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.

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate