Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: A Look Ahead

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: A Look Ahead

Article excerpt

Martin Gayford looks forward to two big Russian shows coming to London next year - and to other visual treats on offer in 2017

For much of 1517 Michelangelo Buonarroti was busy quarrying marble in the mountains near Carrara. From time to time, however, he received letters relating how his affairs were going in Rome. These contained updates on -- among other matters -- how his friend and collaborator Sebastiano del Piombo was getting on with a big altarpiece which he hoped, with Michelangelo's help, would vanquish their joint rival, Raphael.

This picture, 'The Raising of Lazarus', has been in the National Gallery for almost 200 years now (it is No. 1 in the inventory of the collection). Next March it will be one of the centrepieces in an ambitious exhibition that inaugurates the new North Galleries, Michelangelo & Sebastiano: A Meeting of Minds (15 March-25 June).

This will assemble an impressive array of works by Sebastiano, plus two early, unfinished Michelangelo panel paintings from its own collection, drawings, plaster casts of his sculpture and one, poignant marble: the first version of the Risen Christ abandoned because of a nasty black flaw in the stone and finished unsympathetically in the 17th century.

Altogether, it should make for an intriguing mixture, but visually much of the heavy-lifting will fall on Sebastiano -- a fascinating painter but not a superstar in art history. In the early 16th century, Raphael, eventually, was considered the victor. Will the public be more convinced by Sebastiano today?

The year 1917 saw not one but two Russian revolutions: in February and October. It is possible -- who knows? -- that 2017 might see some comparably startling reversals of the status quo. One thing, at least, is for sure. In London, there will be two Russian revolutionary exhibitions on offer. Wisely, the Royal Academy gets its one in first.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 (11 February-17 April) is one of the big shows of the spring. The painting and sculpture of that time and place, like the politics, held out the possibility of a new and better world. In the event, geometric abstraction was no more able to deliver paradise on earth than Bolshevik economics. By and by the commissars cracked down on the modern artists, preferring, in their philistine way, figurative representations of heroic workers.

The rival Red Star Over Russia (8 November-18 February 2018) at Tate Modern is devoted mainly to posters, photographs and works on paper. But Tate keeps the Russian theme going with a concurrent exhibition devoted to the contemporary artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (18 October-28 January 2018). This is an ironic piece of programming, since the installations in which the Kabakovs specialise are often concerned with the life and death of the Soviet Union: a society, they point out, that simply disappeared.

The art of the USA is a theme of 2017, as well as that of the USSR. Upstairs in the Sackler Galleries, above its Russian blockbuster, the RA will present America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s (25 February-4 June). This takes a look at the art of the Great Depression. Edward Hopper and early Jackson Pollock are included, plus examples of work by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. The latter's 'American Gothic' (1930) is, for good or ill, almost as familiar as Munch's 'The Scream'. Whether it's a masterpiece or a cliché is less clear. …

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