From Baubles to Babel

The year the contemporary art juggernaut ground to a halt

It has been an extraordinary season in both the galleries and the salerooms. The thoughtfulness in evidence in the most impressive exhibition roster for years was on display only sporadically in the commercial art world, and noticeably absent in the market for contemporary work. Public galleries and the stuff coveted by private collectors have rarely seemed so far apart. For now at least, real art and real money have gone their separate ways.

Proof came in the unedifying form of the Damien Hirst sale at Sotheby’s. It takes a man born under a lucky star – and one with rich and fearful underbidders ready to throw away money to prop up the value of their existing holdings – to net £111 million for a collection of ersatz and derivative gewgaws, and to do so on the eve of a collapsing market too.

If Hirst’s sale was the equivalent of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, then some of the shine hung around long enough to cast a glimmer over October’s Frieze and Zoo art fairs. This year, however, unlike Hirst, they couldn’t insulate themselves against the economic chill outside. The Frieze organisers gamely claimed sales at the fair “still exceeded expectations” – but that code was not a hard one to crack. The success of these two recently instituted events has been an indication of the seemingly unstoppable rise of the contemporary art market and the triumph of money over quality. The rise has proved all too stoppable, though. With the big November sales of Hirst et al coming in well under estimate, the contemporary art juggernaut has come to a juddering halt.

Of course, the éminence grise of the whole caboodle was busy, too. The opening of Charles Saatchi’s new gallery in the old Duke of York HQ in Chelsea was an act of munificent civil mindedness; unfortunately the launch display of new Chinese art couldn’t rise to the occasion and compete with the gallery’s handsome rooms.

Elsewhere, though, there has been an unprecedented crop of high-quality exhibitions. Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko, real painters both, displayed the value of the moderns at London’s two Tates; Hadrian and Babylon at the British Museum and Byzantium at the Royal Academy glitteringly represented the distant past; and the haunting Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery showed that pictures from art’s most hallowed period still have the power to spring surprises.

The fact that these exhibitions are so special has rather obscured the presence of a clutch of other fine shows currently drawing to the end of their runs. If you have any gallery-going stamina left, several are well worth a visit. Miró, Calder, Giacometti, Braque: Aimé Maeght and his Artists at the Royal Academy (until 2 January) tells the story of the galeristes Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, whose support helped create some of the biggest names in postwar art. The title of the exhibition is somewhat misleading; the Maeghts made their name through their close contact with first Bonnard and then Matisse (the bedridden artist’s experiments with papier coupé were championed by Aimé when critics derided them) and only when they were established did they move on to Miró, Calder et al. The 100 pictures here are tightly hung, as they are at their regular home, the Fondation Maeght near Nice, and together they represent not just a fine eye but the belief that art could counterbalance the darkness of much of the history of the 20th century.

A tranche of that darkness is on stark display at the Barbican with This is War!, an exhibition of the work of the photographers, colleagues and lovers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro (until 25 January). The pair, both committed anti-fascists, came to prominence in the Spanish Civil War and, of course, Capa’s picture of The Falling Soldier remains the defining, if contentious, image of war photography. Taro’s work has been overshadowed by Capa’s but it nevertheless reveals a striking sense of composition and a love of dynamic camera angles. They clearly thrived on conflict: there is a shot here of Taro crouching by a wall during the battle for Córdoba and staring at the planes passing overhead; the look on her face is not one of fear, however, but of euphoria. It was Capa who claimed that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” and it was a maxim that claimed them both: Capa died in 1954 after stepping on a landmine during the war in Indochina; Taro, the first woman to photograph from within a battle, was also the first woman photographer to die in action, at Brunete, near Madrid, in 1937.

The Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Meireles (Tate Modern until 11 January) is another creator with an ideological motivation. He came to prominence in 1970, with his country under a military dictatorship, when he silk-screened political messages –Who Killed Herzog? (a left-wing journalist) – on banknotes that then went back into circulation. Meireles has always been fascinated with scale and it is the pieces that play with accumulation that have the most impact – Babel 2001, a tower made from 800 radios, each tuned to a different channel; Fontes, a room where 6,000 rulers hang from the ceiling like icicles while 1,000 clocks line the walls and 500,000 vinyl numbers litter the floor; and Volatile, a dark space ankle-deep in talcum powder through which you walk shoeless towards a candle. As with so much conceptual art, the concepts themselves vary from the banal to the impenetrable and are not often strong enough to support the works. This is a show to visit for the sensations rather than the message.

If, however, time is truly pressing and you can get to see only one display in December then go to Edinburgh’s National Gallery of Scotland. It is there that the Duke of Sutherland’s for-sale Titians are on show while the clock runs down on the desperate attempt to raise the £50 million needed to save Diana and Actaeon for the nation. After January 1, the future of one of the world’s great paintings is uncertain. Catch it while you can.

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