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A critic’s take on the year in visual arts

Left: John Graham’s circa 1942 “Portrait of a Woman Seated (Seated Woman).” Right: Mario Testino’s photograph of Gisele Bundchen for Vanity Fair, shot in New York in 2007.

Private collection, Brooklyn, New York (left); Mario Testino

Left: John Graham’s circa 1942 “Portrait of a Woman Seated (Seated Woman).” Right: Mario Testino’s photograph of Gisele Bundchen for Vanity Fair, shot in New York in 2007.

For the region’s most prestigious museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, 2012 saw many of the things one expects to find go missing in action. Great exhibitions, for one. And then, troublingly, works of art.

As I write, a good deal of the MFA’s world-famous collection is enjoying a vacation. Twenty of its paintings by Claude Monet are hanging out at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Thirteen of its oldest and greatest Chinese paintings are in China. Scads of its very best Japanese works are touring Japan.

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In addition, as the Globe reported in November, five of its six Manets have been sent away, as have all five of its Cezannes, its two most famous Van Goghs, its greatest Renoir, and a host of other Old Master and 19th-century masterpieces.

Twenty-nine of these pictures, including Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival,” one of the MFA’s most popular paintings, have been sent for an undisclosed fee to shows in Italy organized by a for-profit company called Linea d’Ombra.

Of course, many loans, including those works now touring Asia, are easy to accept and even to commend. But the Bellagio Hotel? And Linea d’Ombra? The MFA should be embarrassed to be renting out so many of its masterpieces to these commercial enterprises.

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Linea d’Ombra is run by Marco Goldin, who claims to be an art historian, and is indeed a prolific author and exhibition organizer. Late last year, the MFA lent its greatest masterpiece — Paul Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (which used to be deemed too delicate to travel) — as well as two Monets and a Van Gogh to a show organized by Goldin called “Van Gogh and Gauguin’s Journey.”

I have the catalog, which has the MFA’s Gauguin on the cover. The book is, unfortunately, a joke — a rambling, tendentious, and self-indulgent attempt to bring together Gauguin and Van Gogh with T.S. Eliot, Peter Pan, Bernardo Bertolucci, Edward Hopper, Giorgio Morandi, Claude Monet, Wassily Kandinsky, and Andrew Wyeth. It ends with four mini-plays, penned by Goldin himself.

Anyone can see that Goldin’s ideas are a travesty of genuine scholarship. The reality is that his requests for loans would not be taken seriously by any major museum if he weren’t also offering huge fees for the privilege.

This man and his company are now in possession of 29 of the MFA’s greatest masterpieces.

In the meantime, the MFA’s main offerings for the year were an underwhelming show of prints — donated to the collection — by Alex Katz, and a show of fashion photographs by Mario Testino. The latter hurt both the MFA’s reputation and Testino’s.

Even if, like me, you like fashion photography and recognize something interesting, if not exactly great, in what Testino has brought to the world’s most celebrated glossies, you can’t escape the truth: This show was poorly chosen and very poorly presented.

The smaller upstairs show of Testino’s portraits of the British Royal Family has nothing to commend it either. Only the linked selection of prints and drawings of royalty past, drawn from the permanent collection, counts as a bright spot in this otherwise odious exercise in pandering.

In short, if the MFA is in trouble and scrambling for cash, it needs to find better solutions.

It did mount some excellent smaller shows this year. My favorite was “Seeking Shambala,” a single gallery exhibition organized by conservator Jacki Elgar that combined rare Tibetan paintings, or “thangkas,” with contemporary Asian works on related themes.

Also outstanding were “Manet in Black,” a show of Manet’s prints organized by Helen Burnham, and the amazing selection of postcards from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection exhibited in “The Postcard Age,” organized by Ben Weiss.

Anyone who has been to the MFA recently and failed to notice its new galleries for both ancient coins and Korean art, or its newly renovated gallery for 17th-century European painting, should go back and seek them out. All are excellent.

In sum, however, it was a deflating year at this great museum. Here’s to 2013.

The nearby Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum launched its expanded and renovated museum in February, to enthusiastic reviews. And indeed, there is much to be positive about: The facilities are infinitely better, and the experience of entering the museum is much improved, although there’s no doubt that some of the deep and beguiling strangeness of the place has been tamed.

Like the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Harvard Art Museums remains in limbo as it awaits the opening of its own renovated and expanded building — now scheduled in late 2014. But that didn’t stop Harvard mounting “Jasper Johns/In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print” in its temporary home, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. It was a terrific show.

In the meantime, the folks at Harvard had to watch, with surely a twinge of envy, what was the most important event of the year in New England art: the reopening of the Yale University Art Gallery on its own renovated and expanded site. The result is a joy, plain and simple — and a delirium-inducing treat for susceptible art-lovers.

On the strength of its programming, the Institute of Contemporary Art looks to have had a good 12 months. As it did last year, with the wonderful “Dance/Draw,” it ends the year on a high, with “This Will Have Been,” curator Helen Molesworth’s engaging survey of art made in the 1980s.

I used to think of ’80s art and tend to get an ashen taste in my mouth. This show has changed that. It pulses with life. At the ICA I also enjoyed seeing the small ceramic works of Kathy Butterly in “Figuring Color,” and the paintings of Charline Von Heyl.

Neither the show devoted to the Brazilian graffiti artists Os Gemeos nor the one spotlighting the more cerebral Josiah McElheny really took off. But both were stimulating in their own way, and part of a bigger picture that suggests the ICA is growing in confidence every year. It is one of the most watched and admired museums for contemporary art in the country, but my sense is that it remains under-appreciated here.

Is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams underappreciated? Not likely. I for one have never had a dull experience there, and anecdotal evidence suggests I’m far from alone.

“Oh, Canada,” the museum’s survey of contemporary Canadian art organized by Denise Markonish, was certainly a highlight. But so were a number of smaller, but still logistically mind-bending group shows, including “Invisible Cities” and “Making Room: The Space Between Two and Three Dimensions.”

The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum put on a disappointing biennial this year. But it mounted two great, and very different, solo shows by England’s Gary Webb and New York’s Julianne Swartz. The deCordova’s sculpture park, meanwhile, is looking better, smarter, and more dynamic all the time.

North of Boston, the Portland Museum of Art celebrated the opening of the Winslow Homer Studio at Prouts Neck with a brilliant show of Homer’s beloved coastal paintings. Smashing stuff.

Many of the region’s best college museums felt subdued in 2012. But certain college shows stood out. The exhibition of Sol LeWitt’s grid-based work at Williams College Museum of Art, organized by Charles Haxthausen, was a brainy blast, and a great pendant to “Something Along Those Lines,” a group show based on a single LeWitt wall drawing at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Davis Museum at Wellesley College had an impressive contemporary show with its Radcliffe Bailey exhibition. And the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College put on one of the shows of the year with its exploration of Paul Klee’s links with philosophy.

At the beginning of the year, both the Peabody Essex Museum and the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College mounted survey shows of Native American art. If you saw them, you came away not only with your mental image library enlarged and enhanced, but with a whole new lens through which to see this country.

The best single show of the year was “American Vanguards” at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover. This intimate look at a group of modern American artists who would soon sprout into the Abstract Expressionist movement hinged on the intriguing figure of John Graham, and included wonderful work by, among others, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Arshile Gorky.

So there was a lot going on. But there was also a sense of drift, and perhaps of gathering crisis: Museums doing what museums do, expanding, mounting shows, and renovating galleries, without ever truly surprising us, taking risks, going beyond the usual platitudes.

If art is to capture our imaginations, it has to get under our skin. I felt starved this year of anything dark, stirring, or genuinely gut-wrenching. Nor do I see many modern or contemporary curators in our museums who seem prepared to step away from minimalism or the more cerebral, antiseptic, politically vetted aspects of recent art and take us closer to the mouth of the abyss.

Young people are hungry for all kinds of art, but they’re especially hungry for art that speaks to their sense of the true urgency and drama of life. If museums want to bring in new and younger audiences — and, at least publicly, that’s all they seem to fret about — that has to change.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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