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

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The Independent Culture

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.