New year, Old Masters

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The Independent Culture
1996 promises to be the

year of Cezanne, Morris

and Velazquez. Whatever

happened to modern art?

THE YEAR begins with the bad news that the Royal Academy has been obliged to postpone its survey "The Twentieth Century: The Age of Modern Art", which was to have been the major exhibition for the autumn of 1996. Worse, the RA was to have spread its show in a partnership with the Whitechapel, the Hayward and the National Portrait Gallery. All four galleries now have a gaping hole in their schedules, and will find it difficult to put on other exhibitions at such short notice.

The lesson is that the exhibition industry is both successful and precariously balanced. Attendance figures are in hundreds of thousands. But the difficulties of securing the loan of multi-million-pound works of art, the problems of paying the insurance, bargaining with sponsors and so on, are all mounting. There's also the suspicion that the RA had taken on an intellectual task that was more than it could cope with. For 20th- century art is such a complex subject that one cannot imagine it reduced to a single exhibition. After all, no one has ever managed to write a satisfactory book that looks at modern art as a whole. And books are a great deal easier to organise than exhibitions.

We are on surer ground with the 19th-century fathers of modernism, and the supreme exhibition of 1996 will surely be "Cezanne", opening at the Tate in February. It's a complete retrospective, organised in conjunction with the Grand Palais in Paris, though most of the scholarship comes from the third party in the venture, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. To see the show in Paris was an unforgettable experience. Every single picture proved that Cezanne was the most passionately serious of artists. Yet he was indubitably wayward. There was a lot of paranoia in his character. Does it appear in his art? Is he a modern classicist or a baroque romantic?

Cezanne is nicely complemented by "Degas: Beyond Impressionism" at the National Gallery in May. Surprisingly, Degas's late period has not been much studied. This show, organised by the excellent Richard Kendall, brings together paintings, pastels, drawings and sculptures. We will see Degas as the first multi-media artist of the modern age. Some people believe that he gained a visionary quality in old age. More likely that he became profoundly lonely. That's not like Impressionism, which was a social movement. At the Royal Academy in May there's to be a show devoted to the sociable Gustave Caillebotte, subtitled "The Unknown Impressionist". Actually he's not unknown at all, but it will be good to have a closer look at his pleasant painting.

With the postponement of the 20th-century shows, the emphasis of 1996's exhibitions turns towards Victorian art. In February, the Royal Academy will celebrate its former President, Lord Leighton, who I suppose is the supreme exemplar of Victorian academicism. Expect a chilly occasion. Then, also in February, the Tate's never-ending series of Turner exhibitions will examine his Liber Studiorum. This curious compilation or "drawing book" was close to Turner's heart, but has never previously been presented in such depth. The major Victorian event of the year is the exhibition devoted to William Morris at the V&A. This is accompanied by other tributes such as "William Morris and the Crafts Today" (Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, then touring) and "William Morris: Questioning the Legacy" at the City Art Gallery, Birmingham.

It may be the centenary of Morris's death, but there's no need to be pious. Being a loyal Ruskinian, I find it difficult to like Morris - apart from that little picture of La Belle Iseult (above), his only painting. The two men are often presented as a team. In fact Morris soon came to oppose Ruskin, who scarcely noticed his former admirer. One of the wallpaper merchant's attacks on Ruskin was disguised as a general denunciation of the "parasites" of Oxford education. So I'm glad that Robert Hewison is putting on "Ruskin's Oxford: Art and Education" at the Ashmolean in May. It's high time that Ruskin's learning was recognised.

In April, elsewhere in Oxford, the Museum of Modern Art offers a retrospective of the American sculptor Carl Andre, best known for his bricks at the Tate. But, for good or ill, Andre seems old-fashioned these days, and not at all challenging. A more controversial exhibition will be Jean-Michel Basquiat's retrospective at the Serpentine in March. This Warhol protege was feted in New York at the end of the 1980s for his graffiti paintings and scrawled, unintelligible messages from the detritus of American street- life. He died of a heroin overdose at the age of 29. I don't exactly look forward to this show, but will be interested to see how it's presented by the Serpentine education department.

Art at the Edinburgh Festival has been depressing in recent years, but in August we will see Giacometti at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and "Velazquez in Seville" at the National Gallery of Scotland. Velasquez is not well represented in British public collections, and I expect this exhibition to display him to many admiring visitors. We ought all to appreciate his magisterial attitudes and intimate beauties. He is one of the giants of European painting, in the company of Manet and Matisse. Goya may take our attention more readily, but for the true lover of painterly art Velazquez has more to offer.

The other essential Old Master exhibition of 1996 is devoted to Vermeer. It's not coming to Britain. You can see it at the National Gallery in Washington until 11 February, or at the Mauritshuis in the Hague from 1 March. The Hague is only five miles from Vermeer's home town of Delft, and obviously will provide more of a Vermeer feeling. But wherever one sees his work, what a calm and truthful personality seems to flow from Vermeer's paintings. A number of his pictures have been cleaned for this occasion, so his unparalleled use of light will be all the more apparent.

Cezanne, Degas, Velazquez, Vermeer: so obviously the big shows of 1996. Equally obviously, they will reinforce what we already know about the artists: they will move us, but will not be revelations. I wish we could look forward to some high-class and committed big exhibitions of modern or contemporary art. We used to be able to expect such shows from the Hayward. I am saddened - worse than saddened - by the decline of this gallery, and indeed the decline of all touring exhibitions organised by the South Bank Centre. All the Hayward can offer us this year is "Spellbound" in February, merely 10 short films made by British artists, and then "Claus Oldenburg: an Anthology" in June. The Oldenburg show has been bought in from elsewhere. I suppose the idea might have been interesting a quarter of a century ago. What's happening at the Hayward? I can see what's not happening. !