London plays host to some giants of the Art World over the next year. the Chairman of the RA’s Exhibition Committee, Stephen Farthing RA, picks his top five upcoming shows and celebrates innovations born of great skill and maturity.
The artists, architects, curators and historians who are the Royal Academy’s Exhibitions Committee meet about eight times a year to discuss and build a programme that they hope will challenge, inform and ultimately not only please but grow our audience. Not surprisingly, beyond taste, emergent themes and financial prudence, one recurrent issue in our discussions is what other galleries are planning. Which is why, I suspect, I have been asked to share with you my view of the top five shows opening in London this year.
Anselm Kiefer, 'For Paul Celan, Ash Flowers', 2006. Oil, emulsion, acrylic, and shellac on canvas with burnt books, 330 x 760 cm. Private collection, Paris. © Anselm Kiefer.
I started by making a shortlist: Rembrandt, Matisse, Jarman, Kiefer
– the first three of whose late works are the subject of exhibitions in 2014 (Kiefer has a major retrospective).
Then, picking up Edward Said’s last book On Late Style (1999), I re-read the writer Steven Poole’s blurb on the back cover: ‘An easy mastery of material with an unquenched desire to preserve difficulties.’ Having reflected that Poole’s words were as much about late style itself as about the author, I decided upon late style as my theme.
I prefixed the first three names with ‘late’ and then thought about what would be my fifth show. I circled Matisse and Jarman, drew a line from each to the bottom of the page and wrote ‘pure colour’, which is the theme of another exhibition next year. And so I had my London 2014, a trail of exhibitions that celebrate the kind of invention that grows out of deep knowledge, skill and maturity, with colour as the subplot.
'Almost Bliss' Notebook. © Estate of Derek Jarman. Courtesy K.Collins.
The year starts on the Thames at Millbank in Chelsea Space with ‘Almost Bliss: Notes on Derek Jarman’s Blue’, an installation curated by Donald Smith that commemorates the 20th anniversary of the death of the Turner Prize-shortlisted painter, film-maker, gardener, writer and activist. Saturated in blue light, the show presents the notebooks that were the footings for Jarman’s last film, Blue (1993). The subject of this show is more than any other this year dear to my heart. For the past three years, Ed Webb-Ingall and I have been building a picture of Jarman through the notebooks he systematically kept throughout his life, and the result, Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, was published recently by Thames & Hudson.
Henri Matisse, 'The Snail', 1953. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas. Tate © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013.
In April I will head to Tate Modern, where ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ will reunite three of the French artist’s last and largest cut-outs: The Snail, Memory of Oceania and Large Composition with Masks (all 1953). In each of the 120 works included in this show, Matisse reduces painting to a beautiful balancing act – on one side pure colour, on the other just shape.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, ‘Combing the Hair’ ('La Coiffure'), about 1896. © The National Gallery, London.
In June the National Gallery presents ‘Colour’, another balancing act, this time with beauty and art weighed against earth, minerals and paint technology. ‘Colour’ takes us from the early Renaissance to Impressionists such as Degas, leading us, I hope, to reflect not simply on the role of paint technologies in shaping art, but also on the importance of colour more generally.
Rembrandt, ‘Self Portrait at the Age of 63’, 1669. © The National Gallery, London. In the autumn the Royal Academy celebrates four decades of spectacular tertiary colour in the work of painter, sculptor and Honorary Academician ‘ Anselm Kiefer
’, whose For Paul Celan, Ash Flowers (2006), featuring burnt books piercing the canvas, is one of a series dedicated to the Jewish Romanian poet. The show starts with 20th-century post- war trauma and I believe will leave us wondering whether expressionist artists such as Kiefer are blessed from birth with the kind of gravitas we normally expect to see only in ‘late style’.
Lastly, it’s back to the National Gallery and ‘Rembrandt: The Final Years’, the first comprehensive exploration of the last 20 years of the artist’s life. Rembrandt’s late work chases the intangibility of the visible through the effects of light, moisture and the emotions on matter and, like each of my chosen shows, epitomises both a ‘mastery of material’ and an ‘unquenched desire to preserve difficulties’.