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Getting the picture in 2021

From cryptocurrency to pandemic plagued exhibitions, it’s been an eventful year in art

The year in art got off to a delayed start. Covid restrictions meant that it was mid-May before the already delayed exhibition calendar started rolling, and then it took time to pick up speed. If lockdowns increased the desire to visit museums and pick up old habits, then it didn’t show. In the month that followed reopening, footfall at the major London galleries was just a fraction of the same period in 2019: the Tates at 32 per cent, the V&A at 22 per cent, the British Museum at 20 per cent, while the National Gallery limped in at a paltry 14 per cent.

To compound the gloom, parlous finances meant that many British museums had already had to shed staff. Despite being pressed to give permission for museums’ opening earlier, the government showed its intellectual chops by classing them alongside saunas in terms of priory. Meanwhile commercial galleries, as part of the “non-essential retail” sector, were allowed to open five weeks before — a further slap in the face.

As an example of how not to present paintings it was hard to beat

Normal service, when it finally arrived, meant different things for different galleries. The National Gallery concentrated on scholarly excellence: its Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition was revelatory, “Poussin and the Dance” revealed a hidden-in-plain-sight joyousness to a stately painter, and “Dürer’s Journeys” filled the walls with miracles of observation. The Royal Academy’s show of the Kenyan-born Michael Armitage revealed a fascinating talent while “Late Constable” laid bare how the ruralist unmellowed into a full-on Sturm und Drang painter. For the first time in its 250-year history, the Summer Exhibition became an autumn exhibition, running into the first days of 2022.

With the textiles of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Tate Modern notched a hit in its hit-and-miss programme of promoting overlooked female artists, while the major Paula Rego retrospective at Tate Britain confirmed her as one of the most important and enigmatic painters of the past 50 years. On the other hand, Tate Britain managed to turn the finest gathering of Hogarths seen for a generation into an object lesson in intrusive curation, drawing trite and overstretched links between the mid-18th century and today’s het-up concerns with race and gender. As an example of how not to present paintings, it was hard to beat.

Meanwhile, the Courtauld Gallery reopened to universal praise in Somerset House in London after a three year, £60 million revamp. For the first time in its 90 year history, it can be appreciated as one of the country’s great collections. In Oslo, the new Munch Museum costing $260 million finally opened, having been first mooted in 2008. With 13 floors and nearly 27,000 objects, it is one of the biggest single-artist museums in the world. In Paris, the luxury goods billionaire François Pinault’s Bourse de Commerce the city’s circular, former grain exchange turned home for his private collection finally opened. Two big name museum architects also saw projects come to fruition: Renzo Piano with his $482m Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles and Frank Gehry’s $179 million glittering fractured tower at the LUMA Arles creative campus.

The biggest event of all was the physical opening of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Situated in the old Berlin Royal Palace complex, it has cost upwards of $700 million — Europe’s most expensive cultural project — to turn it into a showcase for Germany’s collections of non-European art. It emerged at a febrile moment with Germany’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, announcing that the country’s museums would start returning to Nigeria a “substantial” number of their Benin bronzes looted by British soldiers in 1897.

For the first time, Christie’s accepted payment in cryptocurrency

They were beaten to it by Jesus College, Cambridge, which became the first institution in the world to send back a Benin bronze when in October it handed over the sculpture of a cockerel it has held since 1906. Hot on its heels was the University of Aberdeen which returned its head of an Oba, or king. Barely a year goes by without Greece calling for the return of the Elgin Marbles; this year’s chorus was noisy and muddied by a letter written in 2012 by Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, to a Greek politician in which he said that ideally the sculptures would never have been removed from the Parthenon. Luckily any decision remains outside the ambit of politicians.

The commercial art world seemed not to concern itself with such trivia as a global pandemic. Cash is above such things, as evidenced by Sotheby’s posting record sales of more than $7.3 billion, some 26 per cent up on 2019. The best example of money moving in mysterious ways was the nonsensical $69.3 million for Everydays: The First 5,000 Days, an NFT (Non-Fungible Token, essentially unique digital items) by Beeple (a pseudonym for Mike Winkelmann). For the first time, Christie’s accepted payment in cryptocurrency. Naturally, the work went to a crypto entrepreneur known as MetaKovan (a pseudonym for Vignesh Sundaresan). Two other works by Beeple subsequently sold for $6.6 million and $28.9 million, prompting a mass scramble to get on the NFT wagon, including the British Museum which is hawking 10,000 NFTs of its version of Hokusai’s The Great Wave. The NFT market has gone from $100 million in 2020 to $22 billion last in 2021.

Beeple may have been the biggest winner, but the buyer who in 2018 paid £1 million for Banksy’s Girl with a Balloon did pretty well too. They sold on the picture, which was half shredded in an amusing coup de theatre as the hammer went down, as a retitled work, Love is in the Bin, and made £18.6m ($25.4m) — a savvy piece of offloading.

The beginnings of art shifted in 2021

For less speculative plutocrats, traditional art proved more attractive. The health of the market again showed with the year’s top 10 art sales raking in $781 million. Reflecting current trends, only two were non 20th century works. Top of the lucre pile were the $103.4 million paid for Pablo Picasso’s Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse, 1932), and the $93.1 million handed over for the current darling of high-end auctions Jean-Michel Basquiat’s In This Case (1983). At the other end of the list were Jackson Pollock’s $61.2 million Number 17, 1951 (1951), and Cy Twombly’s $58.9 million Untitled (2007).

Far more exciting perhaps — and certainly representing more oomph for your dollar than a Twombly — was the $92.2 million realised by Sandro Botticelli’s meltingly beautiful Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel. Botticellis in private hands have hen’s teeth rarity, and his previous auction record was $10.4 million, set in 2013, so it was heartening to see that a top-notch old master could, when available, still compete with the 20th century dudes.

If such shenanigans display where we are now, this year also brought us back to a shift in the beginnings of art: in January, a life-size, red ochre depiction of a warty pig was discovered in a cave in Sulawesi in Indonesia. Dated to 45,500 years ago, it is the oldest image of an animal ever found. Not only is it an incomparably greater work of art than a Beeple, but it has yet to be flogged off as an NFT.

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