2020 wasn’t a great year for culture in London – or anywhere for that matter. While theatres, museums and art galleries remain closed under lockdown 3.0, there is light at the and of the tunnel, with many of the capital’s finest cultural institutions optimistically confirming dates for blockbuster exhibitions and must-see shows later this year. Until then, there’s a plethora of online and virtual offerings to avail yourself of. Here’s our guide to the best of London’s culture scene in 2021…
Hold Still, National Portrait Gallery
When: Online, available now
About: With rather prescient timing, the National Portrait Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment until 2023, but it's keeping fans occupied with a series of virtual exhibitions. Spearheaded by NPG patron the Duchess of Cambridge, Hold Still is a community art project offering up 100 shortlisted photographs taken by the public during May and June 2020 creating an intimate and moving portrait of Britain’s new normal.
Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, National Portrait Gallery
When: Online, available now
About: Now in its thirteenth year, the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is one of the National Portrait Gallery’s biggest events of the year and – thanks to the fact that all its entrants can be viewed online – the 2021 edition it likely to be the biggest yet. Just 54 portraits were selected from more than 5,500 entries this year so expect the absolute finest in international portrait photography.
Dancing Nation, Sadler’s Wells & BBC Arts
When: Online, from 28 January 2021
About: While theatre doors may have been closed, the capital’s elite dance troupes have carried on behind-the-scene, training and practicing new works which have yet to see the light of day. This one-day festival presented virtually by Sadler’s Wells and BBC Arts will showcase new pieces and old favourites by some of UK’s most high profile names – including Akram Khan, the English Royal Ballet and Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures – with additional backstage reporting by Brenda Emmanus.
Epic Iran, V&A
When: From 13 February 2021 (TBC)
About: Middle Eastern art has a long and rich history that has long been somewhat overlooked by European galleries. In 2021, however, the V&A will be shining a light on 5,000 years of art, design and culture in Iran and telling the story of the huge advancements made by one of the greatest civilisations in antiquity.
Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, National Gallery
When: 6 March - 13 June 2021
About: Don’t know the name Albrecht Dürer? Perhaps that’s because this year will mark the first time the German Renaissance artist’s work has received a major exhibition in the UK for more than 20 years. Told through paintings, drawings, prints and letters, this brilliant exhibition will chart Dürer’s travels across the Alps, Italy and the Netherlands, exploring how his journeys informed his most famous works.
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, V&A
When: From 27 March 2021
About: One of spring’s most exciting new exhibitions, the V&A’s deep dive into the world of Alice In Wonderland will explore 157 years of a story which spawned plays, films, songs, television shows, ballets and more. Immersive and theatrical in its scope, highlight exhibits include illustrations from the original 1866 book, Alice-inspired fashion by Vivienne Westwood and artworks and photography by Peter Blake, Tim Walker, Dorothea Tanning and more.
David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020
When: 27 March - 22 August 2021
About: A seismic event like a global pandemic was always going to have a huge impact on working artists and one of the first to exhibit his lockdown output will be David Hockney. This standalone show at the Royal Academy will showcase 116 works created by the artist using an iPad and stylus while sheltering in Normandy in spring 2020. A product of the pandemic, but one which doesn’t directly reference it, the series is a hopeful reminder of the beauty of the natural world and its process of constant renewal.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror, Tate Modern
When: 29 March 2021 - 27 March 2022
About: Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has achieved international fame for her wide-ranging works spanning painting, sculpture, design and writing. Among her most famous pieces is a series of Infinity Mirror Rooms – two of which will be available to experience at the Tate Modern this year. The first, Filled with the Brilliance of Life, was initially created for Kusama’s 2012 retrospective at the Tate Modern and is one her largest installations to date, while the second, Chandelier of Grief, uses rotating crystal chandeliers to create the illusion of a boundless universe. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to experience Kusama’s work in person.
Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, British Museum
When: 22 April - 22 August 2021
About: If your interests lie more in history than art, the British Museum’s spring exhibition isn’t to be missed. Marking the 850th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop and Henry VIII contemporary Thomas Becket, an event which changed the course of British history, this wonderful show will take visitors inside Becket's life, exploring the events that led up to his death via artefacts ranging from medieval stained glass and manuscripts to jewellery and sacred reliquaries.
The Making of Rodin, Tate Modern
When: 29 April - 31 October 2021
About: A landmark retrospective of one of the 19th and 20th century’s greatest sculptors, this major exhibition will explore a new side of Rodin: his enormous skill as a modeller. Although best known for his works in bronze and marble, it was Rodin’s mastery of clay and plaster that enabled him to build a stockpile of model body parts, allowing him to experiment with different poses, assemblies and expressions. This is an unprecedented peek inside the mind of an artist that changed the face of modern sculpture.
Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street, Design Museum
When: From 30 April 2021
About: If you’ve got your finger on the streetwear pulse, you’ll know there’s no item more covetable than sneakers. This spring the Design Museum will be putting the ‘sneakerhead’ phenomenon in the spotlight with a new exhibition which examines the sneaker market from design and conception through to cults classic, limited editions and a resale market now worth $2 billion.
Summer Exhibition 2021, Royal Academy
When: 15 June - 17 August 2021
About: The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is one of the highlights of London’s summer social and cultural calendar – so it was quite the blow when the 2020 edition was shut down due to coronavirus restrictions. This year the RA plans to offer up a Summer Exhibition that is bigger and better than ever (quite a feat considering it's been running uninterrupted since 1769) with works ranging from print and paintings to film, sculpture and architecture. As always, almost every piece will be available to buy.
Paula Rego, Tate Britain
When: 16 June - 24 October 2021
About: London-based artist Paula Rego has been instrumental in redefining modern figurative art in the UK with her creative, imaginative and highly personal works. For its summer exhibition, Tate Britain will put the full range of Rego’s works on display, beginning with her early pieces exploring personal and social struggle and working up to the vibrant, layered scenes which characterise her most recent works.
Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life, Design Museum
When: From 19 June 2021
About: A contemporary of Picasso, Le Corbusier and Fernand Léger , Charlotte Perriand was one of the most influential figures of 20th-century design – but her name has often been overlooked in favour of her more famous male counterparts. On the 25th anniversary of its first Perriand exhibition in 1996, London’s Design Museum will team up with the Perriand family and Fondation Louis Vuitton to shine a new light on Perriand’s work, with large-scale reconstructions of her most famous interiors alongside furniture, photography and personal notebooks.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Tate Modern
When: 15 July - 17 October 2021
About: One of the foremost abstract artists of the 1920s and 1930s, this will mark the first retrospective of Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s work ever held in the UK, featuring works from major collections in Europe and the US that have never been seen in Britain. A multi-disciplinarian whose output included embroideries, paintings, sculptures, magazines and puppets, this is a long overdue look at the work of a woman who made huge contributions to modern art and design.
Impressionist Decorations: The Birth of Modern Décor, National Gallery
When: 11 September 2021 - 9 January 2022
About: When wandering the halls of a museum or gallery you probably don’t stop to think about the real life impact artists have on the lives of everyday people. This is exactly the conversation the National Gallery hopes to engage in with its autumn blockbuster Impressionist Decorations: The Birth of Modern Décor. Rather than displaying paintings, the exhibitions will showcase canvases, panels and decorative objects by the likes of Monet, Renoir and Morisot that turned Impressionism from an artistic movement into a fashionable interior design style.
Creature by Akram Khan, Sadler’s Wells
When: 23 September - 2 October 2021
About: Even those with little knowledge of the modern ballet scene likely recognise the name Akram Khan. The choreography virtuoso has been working with the English National Ballet to transform the face of traditional dance into something exciting, edgy and completely captivating over the past few years. Having been postponed due to coronavirus restrictions, Creature – Khan’s latest work inspired by Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck with overtones of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – will finally debut at Sadler’s Wells in autumn 2021.
Marina Abramović: After Life, Royal Academy
When: 25 September - 12 December 2021
About: Marina Abramović really needs no introduction. She is roundly considered one of, if not the, most important performance artist in the world, with her show-stopping works often reducing spectators to tears and hitting national headlines. Somewhat surprisingly then, the Royal Academy’s autumn exhibition will be first UK show to span Abramović’s life work, with re-performances of some of her most iconic works alongside brand new pieces created specifically for the RA.
Waste Age, Design Museum
When: From 23 October
About: The Design Museum is turning its attention to one of the most pressing problems facing modern society this year: rubbish. While design may have helped create the problem of waste, the exhibition posits it could also be the solution to ridding us of it. Walking visitors through the history of this man-made crisis, Waste Age will investigate the new materials, approaches and processes that may lead the planet to brighter, cleaner, waste-free future.
Late Constable, Royal Academy
When: 30 October 2021 - 13 February 2022
About: One for the real art aficionados, you’ll need to know the importance of the increasingly free and expressive brushwork Constable employed towards the end of his life to truly appreciate the wonder of this exhibition. But, even if you don’t, this is still a world-class show displaying some of the most important works by one of Britain’s greatest artists. Either way, you’ll be glad you went.
Hogarth and Europe, Tate Britain
When: 3 November 2021- 20 March 2022
About: The 18th century was a time of huge change in Britain, and across Europe, with the industrial revolution creating at once a time of opportunity and innovation while dividing society into a new cosmopolitan elite and poor rural communities. Few artists captured the experiences of these groups quite like William Hogarth. In winter 2021, the Tate Britain will exhibit some of Hogarth’s wittiest and most energetic works alongside those by his European peers, including Chardin, Francesco Guardi and Cornelis Troost, for the first time.
Art from Britain and the Caribbean, Tate Britain
When: 1 December 2021 - 3 April 2022
About: Britain and the Caribbean have a long and often dark colonial relationship and it is the modern echoes of this story that the Tate Britain hopes to spotlight this winter. Focusing on Caribbean artists who have settled in Britain over the past 50 years, as well as British artists who have created work referencing Caribbean culture, the show will celebrate the way Caribbean communities have been forged in post-war Britain, bringing a new and vibrant element to UK society. Expect works from the likes of Aubrey Williams, Donald Locke, Grace Wales Bonner and Peter Doig.