Let us adore them

It has been a year of surprises. The Spider-Man musical finally “opened” on Broadway, after 182 preview performances. Abu Dhabi decommissioned major museums. Wynton Marsalis joined CBS news. Richard III played in Qatar. Carlos Acosta announced that he has written a novel. I went to Die Meistersinger.

It has been a great year for paint. In London, two towering masters tip their hats to each other across the Thames and across the centuries: Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery and Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern. The former is notable for the curatorial effort that went in to assembling such treasures, and for the public frenzy it has occasioned. But the British do love a queue.

No, admire Leonardo though one must, it was the second of these exhibitions that set my heart singing – for the sheer joy and vigour in the paint, for its endless malleability in the hands of a master such as Richter, for the way in which abstraction can evoke deep feeling just as well as the depiction of a pale and clawlike little hand clutching an ermine. And for the way that the world looks different afterwards, as if one’s eyes had been given a wash.

But it was a sad year for paint in the loss of two giants of the form: Cy Twombly and Lucian Freud, very different geniuses who both died this year. Each of them could deploy the oily stuff with delicacy and power, with gentleness and thunderous vigour, with wit and depth. Twombly’s work will stay in the mind for its delight in that questionably unfashionable attribute: sheer beauty. But then I often caught Richter out being extremely beautiful, too.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic in June

It’s perhaps an irony that Britain should lose one of its most important artists just when British art is having a very good moment. In June, the collection amassed over 40 years by a solicitor called Wilfrid Evill came to the salerooms, revealing vivid works by Stanley Spencer that finally made connoisseurs around the world sit up and take notice. The millions that changed hands are not important in themselves: what mattered was that the likes of LS Lowry, Spencer himself and several others were firmly established as world-class artists, not as the slightly quirky figures collected only by buyers of the same nationality. That’s how auctions can be a useful barometer of what’s happening in the arts – beyond the merely fashionable, of course.

The Evill sale was just one of several 2011 landmarks for UK artists: another was the exhibition mounted at the Hermitage in St Petersburg by Antony Gormley, in which the great museum’s classical marbles came face to face with new Gormley works, marking a significant departure in cultural exchange. Henry Moore sculptures and drawings also went to St Petersburg, where his “Shelter” drawings, of people sleeping in Tube stations during the Blitz, will have powerful resonance. More unpredictable is what Moscovites will make of William Blake, currently making his debut at the Pushkin Museum: it’s a long time since Russians have taken angels seriously.

Cultural exchange has not always been peaceful, however, in 2011: it has been a worrying year for politics in the arts. The Arab Spring sent wintery shivers down the spines of other regimes in the region; and the Iranian authorities decided in the autumn that the best place for six of their leading filmmakers was in prison. A few days ago Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, collaborator of Jafar Panahi (whose prolonged house arrest, and 20-year film-making ban, continue), was released after a three-month term in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail. Among Mirtahmasb’s “crimes” was to speak at the Cannes Film Festival in May about the official attitude to Panahi and other colleagues.

Artists Cornelia Parker and Anish Kapoor deliver a petition call for the release of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to Downing Street in May

China, too, decided to lock up an artist, pour encourager les autres. It was not long after Ai Weiwei had filled Tate’s Turbine Hall with his (not overtly political) sunflower seeds that his tribulations began – a clear message from the authorities that international celebrity is no protection for those who criticise the state. But celebrity and the solidarity of the arts community did help to protect Ai, who was released after a few months: the fate of hundreds of other artists and writers who fall foul of the system in today’s China is often much worse.

As this year’s Venice Biennale included an offering from Saudi Arabia for the first time – from the artist/writer sisters Shadia and Raja Alem – a more complicated row was brewing for Saudi artist Ahmed Mater. One of Mater’s works was sent by a private collector in the US to be included in a show this summer at Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam, a socio-political contemporary gallery that stands on the controversial “Green line”. Soon, a virulent online campaign against the artist began, petitioning the Saudi authorities to sanction Mater for showing work in Israel, accusing him of “treason” and (worse!) of attempting the “normalisation” of relations with Israel – an unusual example of arts censorship that was not imposed from above.

The political trials of today’s artists are thrown into relief by the sad recent death of Vaclav Havel, a great and exemplary writer and campaigner for freedom and justice. Dissidence and theatre have a long and fine relationship, especially in eastern Europe; when the Tricycle theatre’s production of The Riots (written by Gillian Slovo) plays in January in Tottenham, the area of London worst affected by this year’s rioting, it’ll be put to the test.

One area of the arts in which no one expects trouble is opera, but this year it has been flirting with controversy, at least. Covent Garden purists were ready to be outraged by Anna Nicole, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new piece on the life of glamour model Anna Nicole Smith, but some critics called it an “unlikely triumph”. At ENO experiments met with mixed success: film-maker Mike Figgis took on Lucrezia Borgia in mixed-media fashion, and despite fine singing the production gets my vote for clunker of the year. So when Terry Gilliam tackled The Damnation of Faust, I was nervous – but found myself agreeing with the critic who described it as “a damned fine glimpse of the abyss”.

Israel Galvan performs at Sadler’s Wells in February

Looking to matters more physical than ideological, it has been a wonderful year, another wonderful year, for male dancers. Anyone old enough to remember that there was a fashion for dancers, like Hollywood stars, to adopt a more appropriate-sounding name (so Alice Marks became Alicia Markova) might wish that they could recommend London’s new Nureyev, Edvardo Vatsonski. But no, it’s Edward Watson, and if you don’t believe me you must catch him at the Royal Ballet – my colleague Clement Crisp has described his extraordinary work many times. The unlikely-sounding name problem also applies to Rupert Pennefather, another Royal Ballet superstar, another inspired performer.

The great Akram Khan was on stage at Sadler’s Wells again in 2011 with Desh, and another dancer to knock our socks off in London was the Spaniard Israel Galvan. I really hesitate to use the term flamenco, because for non-adherents visions of corpulent ladies like overstuffed sofas in spotty flounces can all too easily spoil the picture. (Although that would be vastly unfair to Sadler’s Wells’ high-octane and vividly varied flamenco season.) No, Galvan is something else – a mesmerising solo performer who melds contemporary dance with his deep Andalusian traditions in a way that is thrilling to watch.

PJ Harvey

If the boys take the cake, as far as dance goes, it’s the girls who are making the running in pop. Female pop stars – as many people have already reported – have had an amazing year in 2011. PJ Harvey’s album Let England Shake has won accolades from the critics and the public, and brings a new intelligence back to pop lyrics. Besides superstar Polly, the lineup is impressive: while Lady Gaga got the “highest earner” tag, Florence and the Machine, Bat for Lashes, KT Tunstall and others all stormed through the awards ceremonies and the charts. But as with so many other art forms this year, triumph and tragedy walked in parallel: Adele’s apparently unstoppable career took its toll on her voice, and there was the tragic death of Amy Winehouse at the age of 27.

Finally at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, a year-long bicenntenial programme featuring “A Masterpiece a Month” culminates with the loan of Domenichino’s “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (c1607-10) from the National Gallery of Scotland. It comes with our very good wishes for the Christmas season.

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

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