The best museum or gallery exhibition of 2012: Culture24 writers make their choice

| 21 December 2012

With London 2012 and the Cultural Olympiad fueling the visual arts programme, it was an extraordinarily rich year for exhibitions. Here, Culture24 writers choose their favourite museum or gallery exhibition of 2012

a detail of a multi-panelled painting of a woodland
David Hockney, Woldgate Woods (November 21, 23 and November 29 2006). Oil on six canvasses© David Hockney. Image: Richard Schmidt
a photo of Richard Moss
Richard Moss: David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy

It’s a toss-up between Tate Tanks, Keith Vaughan at Pallant and Hockney; Hockney wins out. He filled the Royal Academy with such joyful colour - and experimentation with his glorious iPad paintings and painterly multi screen films - that I felt I’d just experienced the best painting show ever. For some daft reason I felt overjoyed that David Hockney had become part of the English landscape tradition.

A photo of a series of chunky grey rocks and slabs assembled in a circle inside a gallery
Richard Long's sculptural installations at the Hepworth
a photo of Ben Miller
Ben Miller: Artist Rooms: Richard Long and Luke Fowler, The Hepworth Wakefield

Luke Fowler’s The Poor Stockinger, The Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott was an elegiac film work of elastic, keenly-documented nostalgia with a weight and flow which made you want to watch the hour-long piece several times. It was cleverly contrasted by a twigs-and-clay display of Richard Long’s earthly journeys. Sculpturally invigorating, they were accompanied by Long’s stone circle overlooking the river past Yorkshire Sculpture Park, giving it a feel of ceremonial ritualism on a rainy day oop north.

Colour photo of an array of stonelike figurative sculptures
Celeur Jean Herard, Societe (2010)© All rights reserved. Courtesy Nottingham Contemporary
a photo of Mark Sheerin
Mark Sheerin: Kafou: Haiti, Art & Vodou, Nottingham Contemporary 

Colour and magic extended way beyond the canvas in Nottingham Contemporary’s autumn/winter show Kafou. We also got a glimpse of Haitian history and an eyeful of Vodou beliefs. As writer Réne Depestre points out: “In Haiti even the political history is marked by Surrealism.” This is true, here, and compellingly so.

a photo of two young Brazilians - one with tears rolling down his cheeks
© Courtesy No Olho da Rua Collective
a photo of Ruth Hazard
Ruth Hazard: Beautiful Horizon, Fabrica, Brighton 

Although I loved the beauty of the pre-Raphs at Tate and my inner book geek delighted at the British Library’s Wastelands to Wonderlands, Beautiful Horizon trumps them for my top exhibition. Sometimes you love the aesthetic, sometimes the history, but this 17-year collection of photographs taken by street children growing up in Brazil was insightful, moving and incredibly powerful - and one I’ll continue raving about long into 2013.

An image of a swirly ooil painting of a mystical forest in dark blue, red, yellow and orange
Piet Mondrian, Bosch (woods) near Oele (1908). Oil on canvas© Collection of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
a photo of Jenni Davidson
Jenni Davidson: Van Gogh to Kandinsky - Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Van Gogh to Kandinsky brought together an unforgettable array of paintings, from the psychedelic green sky of Van Gogh’s The Sower to Whistler’s hazy cityscapes. I loved the dreamlike sense of place in each one, and particularly the Nordic landscapes with their eerie black pines and silent lakes.

a photo of a woman walking past a blank canvas
Art About the Unseen at the Hayward.© Hayward Gallery
a photo of Rhiannon Starr
Rhiannon Starr: Invisible: Art About the Unseen 1957-2012, Hayward Gallery
The Hayward Gallery proved that when there is little for the eye to see, visitors can instead engage more directly with the ideas of each artist. I experienced an unexpected rush of panic in a pitch-black installation, inadvertently inhaled water vapour which had previously been used to wash corpses, and attempted the navigation of an invisible labyrinth.

© Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons of England, London
a photo of Jennie Gillions
Jenni Gillions Brains: The Mind As Matter at the Wellcome Collection
It wasn't always pretty, but it was fascinating. History, anatomy, anthropology, bizarre out-dated prejudices and art came together for this 450-year journey through human understanding of the brain. It was poignant in places, horrifying in some and beautiful in others. Constantly informative and intelligent.

Want to look back further into 2012?

Culture24 2012: The year in news

Culture24 2012: The year in museums and heritage

Culture24 2012: The year in contemporary art

Culture24 2012: The year in science and nature

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