coloured metal boxes, in austere and serried ranks, redefining notions of space and permissible form. To have the Brancusi and Judd exhibitions on together offers a unique opportunity for comparison, and might even teach us to appreciate art history.

As if this weren’t enough, concurrently Tate Britain will try to persuade us to have another look at the Pre-Raphaelites. Haven’t we had more than our fill of Holman Hunt, Millais et al? Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature (12 February to 3 May) argues that these artists were as revolutionary as the Impressionists in their approach to landscape painting. Oh well, it’ll be a good crowd-puller, and if the curators direct us to some of the lesser-known figures — such as Brett, Inchbold and Boyce — they’ll be serving some useful purpose.

Meanwhile down at Tate St Ives, a radically different approach to landscape (and figure painting) is explored in Karl Weschke (7 February to 9 May). At the other extreme from the Pre-Raphaelites’ all-inclusiveness is Weschke’s simplification of form and restricted palette. A powerfully expressive painter, he takes his cue from ancient myths, reinterpreting them in the elemental landscape of Cornwall.

Other delights from Tate Inc. will be Art of the Garden at Tate Britain (3 June to 30 August), which examines the garden in British art from Constable to Derek Jarman; Edward Hopper at Tate Modern (27 May to 5 September), a welcome tribute to the poet of modern urban America; and a re-examination of the relative merits of Gwen and Augustus John (at Tate Britain from 29 September to 9 January 2005). I’ve always thought Augustus has been unfairly diminished while Gwen is over-exalted — now’s the time to judge. Finally, a major 80th-birthday retrospective of Anthony Caro’s work (Tate Britain, 4 November to 6 February 2005). If this proves anything as effective as the Tate’s Bridget Riley exhibition last year, then it will be well worth seeing; though, being sculpture on a grand scale, it will probably be more difficult to install.

One artist the Tate continues to neglect (and at considerable cost to its credibility) is Prunella Clough (1919–99). This lack is made partly good, though for too brief a moment, at the Spring Fine Art & Antiques Fair at Olympia (2 to 7 March). The featured loan exhibition this year comprises some 100 paintings, prints and drawings by Clough, one of the most inventive and modest of modern British artists, still to be recognised by a wider public.

At the Royal Academy a brace of quality shows inaugurates the New Year. The Art of Philip Guston (24 January to 12 April) claims to be the first comprehensive retrospective of his work held in the UK. In which case I trust there are plenty of his beautiful abstracts on show, before we get down to the rigours of his exceedingly influential but rather relentless late figuration. In stimulating contrast Vuillard: From Post-Impressionist to Modern Master appears at the Academy (31 January to 18 April), to remind us how truly fine French painting can be. Intimate, subtle, innovative in colour and design, Vuillard could be equally effective with intense hues and bold simplifications. An exhibition to linger over.

After that, the RA programme lapses rather, with an exhibition of paintings by Tamara de Lempicka, that tarnished Art Deco icon (15 May to 30 August). A loan exhibition from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (September to December) will highlight painters from the Danish Golden Age, along with French masters. But the most exciting prospect is a William Nicholson retrospective (October to January 2005), which presents us with a long overdue chance to reassess the exquisite still-lifes, landscapes and portraits by the father of Modernist Ben.

The V&A offers a centenary retrospective of photographs by Bill Brandt (24 March to 25 July), and a tribute to the designer Vivienne Westwood (1 April to 11 July), followed in the autumn (16 September to 5 December) by a celebration of the first independent industrial designer, Christopher Dresser (1834–1904), notable for his work with Wedgwood, Minton and Coalbrookdale.

Too many of the other public galleries, such as the Whitechapel, Serpentine and the about-to-be-reopened Camden Arts Centre, devote their beautiful spaces almost exclusively to establishment art of the minute. More mixed programmes please! At least the Serpentine is mounting a retrospective of one of the greatest living American artists, Cy Twombly (17 April to 13 June). Known primarily as an artists’ artist, he is an image-maker of riveting originality, whose work deserves to be better known in Britain. Rather more interesting than the Crash! Pow! art of Roy Lichtenstein at the Hayward (26 February to 16 May).

Other recommendations: the refulgent abstracts of Gillian Ayres at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol (14 March to 17 April); that great Victorian portrait painter G.F. Watts reassessed at the National Portrait Gallery (14 October to 9 January 2005); the witty and inventive kinetic sculptures of Tim Lewis at the Walker, Liverpool (27 May to 22 August); and Wyndham Lewis and pals responding to the industrial age in Blasting the Future! Vorticism in Britain 1910–20 at the Estorick Collection (4 February to 18 April). One special mention: Encaustic Paintings by Ken Kiff at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albemarle Street, London W1 (21 January to 14 February). An artist of rare vision yet to win his due.