The 2019 exhibition calendar was unusually crammed with heavily hyped shows, not to mention floating suspense and sudden combustions of fear and loathing. Protests against “toxic philanthropy” at the Whitney Biennial led to the resignation of Warren Kanders, the vice president of the museum’s board. And after years of prevaricating, museums on both sides of the Atlantic hurried to distance themselves from the Sackler family because of its ties to the opioid crisis.

The Leonardo show at the Louvre, marking the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, was surely the most anticipated of the year. But it had competition: the Venice Biennale, a brave exhibition of Renoir’s nudes, and a possibly even more provocative (certainly a stranger) show of paintings by George W. Bush inaugurating a new space, the Reach, at the Kennedy Center.

All provided plenty to talk about. But the exhibitions that linger in the mind weren’t necessarily those you would have picked out in advance. Which suggests what, exactly? Nothing that isn’t obvious. When museums take a risk; when they have their eye on something other than attendance figures or the bottom line; when they are willing to stake a claim on an artist, an idea, a view of the world that’s not the same as everyone else’s — that’s when things get interesting.

Sebastian Smee’s top five picks of 2019:

This revelatory show examined the impact on Japanese art and culture of the book often described as the first novel ever written. Its author, Lady Murasaki, has long had the status of a goddess in Japan. The exhibition, which contained one incredibly rare and beautiful object after another, paid tribute to her. Even better, it created a mood of amorousness, ambivalence, intimacy and fade-out that will stick in my mind for decades to come.

Édouard Manet was a key figure in the creative convulsions that ushered in modernism. His career divides into two decades — the 1860s and the 1870s. The 1860s, during which he produced “Olympia” and “The Luncheon on the Grass,” usually get all the attention. This fresh and beautiful show focused on the 1870s. It brought together paintings, watercolors and pastels by a man who was all the while slowly succumbing to the agony and ignominy of syphilis. The display of Manet’s still lifes and letters near the end was simply heartbreaking.

The Phillips Collection gave itself over entirely to this bold experiment — a sprawling show of mostly contemporary art, given ballast by historical pieces, all touching on the subject of migration. It could have been hectoring and didactic, or earnestly intended anarchy. Instead it cleaved, like all great art, to specific human predicaments. You walked from room to room amazed, astounded and, in the end, emotionally in pieces.

‘Degas at the Opéra,’ at the Musée D’Orsay (traveling to the National Gallery of Art in March 2020)

Degas’ immersion in all the many aspects of the Paris Opéra — from performances and rehearsals to orchestra pit and backstage pimping — produced a body of work unparalleled in 19th-century art. Overturning cliches and misunderstandings, this show is the most sustained and intelligent exploration of the subject yet. It complicates the notion that Degas was, above all, a realist, reminding us that the Opéra appealed to him precisely as a place of artifice and make-believe, as well as a fantastical backdrop for bizarre and dreamlike movements of bodies.

‘Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen,’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

I saw this show too late to review it but came away thinking that the Chilean-born Cecilia Vicuña, who is now 71, may be my new favorite artist. A poet, filmmaker and human rights activist, Vicuña is best known for her delicate, transparent sculptures made from found materials. At Philadelphia’s ICA, these beautifully colored “precarios” (uncertainties) and “basuritas” (little pieces of garbage) were installed across two walls, on the floor and, in a separate installation, from suspended wires. Vicuña’s forms could not be more economical and understated. But the poetry she extracts from them is impossible to discount or diminish.

Philip Kennicott’s top five picks of 2019:

Given the state of our politics, it seems almost a miracle that Martin Puryear was chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Puryear is a poet of form, plain-spoken, eloquent and incisive, and his work deals with this country’s darkest chapters without hectoring or cant. The exhibition, “Martin Puryear: Liberty,” was small, focused and powerful, an elegant riposte to the “America First” face this country has been showing to the world of late. It wasn’t just a refreshing alternative to what America has become. It was one of the best shows of the Biennale.

To mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 1669, the Rijksmuseum decided on a simple exhibition idea: Show them all. “All the Rembrandts” was very on-brand for the museum, which claims the largest Rembrandt holdings in the world, including 22 paintings, 60 drawings and some 1,300 prints. Showing everything isn’t exactly a subtle curatorial conceit, but in this case it worked. Despite the crowds, it was possible to navigate the show and gain a thorough sense of the artist’s career, to watch the evolution of favored subjects and ideas over time, and compare the works on paper with the painter’s frenetic and anguished brush style. “All the Rembrandts” may not change our sense of who Rembrandt was, but it definitely made that understanding more nuanced and detailed.

Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, hadn’t had a comprehensive exhibition devoted to him in the United States until this year, when the National Gallery of Art gathered about 50 works by the artist, his colleagues and students. The museum exhibited several of Verrocchio’s most revered works — including the bronze David from the Bargello in Florence — but it also fleshed out a sense of the Renaissance master’s larger career, his work as both a sculptor and painter, a metalworker, head of a productive studio, and a teacher or close associate of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino and Sandro Botticelli. The exhibition also gave the museum an opportunity to situate its lone Leonardo — an early work and the only painting by the master in the Americas — in the context of his revered teacher’s studio.

The Phillips Collection exhibition of works by Zilia Sánchez was probably, for many viewers, their introduction to the work of the 93-year-old Cuban-born Puerto Rican artist. Sánchez makes shaped-canvas paintings, curious forms that cast curious shadows, suggesting a taut landscape with decidedly feminine curves. She didn’t invent this kind of work, but over decades of working apart from the mainstream art world, she has made it definitely her own. The exhibition grappled with ideas of insularity and the productive value of working in dialogue with, but apart from, the rest of the world.

The Metropolitan Museum’s “The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East” was fundamentally a lesson in mental geography. Around 100 B.C., the empires alluded to in the title, the Roman and Parthian, began fighting for preeminence in a region we reflexively call the Middle East. This exhibition focused on art and material culture from what is now Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq and Iran, creating a rich picture of cultural exchange and aesthetic diversity. But its larger lesson was about the habitual mental map many Westerners carry of this region, as a middle space, trapped between larger historic forces. In fact, there was nothing peripheral about these lands, and this exhilarating show made it clear that while Rome was a cultural center, it was by no means the sole author of art and history in this part of the globe.

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