Most of us will remember 2020 as a year in which everything and nothing seemed to happen all at once. With the pandemic simultaneously dominating the headlines and forcing the planet’s population indoors, hundreds of smaller news stories slipped under the radar. 2020 was a tumultuous year for the visual arts, as the artistic industry sought to redefine its pieces and practises in light of the year’s re-shaping of everyday life. Here are some of the stories you might have missed as well as a selection of the artistic moments that came to define the last, impossible year.
January started scandalously in the visual arts sphere as stories of art crime dominated the headlines. Shakeeel Ryan Massey was arrested on the first for vandalising Picasso’s 1944 painting ‘Bust of a Woman’, a piece with an estimated worth of up to £20 million, while it was on display in London’s Tate Modern. Accompanying this story of artistic destruction, however, came news of artistic recovery as Klimt’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ was restored to the Ricci Oddi gallery in Piacenza, Italy. The classical picture had been missing for more than twenty years, having been stolen amidst preparations for its exhibition.
February saw coronavirus’ first impact upon the visual arts. Art Basel cancelled its annual arts fair at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition centre in an attempt to thwart the virus’s steady spread across Asia. February was not completely defined by pandemic panic, however, as British arts news revolved around the discovery of a new Banksy installation in the artist’s home town of Bristol. The Banksy Valentine Mural depicted a child in the artists’ signature silhouette form, throwing a slingshot at a smattering of red flowers.
In March, Britain’s visual arts scene seemed to shut down as galleries and museums closed, and the nation’s artists retreated into their studios. Yet by April, the Paul Hamlin Foundation emerged to reinvigorate the visual arts scene, generating a £20 million emergency fund to support Britain’s struggling artistic industry. Turner Prize-winning artist Damien Hirst also employed art to inspire hope and solitary in a climate of fear and isolation. Hirst used an assortment of coloured butterfly wings to create his piece ‘Butterfly Rainbow’, a work which sought to celebrate and support the country’s key workers. ‘The rainbow,’ Hirst asserted, ‘is a sign of hope and I think it is brilliant that parents and children are creating their own versions and putting them up in their homes.’
Banksy crashed back into the headlines in May as he loaned his own response to the pandemic, a piece entitled ‘Superhero Nurse’, to Southampton’s General Hospital. The piece is soon due to be auctioned, with Banksy promising to donate all profits from its sale to the NHS.
In June, the global response to the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement incited a cultural re-evaluation of the statues and installation pieces scattered across Britain. On the seventh of June protesters removed the statue of seventeenth-century slave-trader Edward Colton from its plinth in Bristol. In mid-July, protestor Jen Reid collaborated with the renowned artist Marc Quinn to create a new statue to replace the figure of Colton. The new statue, which depicted Reid performing the Black Power Salute, was titled ‘Surges of Power’ and aimed to push ‘inclusion to the forefront of people’s minds’ and ‘make people think.’ The statue stood proud for a day before being removed to a museum in Bristol, sparking great controversy.
August marked the first public exhibition of the Queen’s private art collection. The exhibition placed 65 of the collection’s 7,000 paintings on public display for the first time, reintroducing viewers to the hidden pieces of the past. The Queen’s Royal Art Collection is the biggest private art collection in the world, containing original pieces from globally renowned and classical artists such as Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, and Leonardo da Vinci.
September saw the arts scene shift out of the virtual and back into the concrete world, as 220 ordinary citizens congregated outside Alexandra Palace in London to formulate American artist Spencer Tunick’s new installations photography piece ‘Everyone Together.’ The twist? The socially distanced participants were dressed in nothing but their mandatory face masks. Tunick sought to confront the ‘reality of masses of people close together – shoulder to shoulder, skin touching skin’, asserting that this experience ‘may be something of the past for now, but still that desire is there for that natural connectivity, perhaps more so now than ever.’
With October came a resurgence in the pandemic, and the visual arts scene retreated back into the virtual world of screens as Britain’s galleries were forced to shut their doors once more. Statues struck the headlines once more in November, however, as Maggi Hambling’s commemorative statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, which depicted the eighteenth-century advocate for women’s rights in the nude, sparked feminist backlash.
Christmas came early last December as Banksy sardonically paid trouble to the festive season by creating another mural in Bristol. The piece, entitled ‘Aachoo!!’ depicts a woman sneezing so hard that her dentures fall out, formulating the artist’s fourth artistic response to the pandemic.
Looking back on the visual arts events and news stories from the previous year, it becomes clear that 2020 is a year in which the visual arts engaged with contemporary affairs to an unprecedented degree. From encouraging activity to discoursing with activism, artists and their works provided a political and sociological commentary, blurring the distinctions between the social and artistic spheres. In light of this, 2021 looks set to be another year in which the artistic industry continues to engage and reflect upon socio-political as well as global concerns as the boundaries between life and art are set to become harder to discern and distinguish.
Photography: Damien Hirst, Butterfly Rainbow, 2020 ©Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2020.