Visual arts: New light cast on old masters

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The Independent Online

The two greatest painters of the 20th century are probably Caravaggio and Vermeer. Of course, they weren't at work in the last 100 years, but the art history of any period must include the art it admires as well as the art it produces. Their standing as two of the supreme European painters is a 20th-century development. And this year, they both made strong appearances in London.

In The Genius of Rome at the Royal Academy, the Caravaggios stole the show. There were only a few, some of dubious authenticity, but his passionate, flashlit religious dramas blasted out all the surrounding baroque stars. Vermeer and the Delft School at the National Gallery included about a third of Vermeer's surviving oeuvre. There was even less contest. Nothing compares to these luminous interiors, so clear, contained and bafflingly exact.

Otherwise, old art scored mainly on the graphic front. At the Hayward, there was a selection from Goya's private albums of drawings – an extraordinary catalogue of mockery and mercy. At the RA, Botticelli's illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy were displayed, a storytelling art of alien sophistication. And Tate Britain surveyed James Gillray, father of British cartooning, whose intellectual and often visionary satires are filled with diabolical energies, bodily unease and prismatic colour.

There were two revelations from modern British art. One, the virtual reconstruction of Stanley Spencer's planned Church-House in Tate Britain's retrospective – a temple to the artist's life and loves. The other, the work of Jeremy Moon, the short-lived abstract painter of the 1960s.

Two quasi-political happenings dominated contemporary art. In Breakdown, Michael Landy hired a shop-space in Oxford Street and publicly destroyed all of his movable goods. A drastic new start for the artist, though he wasn't vowing to give up possessions for life. And Jeremy Deller restaged the Battle of Orgreave of 1984, treating this violent episode from the miners' strike as if it were a Civil War battle.

The plinth in Trafalgar Square got another temporary occupant. Rachel Whiteread's Monument is an inverted cast of the plinth itself in clear resin. In some lights, it's a glowing, half-there mirror-image of the block beneath. In others, it suggests some toilet fixture. And with Martin Creed's The Lights Going On and Off, the Turner prize was again blessed with an I-don't-call-that-art winner. Lights going on and off: it's kind of what Caravaggio and Vermeer are about, too.

Highlights
Goya drawings (Hayward)
Vermeer and the Delft School (National Gallery)
Jeremy Moon retrospective
James Gillray (Tate Britain)
Jeremy Deller's 'Battle of Orgreave' (Orgreave)

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