The year in visual art

THE year just ending will be remembered as the year of the Second Great Crash, but in the visual arts there were other anxieties too. It was the year in which the Duke of Sutherland decided to sell Titian's Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, the two greatest jewels in his fabulous collection of paintings. We knew he would one day.

Though the pictures had been in the National Gallery for 60 years, they were always his or his predecessors' to remove at a whim. Now he has offered these two pictures to the nation in a complicated deal.

The price tag on each is 50 million. The purchase of Diana and Actaeon must be completed by end of this year and, at the time of writing, despite reports to the contrary, they still had not quite got there. But when they do, and they must, then the purchase of the Diana and Callisto must follow in four years' time. With that sale complete, the Duke will guarantee nothing else is sold for 21 years. The purchase is a partnership between the NGS and the National Gallery in London. These are simply the two grandest and most important paintings in the history of Western art.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For the past few months, the Diana and Actaeon has been on view in London. It looks spectacular away from all the bric-a-brac in the NGS, but more importantly, even in company of all the great pictures in London's wonderful collection, it is still supreme. No matter what the price, we have somehow to complete the deal. The partnership with London means that these two pictures will do five years here, then five years there. In saving the pictures, to an extent we also lose them. Surely in recognition of that fact, London could undertake to fill the gap in Edinburgh with something worthy at least, for nothing could be as good.

In February 2008 the acquisition was completed of the Anthony d'Offay collection, also a partnership deal, this time between the Tate and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The collection was formed by Anthony d'Offay during 40 years as one of London's leading contemporary art dealers. He is an Edinburgh graduate and wanted to give something back. The acquisition is described as a gift, but it is of a kind that I wouldn't much like to find in my Christmas stocking, for it came with a price tag of 26 million. The "gift" was the difference between this figure – what d'Offay paid for the collection – and the contemporary price tag put on it of five times that. The deal is now done, however, and, whatever its real collective worth, the art of the past 40 years is immeasurably better represented in our public collections now than it was before.

It may not be to everyone's liking. Personally I wouldn't cross the road to see a work by Gilbert and George, for instance, or Bruce Nauman or Damien Hirst for that matter. Nevertheless, they are part of the history of our time and so they should be there for future generations to judge if, collectively, we took leave of our senses in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Andy Warhol, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Richard Long, Anselm Kiefer, Sol le Witt, Bill Viola and a good many others also among the 32 artists in the collection are far more than just historical curiosities, however. What is more, the acquisition comes with a commitment that, in the unusual form of "artist's rooms", in effect ready-made exhibitions, work from the collection will tour far and wide.

Reflect, however, that with the d'Offay collection and the Sutherland Titians we have been faced with two emergency purchases on this scale this year and they follow the similar emergency over Dumfries House last year and the John Murray archive the year before that. Surely there is something wrong with the system when an owner can hold us to ransom like this? It wrecks any systematic acquisition policy and leaves serial crisis management in its place. Export of a work of art can be delayed for up to six months if a committee of the Office of Arts and Libraries so decides. The delay is to allow a public institution time to match the price. Based on unquestioning acceptance of the priority of private property rights, it works for lesser items, but is wholly inadequate to deal with modern values. Nor is there any suggestion in it that ownership of a work brings with it some obligation to the wider community of whose heritage it is part. No institution is funded to cope with prices like these. Public appeals are a diminishing resource. The Heritage Memorial Fund designed to meet such emergencies is not a bottomless purse and so the government has to step in. Some years ago, it was suggested to Ian Laing, then Secretary of State for Scotland, that it would be prudent to start putting money aside against the likelihood that the Sutherland pictures would be sold. It was not done. It would surely be sensible to follow that plan now and to start a Scottish equivalent to the Heritage Memorial Fund. Then, assuming that the two Titians are safely acquired, when in 21 years time the Sutherland family are released from their vow of restraint, we might just be ready for it.

So what else happened worthy of note in 2009? Mark Leckey won the Turner Prize. He is a lecturer in film studies and he won the 25,000 prize for, among other things, a film of himself giving a lecture.

As a lecturer he was pretty mediocre. As an artist he is entirely forgettable. People are more interested in contemporary art than ever before, and yet we get given this nonsense in what is supposed to be the premier contemporary art prize, run by the premier gallery of British art, Tate Britain. Surely it is time the Turner Prize hung up its boots.

Tracy Emin did not win the Turner Prize, though her bed was one of the more memorable works to feature in its drab annals. She was given her first major retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art this year. She has moved straight from teenage angst to mid-life crisis and there is little discernible difference between them. A creature of her time, she is a celebrity hung up on the idea of universal intimacy. Impressionism in Scotland was a more sober affair, but it did cast a vivid light on Scottish taste in the age of Impressionism. It was also distinguished by earning a rabidly anti-Scottish review from Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph. A red mist rises before the eyes of some English critics if you even suggest that Scotland has not only an independent but even a distinguished tradition in the visual arts. Blinded by fury at such presumption, they commit themselves to remarks that in any other context would be construed as racist.

There were two exhibitions at the National Library this year: the one on comics perhaps did not matter so much, but the other was on nothing less than the history of printing in Scotland, a subject at the heart of our history. However, the exhibition was lamentable. It was condescending, false populism. The labels were big and the books mostly invisible. The Library should first scrap the display cases they have acquired which are absolutely unsuitable for the display of books, and then resolve never again to talk down to their public.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Glasgow School of Art showed Steven Campbell's last works, a reminder of what a loss we have suffered by his premature death. In Edinburgh, Close-up at the Fruitmarket was one of the best shows the gallery has put on for years. Also in Edinburgh, the rebirth of Dovecot Studios in magnificent new premises was an event to celebrate in 2009. The Ingleby Gallery, too, pushed the boat out with a beautiful new gallery just as the economy crashed around their ears.