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Laura Cumming’s best art of 2017

Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale), 1969 by Barkley L Hendricks
Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale), 1969 by Barkley L Hendricks, part of Tate Modern’s ‘rousing’ Soul of a Nation. Photograph: Courtesy of Tate Modern

The highest price for the ugliest painting: that was the supposed Leonardo sold for $450m last month. Does anyone really want to look at this monstrous Jesus, a heavily restored hippy scarcely anybody believes in? This was an alarming low point, where art sank from mere investment to cultural boast: Abu Dhabi buying a surprisingly un-Islamic painting for its new Louvre, all sides presumably insured against the future discovery that the painting is no better than it looks.

A shameful year for the art trade, then, but a golden year for art. 2017 gave us Russia and America as never before. A tremendous succession of masterpieces flew in from the US, including Grant Wood’s deathless American Gothic – the long-faced couple standing sentry before their wooden house, pitchfork in hand – in Britain for the first time at the Royal Academy, along with Charles Sheeler’s eerie Ford plant in winter and Edward Hopper’s hauntingly mysterious New York Movie.

The Royal Academy also brought us Jasper Johns’s famous flag paintings, their mood running from funereal to magnificent, while the Barbican’s first British Jean-Michel Basquiat survey showed the art to be as vivid and volatile as the dead art star himself. The American Dream was questioned by artists from Rauschenberg to Ruscha in mordant prints at the British Museum, and by a generation of black artists in Tate Modern’s rousing Soul of a Nation. The films of LA artist Arthur Jafa were a revelation at the Serpentine Gallery and particularly at the Store Studios, where his collage of found footage, from civil rights marches to slam dunks, set to a Kanye West anthem, built into an operatic aria for black America.

Several shows marked the Russian Revolution, but none so dramatically as the Royal Academy’s Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32, where one saw avant garde masterpieces in the opening galleries and learned their makers’ fate – suicide, murder, disappearance – at the end. Tate Modern’s terrific Red Star Over Russia, showing how art influenced politics, and vice versa, is still on. It includes some of the very few images of Trotsky that weren’t Stalinised.

Tristram Hunt quit politics to take over the V&A, escaping Corbyn for culture. Maria Balshaw succeeded Nicholas Serota at the world’s largest art empire. Tates Liverpool and Modern had great art aplenty, if not always well curated. But Tate Britain (Hockney’s sell-out show an exception) remains unmoored, with some truly blind curating: the timid and chaotic Queer British Art and Impressionists in London, which lacked almost everything, including the necessary impressionists.

The Bolshevik, 1920 by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev at the Royal Academy.
The Bolshevik, 1920 by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev at the Royal Academy. Photograph: State Tretyakov Gallery

The Turner prize came of age, lifting the bar on artists over 50, and instantly renewed itself (indeed the dynamic Lubaina Himid, 63, is its oldest winner). John Berger died at 90, still working, and Howard Hodgkin at 84, just before his acclaimed National Portrait Gallery retrospective. Stars on the rise included Artangel’s Andy Holden, with a brilliant show about bird’s eggs (and his father), and Emma Hart, whose darkly humorous ceramics won the Max Mara prize. Galleries exchanged art for our benefit: Caravaggio went from London to Edinburgh; Glasgow sent Degas to London; Sidney Nolan, Claude Cahun and Matisse are still touring Britain.

But above all, 2017 was a year of faces I can’t forget. Käthe Kollwicz’s profound self-portraits, head in hand, in charcoal and chalk, at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. Hokusai’s late self-portrait, face creased with mirth. Wolfgang Tillmans’s shot of Neil MacGregor as an ascetic saint (Tate Modern), and Barkley L Hendricks’s smooth self-portrait as a black superman in aviator shades (Soul of a Nation). Practically all of Chaïm Soutine’s awkward and mutinous bellhops and pastry chefs at the Courtauld. Most of all, Cézanne’s great self-portrait in bowler hat and overcoat, looking quickly back over his shoulder, as if suddenly aware of us but still on his way to somewhere else, in this case the luminous, claggy mass of his paint.

Paul Cézanne, self-portrait in a bowler hat (1892), at the National Portrait Gallery.
Paul Cézanne, self-portrait in a bowler hat, 1892, at the National Portrait Gallery until February 2018. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery, London

Top 10 shows

Cézanne Portraits National Portrait Gallery
Fifty gripping masterpieces in the first Cézanne portrait show in a century.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32 Royal Academy
Powerful survey, from avant garde high points to socialist-realist utopias.

Hokusai British Museum
From The Great Wave to the late watercolours with their full Rembrandtian depth.

America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s Royal Academy
Hopper, O’Keeffe, Guston, Pollock and – rarest of all – Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic.

Giacometti Tate Modern
Pinheads, striding giants and thin men.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power Tate Modern
Civil rights meets aesthetics in 20 years of black art.

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-33 Tate Liverpool
August Sander – photography’s Emile Zola – paired with the excoriating satirist Otto Dix.

Seurat to Riley Compton Verney, Warwickshire
The art, and philosophy, of perception in a small but perfect survey.

Martin Puryear Parasol Unit
Singular sculptures in everyday materials, united by humour and warmth.

Wayne Thiebaud White Cube
Cakes and landscapes by this radiant California painter.


Impressionists in London Tate Britain
Ratio of impressionists to irrelevant others roughly 1:10.

This article titled "Laura Cumming’s best art of 2017" was written by Laura Cumming, for The Observer on Sunday 10 December 2017 08.00am

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