You wait six months for a blockbuster, then six come virtually on the same day. After the drought of summer, when barely an exhibition opens the length and breadth of Britain, the art season builds with remarkable speed over the course of September: first in relatively minor wavelets, a show of prints in, say, Tunbridge Wells, gathering speed with the odd major new museum (the V&A Dundee, for example), and building into a massive tidal wave of new exhibitions that breaks usually in the first week of October. Several exhibitions open every day in London alone, with many more around the country.
There’s an unstoppable momentum, and a sense of desperation, in this seasonal impulse, as though galleries and museums are terrified of getting left behind, feeling perhaps that if their shows don’t catch these key weeks they’ll be ignored. The increasing importance of Frieze, Britain’s biggest art fair (opening October 4), has compounded the sense that everything in art happens in the early autumn. In what could be a sign of the times, this wild surge seems to have come a week early this year.
Over the next few days we have a cornucopia of really substantial, yet madly diverse exhibitions opening in London. The majestic altarpieces of two giants of the early renaissance, Mantegna and Bellini, at the National Gallery, compete with the hipster-conceptualism of Danish/Norwegian duo Elmgreen & Dragset, whose works have included a swimming pool in the shape of van Gogh’s ear, at the Whitechapel Gallery.
On Wednesday, the Turner Prize returns to Tate Britain, with work ranging from an investigation into state terrorism to a 90-minute film about being incarcerated on a bench at Tripoli airport.
Oceania, a mammoth survey of the art of the Pacific, which the Royal Academy is staging to mark 250 years since Cook’s first voyage to the Southern Hemisphere, ranges from Stone Age implements to a full-size grand piano carved with Maori motifs.
The Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters looks at artists attempting to “alter and disrupt” our conceptions of space using materials as diverse as Perspex screens and tanks full of sump oil, while at Dulwich Picture Gallery we have the ultra-violent visions of the Spanish-born Italian painter Jose Ribera, who feels like the Quentin Tarantino of early 17th century religious painting.
Squeezing itself in at the end of the week, the Saatchi Gallery’s Black Mirror looks at art satirising our turbulent times – an era which, listening to the news, you may feel is already satirising itself.
And that’s just a taster of some of the larger exhibitions. How, from all that lot, do you decide what to go and see? Faced with a choice between, say, one of Giovanni Bellini’s exquisite madonnas at the National or an unclassifiable object merging a perfume bottle and a stuffed goat at the Saatchi, most people will instinctively know which they’d prefer. Yet to stay in a comfort zone of taste, to limit yourself to ideas of, say, “Ooh, I don’t really like abstract art” on the one hand or “All old art’s boring” on the other, is to miss out on the immense richness and diversity offered by art today.
Since Picasso started taking inspiration from African sculpture, around 1906, and the German artist Kurt Schwitters began making collages from cigarette ends in the street, around 1921, all cultures and all materials have been legitimate territory for the artist. To the artist, all artists are “contemporary”, from the old masters, to traditional mask-makers to current graffiti-merchants, to the extent that their work feels relevant in the present moment.
When you’re looking at a really vital work of art, whether it’s by Giotto, Cézanne or Jackson Pollock, the years, even the centuries fall away – whether it’s old or new, traditional or modern, is beside the point.
So in trying to negotiate the barely fathomable morass of art that’s on offer this autumn, I’d try not to get too bogged down in superficial distinctions such as “traditional” and “modern” or, even worse, “contemporary” art – a term that feels just a way of marginalising the opinions of the non-specialist. And don’t get too hung up on what you think you like or don’t like.
Appreciating art isn’t – contrary to what you might think – about “taste”. It’s about what you can learn from it, about how it’s going to make you feel differently from when you entered the gallery – even if that includes relief at getting away from it.
The art you’ll see won’t all be good, but understanding why you don’t like something may take as much time and thought as understanding why you do like something else. Keep an open mind, and remember that even Stone Age cave painters were avant garde once.