Da Vinci Star Power, Nude Ai Weiwei, Oscar’s Scrub Enliven 2011

"The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist (The Burlington House Cartoon)" about 1499-1500. The picture is in "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan" at the National Gallery in London from Nov. 9 through Feb. 5. Source: National Gallery via Bloomberg

Although Leonardo da Vinci died almost half a millennium ago, he has had a great year. The success of his show at the National Gallery in London has been sensational.

Tickets, which the museum sells at 16 pounds ($25), had been changing hands on Internet sites for as much as 400 pounds (until the museum declared the resold versions invalid). The line for admission each day is 3 hours long. Who would have imagined that an old master could generate this level of excitement? Or that the staid National Gallery would outshine Tate and the whole galaxy of contemporary art in terms of glitz?

Things also have looked up for Oscar Wilde and Jacob Epstein. Wilde’s tomb, carved by Epstein and sited in the cemetery of Pere-Lachaise, Paris, has just been cleaned of graffiti. Much of this took the form of lipstick left by admirers kissing the monument.

Such adulation, even if damaging on conservation grounds, was a dramatic turnaround in itself. Wilde (1854-1900) died in exile, poverty stricken and reviled after serving a prison sentence for homosexual acts. The author’s tomb, designed by the sculptor Epstein, features an angel in quasi-Assyrian style.

This monument caused consternation when it arrived in Paris in 1912 on account of the prominence of the angel’s testicles. The French authorities had the sculpture covered with a tarpaulin until World War I; in 1961, these pendulous pieces of stone were hacked off the tomb.

Missing Parts

According to one story, the vandals were two outraged British ladies and the fragments were subsequently used by the custodian as paperweights. Perhaps now there should be a concerted search for these missing angelic body parts so that poor Oscar can rest completely in peace.

The asymmetrical conflict between the artist Ai Weiwei and the Chinese government is continuing, and it’s still too early to call the winner. It has been far from fun for Ai himself. His 81-day detention earlier in the year caused a global furor. Subsequently, he has been pursued for “economic crimes.”

On Nov. 18, one of his assistants was interrogated about a (fairly demure) photograph he had taken of Ai, nude, with four naked women (titled “One Tiger, Eight Breasts”). The authorities suggested that this was pornography. In response, Ai’s supporters rapidly uploaded naked photographs of themselves on a site in a protest, insisting that nudity is not pornography.

Artist’s Clout

In PR terms, therefore, there’s no question that Ai is light years ahead. Already, he has been selected as the most powerful figure in the international art world by Art Review magazine (the only artist previously to make the No. 1 spot in the art world Power 100 list was Damien Hirst). Time magazine also named Ai in its roster of the 100 most influential individuals alive.

Eighteen months ago, he was known mainly to art-world insiders. Persecuting cultural figures is a bad idea. The papacy hasn’t recovered from the reputational damage caused by the trial of Galileo. That was in 1633. The Chinese state should take note.

Lastly, and sadly, a clear loser in 2011 was the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris. In May 2010, works by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and others valued at 100 million euros ($1.35 million) were stolen from the gallery. In October, one of the thieves told a French newspaper that when his accomplices were captured he panicked and dumped the canvases in a garbage bin, after which they were presumably crushed. The only hope is that perhaps he is lying.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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