Laura Cumming: the best art of 2015

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Laura Cumming: the best art of 2015″ was written by Laura Cumming, for The Observer on Sunday 13th December 2015 09.30 UTC

‘Conceptual art humanised’: Ai Weiwei with his work Tree at the Royal Academy in September.
‘Conceptual art humanised’: Ai Weiwei with his work Tree at the Royal Academy in September. Photograph: Leon Neal/ AFP/ Getty Images

Goya’s portraits at the National Gallery bowled me over in a year already thronged with surprises. It was not just that the show unleashed such a concatenation of self-portraits – Goya as tyro, as wide boy, as Beethoven with a face like thunder, as dying man brought back from the brink of oblivion. It was that the wild variety allowed you to look at Goya in a completely different way.

The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children, 1788 by the ‘incomparable’ Goya at the Royal Academy.
The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children, 1788 by the ‘incomparable’ Goya at the Royal Academy. Photograph: © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Instead of the usual complacency of the old master blockbuster where every work is treated with the same unresisting reverence, this one acknowledged all his bizarre anomalies to make you think far more deeply about Goya. Why he paints some sitters like mannequins, and others like real beings; how he may work both ways in the same painting. Why a live-wire sketch of Wellington, darting all over his face to catch his weary realism, may be a far greater portrait than the painted doll that was the official commission. The idiom changes radically according to what and how much Goya knows and feels about his sitter – and to see this was to get a uniquely intimate sense of the artist as an actual man moving through his life and times rather than the standard unknowable genius.

Goya was one of the last shows scheduled by outgoing director Nicholas Penny, who also brought us late Rembrandt, ending in January, and the exhilarating gathering of Manet, Monet, Delacroix and Degas in Inventing Impressionism. His successor, the much-admired Gabriele Finaldi, returning from the Prado, has already settled the dispute over privatisation and the living wage that made the NG look like some miserly Tesco. At the National Portrait Gallery, 37-year-old Nicholas Cullinan arrived announcing an enticing swap of portraits with Russia, and Penelope Curtis’s dismal reign at Tate Britain ended with the appointment of Alex Farquaharson, contemporary specialist.

So many of the best British art shows of late – Cornelia Parker, Peter Lanyon, Eric Ravilious – could have been at Tate Britain, but instead we had the glum trudge through history in the form of illustrated lectures – Artist and Empire, Sculpture Victorious – that has been its very nearly anti-art programme in 2015.

Propeller (Air Pavilion), 1937 by Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern.
Propeller (Air Pavilion), 1937 by Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern. Photograph: Tim Ireland/AP

Elsewhere, this was a year of enlightenment (at least for me). I had never seen the chic and dynamic art of the French avant-gardist Sonia Delaunay before; I’d never seen the serenely immaculate paintings of Agnes Martin at full stretch. Tate Modern gave us both. The Swiss Jean Etienne-Liotard’s fizzingly quick-fire pastel portraits, from the 18th century, had their first British outings and the deeply enigmatic mind of Joseph Cornell was revealed in microscopic detail in 60 of his shadowy collage boxes, compressed as sonnets, at the Royal Academy.

Art can take you anywhere, and this year it took thousands of viewers straight into the secret police cell where Ai Weiwei was illegally detained for 81 days in China. Six rusting tanks showed his suffering in half life-sized dioramas, the artist constantly monitored by two menacing guards. It used to be that more people had heard of Ai than had ever seen his work, but in Britain at least, the RA’s potent show went some way to reverse that.

This year I saw enthralling new works by Tacita Dean, Bedwyr Williams, Phyllida Barlow and other British artists, but the image that has lived in my head ever since I saw it in April is by an Englishman who died in 1942. Eric Ravilious’s watercolour shows the Arctic sun ricocheting across the icy waters off Iceland, which shimmer in the strange light beneath a sky streaked with vapour trails and aeroplanes like gathering birds. It is a marvel of graphic notation, concise as a Seurat, beautiful and yet frightening. Ravilious himself will one day go up in one of those planes and meet his death in that sky.

HMS Glorious In The Arctic,by Eric Ravilious
HMS Glorious in the Arctic, c1940, by Eric Ravilious: ‘a marvel of graphic notation’. Photograph: IWM via Getty Images

Top 10

Goya: The Portraits National Gallery
Incomparable and first-ever gathering of Goya’s portraits.

Eric Ravilious Dulwich Picture Gallery
Enthralling, exhilarating and outstandingly beautiful English watercolours.

Ai Weiwei Royal Academy
Conceptual art humanised by this Chinese activist and world-famous artist.

Inventing Impressionism National Gallery
Radical masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Degas and Van Gogh.

Two Acrobats, 1929 by Alexander Calder.
Two Acrobats, 1929 by Alexander Calder. Photograph: © 2015 Calder Foundation, New York / DACS, London

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture Tate Modern
The merry man of mobiles, circus troupes and coruscating abstract sculpture.

Richard Diebenkorn Royal Academy
Blazing Californian abstracts to figuration and back again from this sensuous US painter.

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots Tate Liverpool
Black works from the last months of Pollock’s life.

Agnes Martin Tate Modern
Ultra-refined and serene paintings by the doyenne of US minimalism.

Christian Marclay White Cube
Images, sounds and how they go together in fizzing films and paintings.

Michaël Borremans David Zwirner
Painted figments of a highly original Belgian mind.

Turkeys

Soundscapes National Gallery
Feeble and wrongheaded attempt to match contemporary music to art.

Turner prize 2015 Tramway, Glasgow
Puny, low-watt art, stronger architecture.

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