Two surprises and one grand show from Holland that simply couldn't miss made up the top three this year. "Mauritshuis: Dutch Painting of the Golden Age from the Royal Picture Gallery, the Hague," which went on view in April at the National Gallery of Art, offered two superb self-portraits, by Rembrandt young and Rembrandt old as well as a heart-stopping Vermeer, and both men rank, of course, among the best and best-loved masters in the history of art.
What made the Dutch show special was not its famous paintings but the way it held its quality from the first work to the last. The painters of the period, those deeply humane masters, were magicians of the mundane. While they painted real life--doggy dogs and mooing cows, the shine on dented pewter, the laciness of lace, the sauciness of harlots and Holland's cloud-crowned skies--they made the ordinary awesome. The show was just the right size, it made one laugh and marvel, and its little Ruisdael landscape, of strips of linen drying half in sunlight, half in shadow, seemed at first glance, or at 10th examination, a nearly perfect work of art.
"Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980," the uncannny and important show that opened here in January at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, brought to our attention 20 black folk artists, most of them untutored, most of them unknown, all of them astonishing. What the black people of America have contributed to music has often been applauded. This show proved they have achieved comparable heights in painting and sculpture. Washington's James Hampton, Virginia's Steve Ashby, Louisiana's David Butler and the others represented often spoke with God. Somehow they were able to leap from loneliness and poverty toward the very core of contemporary art.
"Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting, 1880-1910," also at the Corcoran, was equally astonishing. It, too, showed us masters, highly skilled and passionate, whose names we'd never heard. Of the 36 painters represented, only one, Edvard Munch of Norway, was well-known in America before this show. He was, there is no doubt, the star of the exhibit, but it included other works--by Denmark's Vilhelm Hammershoi, Sweden's Prince Eugen, and Norway's Christian Krogh--who understood as well as he the spirit of the north, its people and its light.