Laura Cumming’s best art of 2017

By Laura Cumming

There was revolutionary fervour from Russia, dazzling critiques of the American dream, and unforgettable faces…

• Observer critics' reviews of the year in full

The highest price for the ugliest painting: that was the supposed Leonardo sold for $450m last month. Does anyone really want to look at this monstrous Jesus, a heavily restored hippy scarcely anybody believes in? This was an alarming low point, where art sank from mere investment to cultural boast: Abu Dhabi buying a surprisingly un-Islamic painting for its new Louvre, all sides presumably insured against the future discovery that the painting is no better than it looks.

A shameful year for the art trade, then, but a golden year for art. 2017 gave us Russia and America as never before. A tremendous succession of masterpieces flew in from the US, including Grant Wood's deathless American Gothic – the long-faced couple standing sentry before their wooden house, pitchfork in hand – in Britain for the first time at the Royal Academy, along with Charles Sheeler's eerie Ford plant in winter and Edward Hopper's hauntingly mysterious New York Movie.

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