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Leonardo Outdoes Hockney, Hirst for 2012 Art Headlines

David Hockney and Martin Gayford
David Hockney and Bloomberg News chief art critic Martin Gayford at Hockney's studio in Bridlington. Gayford's books include "A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney." Photographer: Jean-Pierre Goncalves de Lima/Kate Burvill PR via Bloomberg

For a man born 560 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci made a great deal of news in 2012.

The exhibition of his work at the National Gallery, London, had the public standing in line from before dawn for tickets.

In Paris, later in the spring, another show built around the cleaned “Virgin and Child With St. Anne” was equally thronged. This contained a recently identified contemporary version of the Mona Lisa, which historians said was probably produced in the master’s studio in parallel with the original.

Leonardo’s year ended on a lower note. Earlier, there were also indications that some remnants of his lost “Battle of Anghiari” may exist behind a wall in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. However, the search to find it was put on hold in September.

This month, it was announced the Museum of Art, Dallas, had failed to agree a price for the “Salvator Mundi” -- a painting newly attributed to him and included in the National Gallery exhibition. If Dallas can’t afford a Leonardo, one might wonder, who can?

On the other hand, maybe Texas is better off without it. Though I agree it is an authentic Leonardo, it is an odd and not very attractive work.

Among younger artists, 75-year-old David Hockney enjoyed a spectacular twelve months, beginning in January with “A Bigger Picture,” an array of paintings and drawings mainly done within the previous few years, and only shortly before the opening.

The show attracted more than 600,000 visitors in a short two-and-a-half-month run at the Royal Academy.

Getting Better

They would probably still have been lining up down Piccadilly, if the exhibition had not had to move on to Bilbao, Spain. It’s now at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany (until Feb 3, 2013). At each venue it has looked different, and in certain ways better.

The Cologne version has the best installation of Hockney’s 3, 9 and 18 camera films, including an astonishing room with moving, synchronized, multi-image films of the same road at different times of year, one season to each wall.

Hockney didn’t receive a unanimously positive reaction from critics. I suspect that was because in painting and drawing the landscape he has been doing something that contemporary artists aren’t supposed to do. The art world is quite a conformist place, though it likes to think it loves “transgression.”

Another celebrated British artist with the initials D.H. had a big, museum show in Olympic year.

“Damien Hirst” at Tate Modern was also popular in terms of attendance: 463,087 visitors in a five-month run.

Plastic Skulls

It broke another kind of record, with some of the most expensive items ever marketed in an exhibition shop, including an edition of painted plastic skulls at 36,800 pounds ($59,388) each and a set of plates at 10,500 pounds.

The visitors were not wrong to flock to Tate Modern, because this was a good representation of Hirst’s work. Close examination of the labels, however, revealed some less flattering figures.

A surprising proportion of the works on show, and almost all the best, were two decades old or more. In an artist who is 47 years old, this was not an encouraging sign.

A startlingly lackluster show of new oil paintings at White Cube in London’s Bermondsey tended to confirm that Hirst, temporarily or permanently, has run out of new ideas. That isn’t good for someone who is, at least partly a conceptual artist. His work may well not last as well as Leonardo’s has when he’s not 47, but 560 years old.

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

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and Craig Seligman on books.

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