Arts: Flesh, fabric, sex and money

1999 looks like being a tremendous year for those who appreciate art with their senses.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A good year ahead, it looks, happily free of fin de siecle or millennial anticipations. A good start at least - and some of the best of it starts soon. In a month's time Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch opens at the National Gallery. It wasn't so many years ago that Ingres was a byword for the slick and the square, a patron saint of academic painting. But lately he's enjoyed a reversal of critical fortune. Now he looks like a tremendous perve and weirdo - very much our cup of tea - and never more so than in his portraits, especially those of women.

In Ingres' hands, these high-bourgeois ladies become soft, human fillets. Their bodies are manipulated into extreme re-arrangements, distortions which are only just covered by the exquisite skin painting and the opulent fields of frock. Formal affirmations of affluence and status they may be, or be meant to be. But the result is a fusion of economic and sensual luxury, swoony erotic melanges of flesh and fabric, money and sex in perfect harmony. His drawings are triumphs of the art.

There's danger in this sort of advance publicity, of course. It just makes things worse for everyone. It was nine years ago that the Royal Academy put on Monet in the '90s - a show so well attended that the main thing it offered the visitor was the chance to study crowd movements in a confined space. I dare say Monet in the 20th Century will go much the same way.

The surprise, perhaps, is that there's a show there at all - a 19th Century painter, surely? But no, Monet lived until 1926. He worked on, his vision so disturbed by cataracts that sometimes he had to rely on the labels on his paint-tubes, and pursued his own course, hardly influenced by contemporary developments. But in his pictures of the gardens and ponds at Giverny, he created as strange a painting-world as any of the younger modern artists. You may just catch a glimpse of it.

You'll soon be hearing so much about Neurotic Realism that I won't say much here. It's Charles Saatchi's brand new made-up art movement, a slogan coined to promote his recent purchases now that the Young British Artist label has done its job. It seems a highly ridiculous gambit, and will doubtless prosper. The first installment goes on show at the Saatchi Gallery in January.

The career of Patrick Caulfield demonstrates the dispensibility of labels. Once he was called a Pop artist. Now it's a little hard even to see why. His retrospective at the Hayward Gallery will reveal a virtuoso of many paintings styles, though I think the Sixties pictures are still the real knockouts - the steady black outlines filled with luminous panes of colour, the colouring-in book principle turned to startling levels of beauty and intelligence.

Other February openings include a retrospective of John Everett Millais, the sanest Pre-Raphaelite, at the National Portrait Gallery, and a chance to see the drawings of an artist who always denied doing any in Francis Bacon: Works on Paper and Paintings at the Tate in London. Meanwhile at the Tate in Liverpool there's Richard Deacon: New World Order - new work by one of the leading British sculptors of the 1980s. Rather pompous collages of industrial stuffs they always seemed to me, but what it looks like now I don't know.

By far the most interesting spring prospect is the London Tate's Jackson Pollock retrospective. This is good macro-timing. The wild hero of Abstract Expressionism, "Jack the Dripper", the first star of US painting, died in 1956. A generation has grown up for whom Pollock's name is a legend, but his work almost unknown. To be honest, I've hardly looked at it myself, partly put off by the existential Davey Crocket image. But now one expects the legend to fall away and something rather beautiful and old masterly to shine through. Or will it be something flash and skimpy? Whatever, we'll be seeing - and being - posterity at work.

May brings Examining Pictures at the Whitechapel, a survey of the expanded field of contemporary painting - a good subject, and a show which one can predict pretty confidently will have a new and snappier title by the time it opens; I mean, they must want somebody to go to it. And at the Barbican there's New Art for a New Era: Kasimir Malevich's Vision of the Russian Avant-Garde: another good topic, marking a rare, brief moment of collaboration between an artistic and a political revolution, and another title in need of a little fine tuning.

The self-portraits of Rembrandt need no advertisement. They've become the great pictorial statements of honesty and mortality, of the human depths. They stand among the top icons of humanity itself, the sort of thing we'd like to send off into outer space, to show the ETs what a wonderful species we are - except that the ETs might not like oil painting or share our admiration for candour. But for those who do, there's Rembrandt by Himself at the National: 40 painted self-portraits, plus drawings and etchings too.

It looks like being a good year in particular for the painter Gary Hume. Born in 1962, he's the UK representative at the '99 Venice Bienale in June, and he's the subject of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's Edinbugh Festival show. His pictures - in which simple images are translated into flat shapes painted in funny colours - often seem very good, but I've never quite worked out what their trick is. It's something to do with being enigmatic but completely casual.

Hints for the second half of the year must inevitably be sparser and vaguer; anyway, you'll have forgotten them. Two rather interesting-looking, similar-sounding group things, both absurdly titled, emanate from the Tate Gallery. In London there's Abracabra: International Contemporary Art, opening in August - a foretaste, I guess, of the kind of show that the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, opening next year at Bankside, will be doing much more of. Then in Liverpool there's Trace: The 1999 Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art, which will "explore place, memory, materiality and mapping" (good grief). But no, it's very nice to have a Biennial on British soil, though with the world so widely tipped to end the following year, the word is perhaps a little hubristic. The Turner Prize will still be there too.

Autumn brings a big Van Dyck show at the Royal Academy. He's not a painter I've ever got much of a kick out of - how much better if it was a big Rubens show - but it promises plenty of religious and mythological pictures as well as his popular Stuart portraiture.

Two Italian avant-gardists command the stage in October. At the Hayward Gallery there's a Lucio Fontana retrospective, the artist whose signature work is a blank, raw canvass, neatly slashed. At the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford there's Michelangelo Pistolletto: The Shifting Perspective, a hommage to one of the founders of arte povera, and an artist whose activities are too various for any summary. In November, the London Tate shows Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell & Duncan Grant, an exhibition of the visual wing of the famous Group, which will demonstrate, beyond a doubt, that you can be a highly advanced, ahead-of-the-game artist, and absolutely no good at all. Please, you have my word for it.

Comments