Art That Will Lift Our Spirits in Midwinter; It's an Exciting, Crowded Start to the New Exhibition Year with, among Others, Caravaggio, Beuys, Turner, Whistler and the Queen's Dutch Masterpieces to Stimulate the Eye

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IT MAY seem odd to begin an anticipatory survey of the first three months of 2005 with a reminder that one of last year's weakest exhibitions runs on until 17 April, but the Wallace Collection's Boucher is, between now and 6 March, given a significant boost by an injection of material that demonstrates his early dependence on 17th-century Dutch artists. For many reasons the WC is the wrong place for major exhibitions and, with the organising ability of a demented moth, its directrice should never attempt another, but the belated borrowing from French museums of five paintings and 25 drawings by Berchem, Bloemaert and others, and more paintings by Boucher himself, lends weight to the intellectual argument and makes admission to the uninspired rearrangement of the WC's own Bouchers seem, for [pounds sterling]6, marginally less fraudulent.

The year's first blockbuster, opening on 22 January, is Turks, a Journey of a Thousand Years, between AD 600 and 1600, at the Royal Academy. A " landmark exhibition," claims the RA, "a rich array of textiles, manuscripts, calligraphy, woodwork, metalwork and ceramics ...

that culminates in the splendours of the Ottoman Empire."

And so it may be, but as something of a Turcophile I am puzzled by the cut-off point at 1600, for the long, slow decline of Ottoman taste into the early 20th century and its surrender to European influences are at least as much part of the journey from East to West and quite as interesting as the pre-Islamic origins of Turkish nomadic tribes on the Silk Route across central Asia. As the exhibits are drawn primarily from Topkapi and the Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, many will be familiar to the myriad British visitors there; from preliminary information, however, it seems that the exhibition is intended to be less encyclopaedic than introductory - 350 exhibits in diverse media offer pretty thin cover for a thousand years.

At the Saatchi Gallery, from 26 January, The Triumph of Painting illustrates their statement that "painting continues to be the most relevant and vital way that artists choose to communicate". This is a challenging assertion not supported by the Tate and its Turner Prize; nor can the scrupulous critic concur when he sees about him the burden of photography, video, installation and whimsical frivolity that artists, curators and other critics now pretend is art. Painting is still being produced in prodigious quantities, but when the critic looks for quality he finds virtually nothing even in the derided area of skill, just more of the rough incompetence that, claiming the virtue of immediacy, has merely contributed to painting's degradation and decline.

Perhaps this Saatchi show will rouse us to debate but, melancholy, I feel that the argument has now been too long lost to be of interest to anyone.

Quantity alone will not reinvigorate this dead art of the past.

At Tate Britain, Anthony Caro is on 26 January presented "as one of the world's greatest living sculptors". Lawks a' mercy, greatness has suffered a mighty falling off. Scant ability (apart from muscle) and scanter inspiration, carried by vanity and diligent promotion, have been too much exalted. Every Caro exhibition - and there have been too many in the past halfcentury - has demonstrated the wilderness of mannerism and affectation into which he has strayed, his work neve r more monum e n t a l l y insignificant than in his "sculpitecture", never more puerile than in his abstract d e r iva t i on s from paintings by old masters.

In the absence of a master sorcerer to spell an end to it, Caro's tide of apprentice trivia has swept the world and we have been suborned to think it great.

On 4 February, Joseph Beuys: Vitrines, Actions, Environments opens at Tate Modern. I believe Beuys to be one of the four most influential artists of the 20th century, a mad but utterly honest man whose life became his art just as the materials of his experience became those with which he gave substance to his wayward genius. …


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