This year started, in Britain at least, with museums and other cultural centres closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As I edit this article, it looks like it might end the same way.
From Spring museums could open again and there were some great shows.
These are the best with a ‘classical’ theme:
- Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy
Whitechapel Gallery’s Eileen Agar retrospective was an important reappraisal of this important surrealist artist, unfairly neglected perhaps due to the Art World’s innate misogyny.
Agar’s life story was as intriguing as her art. She was born in Argentina at the end of the last century but one, and moved to Britain aged 6. Her mother thought music and milk were both important to young children so Agar sailed over the Atlantic with a cow and an orchestra. She studied at the Slade and enjoyed an artistic bohemian life. She met Joseph Bard, who was to become her life partner, three years after marriage to another man. They moved briefly to France and became friends with the leading names of the Surrealist movement. She was the star turn at the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, although Dali tried to steal the show by wearing a diving bell.
Agar’s art has a unique visual look, almost like collages, with an immediacy and a depth. During her career she created paintings and sculpture which took themes from the sea and classical art. For example, Marine Object from 1939 is a barnacle encrusted ancient amphora dragged up by French fishermen and about to be thrown away topped by a starfish. While Marine Collage shows the blank silhouettes of four faces, one at least resembling a Ptolemaic queen, filled with images of marine life and classical art. The moray eels found in the bottom left were notoriously popular pets for wealthy Romans. So much, as they say, is going on in these paintings and these are only a taster.
If you missed the exhibition, Eiderdown have also published a small book on Agar as part of their Modern Women Artists series.
- War inna Babylon
A powerful exhibition chronicling the impact of various forms of state violence and institutional racism targeted at Britain’s Black communities. It also presents a new investigation into the killing of Mark Duggan in 2011 by Forensic Architecture.
Perhaps the most important exhibition this year.
- Pablo Bronstein
2021 has been Pablo’s year with two stonking exhibitions in London. Hell in its Heyday at the Sloane is arguably the first important work of art which has emerged from the British lockdowns. Exploring pleasure, sexuality, architecture and more in a set of multi-layered paintings, this is a show which entices the audience in.
Tate Britain also displayed Pablo’s seminal Cross Section of the Via Appia in Late Antiquity this summer along with Edward Allington’s sculptures.
A whole other side of the ‘stoic’ painter was revealed in the National Gallery’s carefully spaced exhibition. His early work was sensual and active, displaying a sensitivity to the physicality of bodies which developed as he matured into an almost transcendent depiction of dance.
The ancient Saka people from what is today Kazakhstan are revealed through their gorgeous gold work excavated from the permafrost of the central Eurasian steppe. Archaeologists are recreating their society from the material remains and cultural traditions. A well designed exhibition.
A collaboration between artist Allison Ksiazkiewicz and Attic Black | Thetis Authentics exploring the history of dogs in terms of their social value and what they tell us about history and culture. A fascinating small exhibition which balances the big questions with playful and delightful art.
- Paradise Edict by Michael Armitage
The monkey, the presiding spirit which haunts or perhaps vaunts itself across Armitage’s canvases perhaps owes something, or nothing, to Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom? Armitage is set to become a big name with his confident brush stocks and almost mannerist understanding of form.
The dead of Britiains’ first city rise again. An interesting exhibition.
The city’s Roman Circus Visitor Centre also has a small exhibition about worship of the goddess Isis in the Roman city. Could this benficient deity have once sailed upon the River Colne?
- Portraits by Frans Hals
The Wallace Collection reunited male portraits painted by the Frans Hals and succeeded in saving his reputation. A revelation.
The Wallace Collection also reunited two landscapes by Ruebens, for the first time in ages. It was an intimate exhibition of The Rainbow Landscape and Het Steen which allowed audiences times for reflection.
It takes a certain kind of institution to take the events of the last five years and decide we need yet another exhibition revealing that a powerful man, noted for his wrongdoing, actually had a good side. Admittedly this exhibition’s mistaken narrative angle is balanced by some impressive items, but this did not redeem an otherwise wooly show.