Arts review of 2011 - Visual Art: Calm down – it's just another Leonardo...

Beyond the overbearing and clunking blockbusters, the year's best shows were far-flung, small and perfectly formed

Lest you hadn't noticed, this was the year of Leonardo, the National Gallery's much-tooted show selling out in hours.

Dilatory Da Vinci-ites, hopeful of on-the-day entry, lined up each dawn and were still there at noon. Pre-bought tickets changed hands at £400 on the internet until touting was declared not cricket by the gallery. Since pretty well every work in the show was in one public collection or another, this fervour seemed a touch hysterical – a testament to the continuing fascination of the painter of Mona Lisa, or perhaps of Dan Brown.

Oddity of the year

Tate Britain's spring offering, Watercolour, is a clear winner. As its name suggests, this far-reaching show – 500 years of art, more or less, in half-a-dozen large rooms – took watercolour as its subject. The aim was to prove that the medium means something more than maiden aunts painting primroses. But then we already knew that, didn't we? Confirming our prejudices, Watercolour avoided works that looked too much like, well, watercolours – easily done, since many turned out to be in gouache or acrylic. Acrylic? I'm still scratching my head over that one.

Good things ... Small packages

Some of the best shows of 2011 were compact, far flung and unfairly unnoticed. Two that spring particularly to mind are Wool Work: A Sailor's Art at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, which revealed the sophistication of a genre – naval scenes embroidered by Jolly Jack Tars from the time of Nelson to the Great War – long dismissed as mere craft. Down in Wiltshire, Constable in Salisbury did precisely what it said on the poster, gathering together most of the works the artist made while staying in the town with his friend, the Reverend John Fisher. True, being able to see Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Ground and then, by slightly turning your head, to see the cathedral itself was a definite plus. But the show was also clever, and a useful reminder that Mr Hay Wain wasn't just a Suffolk bwoy.

My favourites

Shamelessly subjective, these. In September, the Whitechapel's Rothko in Britain resurrected the gallery's 1961 Rothko show 50 years after the event. Largely made up of contemporary film and photographs and the reminiscences of, now elderly, visitors, this small exhibition reminded you how extraordinarily cut off English art was from the Second World War until the 1960s. My other two favourites suggest how far British art has come since then. Tacita Dean's FILM, currently in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, has that passionate cleverness that makes her one of the truly great British artists working today. Likewise, Martin Creed and Work No. 1059, a flight of Edinburgh steps re-clad in boiled-sweet marble; even if beered-up Scotsmen persist in using Creed's masterpiece as a urinal.

And so, farewell

British art suffered two sad losses in 2011. In June, Jack Smith, grudging father of the Fifties Kitchen Sink School, died as he lived, at home in Hove at the age of 83. To the end, Smith denied any social comment within his paintings of drying underpants: "If I'd lived in a palace," he said, "I'd have painted chandeliers." For all of us on The Independent on Sunday and its daily sister paper, as to his many friends and admirers, the death of The Independent's art critic, Tom Lubbock, in January, at 53, was a bitter loss. It still is.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform