Anniversaries should focus the mind. Whether celebratory or commemorative, they ought to be occasions for historical stocktaking as much as for marking the triumphs and trials of the past. This isn’t to advocate relentless revisionism, but merely to suggest that such events are best approached in a spirit of critical enquiry – after all, anniversaries themselves are as likely to be culturally conditioned as historical reputations and responses ever were. Clusters of centenary exhibitions and publications may well bring new material to light. But what do they tell us about the way we think now?
Where artists are concerned, the anniversary of a birth or death often feels like little more than a convenient fulcrum around which major museum retrospectives and their associated marketing machines can pivot. Our taste for neat round numbers, preferably divisible into hundreds or fifties, is arbitrary but deep-rooted – to the degree that they can seem to set an agenda of their own. There are plenty of laudable exhibitions taking place in northern Europe at the moment as part of the ‘Van Gogh Year 2015’, but the notion of commemorating ‘125 years of inspiration’ since the artist’s death does show up the faintly whimsical nature of many such celebrations.
Of course, big name anniversaries often have an echo-chamber effect. The convenience of the calendar can determine a national or international programme of events (and perhaps enable loans and collaborative exhibitions); one artist then dominates the media for several months; the year changes and the spotlight shifts elsewhere. Expect a Degas/Rodin duopoly in 2017…
More welcome is the opportunity for museums to bring lesser-known figures into focus: take last year’s centenary exhibition of Abram Games at the Jewish Museum London, for instance, or that on Emilio Greco at the Estorick Collection in 2013. It seems far preferable for such exhibitions to challenge our forgetfulness or ignorance than celebrate what we already know.
The commemoration of historical events also exerts a strong sway on museum programming today. I wonder whether the wide array of exhibitions marking the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo this year hasn’t at least partly been informed by curatorial approaches to the First World War commemorations that began in 2014. The latter have provided a model of how to engage public interest in the many facets of a single grand subject without the need for institutions to jostle with one another for attention.
But reflecting on Waterloo is very different from remembering the First World War, not least because, in Britain especially, the historical response to both the victory and its enormous sacrifice has been strangely muted. As Gavin Stamp points out in this issue, in the decades following the battle the nation became ambivalent about raising a memorial to its many dead. Martin Oldham’s feature on how 19th-century British painting tackled the subject finds no more than qualified success in early attempts to capture the significance of Waterloo on canvas.
On the subject of anniversaries, momentous or otherwise, 2015 marks the 90th year since the founding of Apollo in 1925. Magazines ought to look outwards and not dwell on themselves; but all the same, let me say here that it is a great privilege to edit this one, with its illustrious history and record of publishing important writing about art, into its 10th decade of continuous publication. In the spirit of looking forward, with this issue we launch a redesign of the magazine. The content hasn’t changed, but the distinction between different sections has been clarified and, particularly in feature articles, images and text should now both have more room to breathe. While I hope you’ll agree with me that our designer Will Martin has done an excellent job, we welcome any feedback you might have.