I'm sorry to begin this look-back at 2007 on a low note, but Tracey Emin's contribution to the summer's Venice Biennale does seem an inevitable place to start. The Biennale is a strange event, pitting nationally chosen artists against each other in national pavilions. (Ours, depressingly, looks like a tea-room.) Emin was an odd choice for Official British Artist, given that her work is only ever about... well, Emin. In this one regard, she failed to disappoint. Her show in the British Pavilion could have been in any of the galleries she has shown in, and dated from any time in her career. There were no big set pieces, nothing that felt new: it might, in the mode of Tracey, have been called Take Me or Leave Me. Alas, most people did the second, lured away by the siren's call of Sophie Calle and the Russian Pavilion.
By contrast, the year's other blockbuster the Turner Prize produced an excellent result in the form of a winning Mark Wallinger. As is usual in the Turner, the work for which Wallinger was handed the 25,000 cheque his heroic recreation in Tate Britain of Brian Haw's parliamentary protest wall, "State Britain" wasn't actually in the show, this year held at Tate Liverpool. The wall was represented instead by Sleeper, a feature-length film of the artist dressed as a bear. Neither piece showed Wallinger at his best, but the belief that the Turner goes to an artist for his or her work in any given year is nonsense, and in any case, Wallinger is Britain's best living artist. (He's already done Venice, alas.) So let us not cavil.
Wallinger is also facing 50, which means he will soon slip out of the Turner's grasp and qualify instead for the title of Grand Old Man. This suggests a full-scale Wallinger show at Tate Modern, a thing devoutly to be wished. February's two-hander for Gilbert and George was among the highlights of 2007, giving the pair a city-sized venue for their city-sized work. To my mind, few artists benefit from Tate Modern's wide open spaces, but G&G are among them. For the first time that I can remember, you could see the enormity of their 40-year project, the importance of what they have done.
Unexpectedly, though, 2007 was particularly kind to painters. Yes, painters. The Courtauld Institute's October show of Walter Sickert's Camden Town nudes quietly re-wrote the history of British modernism by placing Sickert at its heart. One of the things you might ponder as you walked around the Courtauld's show was the way in which art history forgets people who really deserve to be remembered. Another was the extraordinary debt owed to Sickert by Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. From this titanic pair, you could trace a straight line to the octagenarian Leon Kossoff, whose show at the National Gallery in April revealed an unexpected devotion to the Old Masters. Like Sickert, Kossoff tends to be overlooked. Like him, too, he shouldn't be.
A slightly wavier line might also have led you to the Royal Academyin September, to a monumental show of the work of Georg Baselitz, who turns 70 next year. Bacon was at the height of his fame when the young Georg was at art school in Berlin, and somewhere in the German's scarified surface and existential desolation is a faint waft of the School of London. This was a vast exhibition about a vast painter, and, as with Gilbert and George's, its enormity was absolutely vital.
These various painterly shows came together in the Hayward Gallery's "The Painting of Modern Life" which, alas, ends today. (If you haven't seen it, get your skates on.) In championing the snapshot gaze of the flneur, Baudelaire inadvertently handed the visual arts over to photography. Painters have spent the ensuing 150 years trying to come to terms with this fact, and never more so than now. The Hayward's clever, incisive show of Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans, Vija Celmins and others allowed you to see both the difficulties painting has had to overcome in order to stay alive, and why it has managed to.Reuse content