2018…a year characterised by economic uncertainty and political turmoil throughout the UK. And it wasn’t all smooth sailing in the art world either. Numerous small and medium-sized galleries across London closed; museum visitor numbers plummeted yet again; and the lower end of the market struggled. However, it wasn’t all bad. Auction records were broken, with Brits taking both crowns as the most expensive living artists (David Hockney for the men; Jenny Saville for the women – although the prices are unfortunately vastly different). Art fairs flourished. And who can forget the Banksy shredding saga…bringing a UK artist and auction house into the global media spotlight.
But the most promising aspect from my point of view was the shear quality of the exhibitions in the capital this year. From Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro, to George Baselitz at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, and Anselm Kiefer at White Cube Bermondsey, there were more than a few triumphs. Norman Rosenthal curated a reconstruction of his seminal Royal Academy show from 1981 at Almine Rech, and Tate Britain showed a number of Freud and Bacon’s portraits for the first time in over three decades.
However, below are my top five personal favourites: those shows that impressed or moved me. I have chosen to feature both commercial galleries and public institutions, as well as an additional independently curated show by an artist, in a bid to show what the London art scene had to offer throughout 2018.
Picasso 1932: Love, Fame and Tragedy @ Tate Modern
To those that know me, or indeed like modern art, it will be no surprise that Picasso is featured in my top five. In fact, from the moment the show was announced – eighteen months previous to its opening – the excitement was palpable. And gosh was it worth the hype! The crowds flocked, the critics critiqued, and I basked in the joy that is Picasso. Several times.
The exhibition focused on 1932, and the lead up to Picasso’s first major retrospective at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris, closely followed by his first ever museum exhibition in Zurich. It shows the many contradictions both in and between his works; the result of his love affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter; and towards the end, the darker more tragic side of his life and art that was to come.
From a personal point of view, seeing these incredible paintings that I have read so much about, all in one place, was extremely moving. From his dabble into Surrealism and use of bright Fauvist colours, clean lines and voluminous shapes, to his darker paintings – in both colour and subject matter – as the year progressed, it was possible to really start to understand Picasso as both a painter and a person.
Charles I: King & Collector @ Royal Academy of Arts
Now for a modern and contemporary specialist, this may seem a strange choice, but the Royal Academy’s Charles I exhibition was simply outstanding, and could not be left out of my top 5. Charles I amassed the most incredible art collection during his reign: he commissioned Van Dyck and Rubens, and collected Renaissance masterpieces from Holbein and Mantegna to Titian. However, following his execution in 1649, this collection was broken up and scattered across Europe. For the first time, this exhibition reunited some of the greatest masterpieces of the collection.
Of course, there were many, many paintings of Charles I looking regal, calm and distinguished: a far cry from the reality of his reign. And many monumental paintings of the king on horses, and with his son looking angelic. All posed, but beautifully so: with the most perfect skin tones and eyes that seem to pierce the viewer. And although not my usual choice of subject matter, to walk in to a room filled with such masterpieces by heroes of art history was simply mesmerising. In order to truly understand modern and contemporary art, we have to understand the art of the past, and this was the perfect space to see these masters. Bravo RA, Bravo.
Christian Hook @ Althorp
In October, award-winning artist Christian Hook was given the rare honour of exhibiting in The Picture Gallery at Althorp, Earl Spencer and Princess Diana’s family home. Based on the original Tudor long gallery, the 115 foot long dark panelled space is a scene to behold. As you walk through, you are surrounded by incredible portraits in ornate gold frames, hanging the whole length and height of the vast room. The amazing collection includes paintings by Rubens, Reynolds and Gainsborough, to name but a few, and at the end of the gallery hangs Van Dyck’s monumental double portrait, ‘War and Peace’ – one of the top ten most important cultural objects in the UK.
Clarendon Fine Art, the gallery that represents Hook, built a series of internal walls on which to hang the majority of the show. But the pièce de résistance was the three paintings hanging on the walls of the gallery itself. Sitting above and either side of the fireplace, in prime position, Christian’s work in no way looked out of place. The juxtaposition of old and contemporary masters was astonishing, and the quality of work was exceptional. From the horses he is now becoming so famous for, to his new geisha series, the exhibition was a masterclass in contemporary painting.
Richard Hambleton: Shadowman @ Leake Street Arches
In September, Maddox Gallery and art collector Andy Valmorbida co-presented the first major exhibition of Richard Hambleton’s work since the artist’s death in 2017. Hung within the graffiti tunnels under Waterloo station, Hambleton’s influential works couldn’t have looked more at home, except on the New York streets themselves. Alongside his iconic ‘Shadowman’ silhouettes and his beautiful landscapes, a screening of a documentary of his life set the scene, while photographs of his original art on the streets of New York, by Hank O’Neal, took the viewer back to the artist’s roots.
It was dark and it was moody. You entered through tunnels where graffiti artists were still creating, and it was the perfect place to showcase the ‘godfather’ of street art. Richard Hambleton is the lesser known of the NYC street art trio that included Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, but his importance and prominence is definitely on the rise. I had never experienced his ‘beautiful’ paintings before, but these landscapes, and especially the monumental wave canvases, displayed together in such an apt space was a real treat.
Chris Levine: Inner [Deep] Space @ Park Village Studios
This exhibition was independently curated by Levine himself, in partnership with – and during – Frieze London, just down the road from the main fair. The exhibition was an experiential feast. On arrival you were presented with headphones to fully immerse yourself in the all-encompassing light and sound installations. The exhibition focussed on attention and presence, and in this hectic world it aims to take people “into a fast-track meditative space which can be healing and transformative”, according to Levine. Add to that the holographic portraits for which he has become famous, a bit of neon (who doesn’t love a bit of neon?) and some beautifully precise laser etchings, and the exhibition is a tour de force of light and sound; calm and intrigue. The perfect escape after the frenzy of Frieze!