Laura Cumming: best art of 2016

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Laura Cumming: best art of 2016″ was written by Laura Cumming, for The Observer on Sunday 4th December 2016 07.00 UTC

It was a year of dramatic arrivals and departures. Masterpieces by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Delacroix and the elusive Giorgione flew in from round the world – who can forget Giorgione’s glowering 1510 man, head moving, eyes turning: like watching portraiture wake up. The National Portrait Gallery swapped its Chandos Shakespeare with Moscow’s Tretyakov Museum for mesmerising portraits of Chekhov, Tolstoy, an irate Turgenev and the only image of Dostoevsky from the life, shattered but unbowed after Siberian solitary confinement.

The Royal Academy mustered the biggest canvases it has ever displayed – Jackson Pollock’s magnificent Blue Poles from Australia, Clyfford Still’s monumental crags from Colorado – for its Abstract Expressionism blockbuster. And Lord knows how they did it, but the Scottish National Gallery managed to entice the tiniest of masterpieces, Carel Fabritius’s legendary Goldfinch, out of the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Catch it in Edinburgh for another fortnight before it flies away.

Carel Fabritius The Goldfinch, 1654 Mauritshuis, The Hague
‘The tiniest of masterpieces’: Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, 1654. Photograph: Mauritshuis, The Hague

Michael Clarke, SNG director, departed after a spectacular sequence of exhibitions over three decades. Julia Peyton-Jones left the Serpentine and Jenni Lomax quit Camden Arts Centre, heavy losses for contemporary art. Ian Dejardin announced his departure from Dulwich Picture Gallery, ending 19 years of revelatory shows, particularly of Scandinavian, Dutch and Canadian painting. And with him goes Xavier Bray (whose Goya survey was the triumph of 2015) for the Wallace Collection; perhaps he can turn that relic into a living Mauritshuis.

The Switch House opened, doubling the size of Tate Modern to make it the biggest art museum on earth, and an era closed with the subsequent resignation of Tate director Nicholas Serota. Nobody can match him for tactics, diplomacy, curatorial and administrative brilliance. But his most-tipped successor, Tate Modern boss Frances Morris, put art before tourist attraction with the reworked museum, making a coherent narrative of the past 50 years and righting the balance with terrific works by Bridget Riley, Carmen Herrera, Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois and more, acknowledging that great art is made by women as well as men.

Pink Sliding Square 1978, by Mary Heilmann
‘Abstract skits’: Pink Sliding Square 1978, by Mary Heilmann. Photograph: Etienne Frossard/Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Winifred Knights’s amazingly strange neoclassical modernism was rediscovered at Dulwich almost 70 years after her death, and I loved the humorous abstract skits of the American painter Mary Heilmann, shown for the first time en masse at the Whitechapel Gallery. The self-portraits of Alice Neel and Celia Paul starred in a high year for this genre, with the fabulous Facing the World in Edinburgh, From Rembrandt to Munch to Ai Weiwei, and Portrait of the Artist, still on at the Queen’s Gallery.

The crowning of Helen Marten marked an art moment. This 31-year-old artist, shortlisted for the Turner prize and with a solo Serpentine show, won the inaugural Hepworth prize for sculpture with her free-form assemblies of bric-a-brac. Marten conjures her own seething web of enigmatic meanings and associations from random objects, but this is the mode of the year for many other artists: scavenging poetry out of recycled junk.

Helen Marten, winner of the inaugural Hepworth prize for sculpture with her artwork at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in November
‘Poetry from junk’: Helen Marten, winner of the inaugural Hepworth prize for sculpture with her artwork at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in November. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

In a year that saw the axing of the art history A-level, the closure of Edinburgh’s Inverleith House and the BBC’s art units, our experience of art is diminished. How infinitely more valuable are our galleries and museums. In 2017 they will set before us everything from ancient African rock carvers at the British Museum to modern masters such as Ensor, Picasso, Nash, Klein and Rauschenberg. Whatever else, we are still living in the golden age of the blockbuster.

But the experience that lingers longest with me is a nine-screen installation by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, a threnody for a lost marriage filmed in a crumbling antebellum mansion. Each screen showed a single musician, each performance was a perfect character study and the whole cinematic composition was entrancingly poignant and beautiful. I saw it on my birthday; what a gift.

Ragnar Kjartansson in his 2012 video installation, The Visitors.
Ragnar Kjartansson in his 2012 video installation, The Visitors. Photograph: © Ragnar Kjartansson

Top 10 shows

Robert Rauschenberg Tate Modern
Dazzling combines, collages and paintings.

Picasso Portraits National Portrait Gallery
Picasso as lover, friend and intimate portraitist.

Beyond Caravaggio National Gallery
Ribera, Gentileschi, De La Tour and more, as well as Caravaggio.

Ragnar Kjartansson Barbican
Hypnotic films and installations from the Icelandic superstar.

Painters’ Paintings National Gallery
Masterpieces from Van Eyck to Freud.

Maria Lassnig Tate Liverpool
First big survey of the incomparably original tragicomic images by this Austrian painter.

James Ensor Royal Academy
The eerie Belgian visionary, curated by Luc Tuymans.

Facing the World Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Brilliantly (and widely) selected self-portrait anthology.

In the Age of Giorgione Royal Academy
Rare Giorgiones, plus portraits by Bellini, Dürer and Titian.

Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison Artangel
Oscar Wilde’s jail filled with art that echoed his suffering.

Turkey

Conceptual Art in Britain Tate Britain
Dismal anthology of dusty documents and relics.

• More from the Observer critics’ review of 2016:

Film, television, radio, pop and rock, classical music, theatre, dance, architecture and games

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