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Top 5 of 2019

Top 5, Mario Sironi, Alexander Apóstol, Luigi Ghirri, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Bill Viola, Joaquín Sorolla3 min read

Across 2019, I saw 221 art exhibitions and collections, not counting repeats, and posted reviews of 48 of them on this website. That’s slightly down on the 256 I saw in 2018. But, on the plus side, I did a lot of travelling within the UK this year and managed to make the site a bit less London-centric, posting reviews across 10 cities, up from nine last year.

As will hopefully become an annual tradition here at Artangled, I’m going to round up my five favourite shows of the year, and name and shame a couple of public gallery exhibitions I didn’t like so much. I’ll exempt commercial galleries from that second list as I don’t think they should be held to the same standards.

Overall, it’s been another deeply inspiring and educational year for this observer. It feels good to revisit these fabulous five, if only in my head!

Mario Sironi: Signs and Colours (Brun Fine Art, London)

A super-rare solo show for a much-maligned and almost forgotten painter. Though that fact shouldn’t come as much of a suprise, considering Sironi’s reclusiveness and gross politics.

installation view

The Brun Fine Art show was effectively a mini-retrospective of the long career, from Sironi’s advertising posters to his monolithic final works. It was also, unfortunately, pretty deserted. I doubt I’ll see another solo show from this artist for many years - which made this one all the more special.

Alexander Apóstol: Venezuelan Pastoral (Mor Charpentier, Paris)

Visitors to this small but shattering exhibition were confronted with a grid of black and white photo portraits, each showing a Venezuelan archetype: some timeless, some, very unfortunately, stuck in the here and now. There’s Simon Bolívar, a beauty queen, a rioting student, and a journalist with a shiny black eye.

installation view

This edge of camp lends the very dignified poses and personas an acrid bitterness. I hadn’t heard of this artist, and hope to see him show in London soon.

Luigi Ghirri: Cartes et Territoires (Jeu de Paume, Paris)

Another knockout photography show in Paris, though this time in a public gallery, showcased this quiet Italian's genius. An ex surveyor, Modena-based Ghirri bought a map-maker’s rigour to his craft, methodically photographing advertising hoardings, his bookshelves and a local theme park, among other things.

installation view

Ghirri’s gardens and houses are neat, the roads are smooth, the skies are (usually) blue. The composition of the photographs is all about structure, with horizons, walls and overhead wires framing his scenes. They generally don’t feature people - or if they do, these people aren’t looking at or talking to each other. I found the whole thing captivating.

L’Empreinte (Olivier Malingue, London)

It’s hard to theme an exhibition around a concept. If the concept’s too broad, the effect is absurd; too specific, and it could just be hair-splittingly academic and boring. This wide-ranging show, based around the concept of the imprint, hit the sweet spot.

installation view

With works from Gina Pané, Yves Klein and Meret Oppenheim, among others, along with a sight-specific mural from Thu-Van Tran, the gallery highlighted many kinds of imprints, and formed a deeply smart artistic statement.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)

Liverpool’s most-storied gallery was a great and happy surprise, and this exhibition, on the Glaswegian iconoclast, was the highlight of highlights. The works on show at the Walker Art Gallery do a great job at lining Mackintosh up in a heritage extending across the continent to Symbolism and the Secession.

installation view

One of the saddest revelations for me from the show was Mackintosh’s financial failure as an architect. He was eventually drummed out of his practice for not bringing in enough work, having tried and failed in competitions including a (stunning) design for Liverpool’s Protestant Cathedral. But his reputation has only grown over the decades since, and this exhibition demonstrates exactly why.

Disappointments of the year

At the Royal Academy, Bill Viola Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth was almost unbearably exposing for the videographer. Compared to the infinite variety of Michelangelo’s drawings, Viola was indelibly revealed as a one trick pony. And quite a dull trick, too.

Down the road at the National Gallery, Sorolla: Master of Life represented Spanish impressionist Joaquin Sorolla's long and varied artistic output as a series of sentimental picture postcards. A really poor show.

Other highlights

To stop this post getting too long, I had to make the cut off of my favourites of the year at five, but if it’d have been a top 10, these shows would have rounded it out:

Ambitions for 2020? I said this in my round-up post last year, but I really need to diversify my London gallery-going habit outside of that knot of streets north of the RA in Mayfair - there’s so much more out there to see!

I also hope to have a proper gallery binge in New York at some point. And to keep posting here, of course.

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