Pop Art Faces Pompeii, Manet, Bowie in Blockbuster Shows

Edouard Manet once took umbrage at a sarcastic remark someone made about one of his paintings. He ran the offender through the shoulder with a sword.

“Manet: Portraying Life” (Jan 26 to April 14, sponsored by BNY Mellon) at the Royal Academy will provide plenty of evidence that the artist was right and the critic mistaken.

Manet (1832-83) wasn’t an Impressionist, in fact hard to classify. This exhibition concentrates on his portraits and should demonstrate triumphantly that he was one of the supreme exponents of oil painting in the 19th century.

Nonetheless, the true blockbuster of the spring season is likely to be “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” at the British Museum (March 28 to Sept 29, sponsored by Goldman Sachs).

The destruction of these Roman cities in a volcanic eruption in 79AD is the most gripping of all archaeological dramas. The show will include wall paintings, wooden furniture transformed into charcoal yet still preserving extraordinary detail, and -- poignantly -- plaster casts of the huddled human and animal dead.

Third on the list of London exhibitions certain to pack them in is “Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” at Tate Modern (Feb 21 to May 27). This is billed as the first “full scale” retrospective of work by the artist in more than 20 years. There was, however, a large Roy Lichtenstein show at the Hayward Gallery in 2004.

Pop Dots

That’s quite recently, as these things go, yet it will probably not much diminish the public appetite to see the work of this very popular artist. With Lichtenstein, though, there is a question about how much is too much. In other words, did his trade-mark pop dot style -- however inventively he worked the changes -- ultimately become restrictive and repetitive?

Meanwhile, the V&A is devoting an exhibition to a star of popular culture. “David Bowie Is” (March 23 to July 28, in partnership with Gucci) will contain costumes, set designs, music videos and instruments.

It’s true that Bowie is someone who has contributed to the history of fashion and design. Is there enough in his career to sustain a major exhibition? We’ll have to wait and see.

Those in search of a big exhibition devoted to a familiar old master this spring will have to go to the Prado in Madrid where “The Young Van Dyck” continues until March 3.

Fame Spectrum

The National Gallery in London has decided to examine a figure at the opposite end of the fame spectrum.

Federico Barocci (c. 1535-1612) is not much of a name even to those who love Italian painting. That does not mean that he wasn’t a marvelous artist and well worth reviving. “Barocci: Brilliance and Grace” (Feb. 27 to May 19) is my nomination for sleeper exhibition of the spring.

Another little-known artist, to British audiences anyway, is the subject of a show in the Sackler Galleries of the Royal Academy: “George Bellows” (March 16 to June 9).

Bellows (1882-1925) depicted what the late critic Robert Hughes once called “the gritty cities,” New York in particular. This is tough, early-20th-century realism.

Finally, the most fundamental sight of early 2013 may turn out to be “Ice Age Art: The Coming of the Modern Mind” (Feb 7 to May 26) at the British Museum. This will display work created between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, which -- if not when art began -- is the earliest era from which it survives.

The creations of prehistoric people will be shown side by side with modernist pieces by Mondrian and Henry Moore. This comparison may well show that art hasn’t progressed since the drawings in the Lascaux caves in France. Painting and sculpture don’t exactly advance; it’s more a matter of its going round and round.

(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 Scott Reyburn on the art market, Ryan Sutton on New York dining and Jeremy Gerard on New York theater.

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