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Art reviews and listings for London's best museum exhibitions and art galleries

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This week's best new art

Here are the new shows and events you'd be mad to miss

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Out There: Our Post-War Public Art

Our poor public art. When it isn’t being decried as a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money, it’s being sawn off at the base in the dead of night, loaded into vans and sold for scrap. Of course, both responses fail spectacularly to appreciate the value of having an artwork in your local park, shopping centre, at the bottom of your street or on your way to work. But, as this spirited exhibition by Historic England (formerly English Heritage) reveals, these aren’t the only – or even the worst – fates that can meet our Barbara Hepworths, Henry Moores and their ilk. ‘Out There’ tells the story of England’s public art made between 1945 and 1985 through examples that have been lost, damaged, moved, detroyed or even saved (yes, there are some happy episodes). It’s a gripping tale not only for art lovers – it features some of the biggest names of twentieth-century British art – but for anyone who cares about the fabric of the city around them. It begins at the end of WWII and, as with RIBA’s ‘Creation from Catastrophe’ reveals that marvels are often forged out of necessity. Shown through models, photographs and documents, the works themselves, such as Siegfried Charoux’s ‘The Neighbours’ (1959) commissioned for the Highbury Quadrant Estate  may seem modest. But the ambition behind them, the same ambition that started up the NHS and built masses of public housing, could very well have you choking back tears for its far-sightedness and fair-mindedness. This spirit manifested itself in

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Stan Douglas - The Secret Agent

Artist-filmmakers don’t like to make life easy for you. As a rule, there will be more than one screen to watch; no snacks, no comfy chair to sink into. Sometimes no chair at all. Stan Douglas is typically demanding. At almost an hour in length, the Canadian artist’s latest epic ‘The Secret Agent’ (a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s 1907 spy novella) plays across six large screens – two rows of three facing each across the darkness of Victoria Miro’s vast warehouse space. Sometimes the action takes place on a single screen, sometimes two, or more. To watch is to launch yourself across the room, spin on your heels and, very often, find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time (especially if you wuss out and occupy the benches in the middle of the room). Such hindrances would send you packing were it not for the ways in which they heighten Douglas’s already super-tense drama. Conrad’s story deals with a terrorist threat in late nineteenth-century London. With an exquisite eye for retro detail, Douglas transfers the narrative to 1970s Portugal, and the aftermath of the country’s Carnation Revolution. There are countless shady assignations, a bomb, a paper bag full of money. And, as you find yourself caught between conversations playing on opposite screens – between officers and their superiors, spies and their handlers, a husband and wife – you become increasingly entangled in its convolutions of plot. Sure, this is clever meta-cinema, but Douglas isn’t just giving his medium a

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Rana Hamadeh: The Sleepwalkers

The starting point for Rana Hamadeh’s exhibition is the darkly intriguing story of two sisters, Raya and Sakina, serial killers who in 1921 became the first women to be executed by the modern Egyptian state. Not that these events are presented in a straightforward way. The Lebanese artist has gone for a decidedly abstract, conceptual approach with her play featuring body-stockinged protagonists, modernist props and twirling jester figures. Nor, for that matter, are you even watching the play directly, but rather a film version, one that includes the play’s audience as characters and a voiceover analysing the dramatic setting. Essentially, you’re experiencing a kind of self-referential, metatextual culmination, a staging of a staging of the original trial. Or, as the grandiloquent voiceover has it, ‘an abysmal vertical column of theatrical suspension’. The sense of different representational levels mixing and accumulating only really comes through during one, super-intense sequence, where the trickster character’s whirling skirt segues into splintering graphics accompanied by throbbing music. Apart from that, Hamadeh has clearly done plenty of research, and invokes many fascinating histories – from Egyptian nationalism to gender roles to previous versions of the sisters’ story. But whether this diffuse swirl of ideas actually translates into an effective work of art… well, the jury’s still out. 

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  • 3 out of 5 stars
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Creation from Catastrophe

In 1666, the Great Fire of London wiped out five sixths of the medieval city. From the ashes, a new kind of capital had to be built. This free exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects examines the curious tabula rasa paradox: that with destruction comes the opportunity for innovation and improvement. Christopher Wren’s sweeping plans for a new London of piazzas and concentric boulevards (largely quashed by budgetary issues and landowner squabbles) are fascinating, but not nearly as much as the proposals that were rejected outright. Richard Newcourt envisioned a London made of a vast grid system, each block centred by a churchyard: a kind of anachronistic modernist utopia. When Valentine Knight suggested a canal whose toll would finance the project, Charles II – aghast at the idea of profiting from his people’s suffering – had him arrested. And this is just our city: there are nine other case studies on display in this show. Eager to outdo Wren’s half-measures in London, the Marquis of Pombal’s grandiose visions for post-earthquake Lisbon in the eighteenth century are shaped by an element of one-upmanship. The dazzling illustrations that Daniel Burnham commissioned after Chicago’s 1871 fire essentially hail the era of the skyscraper. But perhaps most affecting of all is the case of Chile’s Constitución, devasted by a tsunami in 2010. The radical architectural group Elemental’s idea of planting a strip of forestland to act as a buffer between the town and the P

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Must-see art exhibitions in London

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Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

For a show that was always going to be a surefire hit, ‘Painting the Modern Garden’ more than delivers in the ways you’d expect. Floral masterpieces by Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse are abundant; there are also endless discoveries to be made, from Henri Le Sidaner’s ‘The Rose Pavilion’ (1936), pink and powdery like your nan’s cheek, to the fiery sunset strangeness of little-known Spaniard Santiago Rusiñol’s ‘Glorieta VII, Aranjuez’ (1919). The Royal Academy has embraced the theme with gusto. Walls are painted the sludgy greens and subdued blues of posh garden sheds. There are park benches to sit on. You half expect a holographic Titchmarsh to appear, offering advice about your hanging baskets. So, it’s sumptuous and a little silly in parts (and surely the perfect Mother’s Day treat). But, you don’t need to dig too far to find rich seams of history. Because, while this is a blockbuster full of the most beautiful paintings you’ll see all year, it’s also a show about the ways in which the newly-prosperous middle classes were able to cultivate patches of land for themselves, and how, unexpectedly, the rise of modern art was helped by the advent of the mail-order seed catalogue. And by botanical science, which led to new hybrids becoming available – notably the dahlia, which went from being a Mexican sort-of daisy to the spiky Ascot hat adored by the impressionists. The garden is shaped, in life as in art, as a place of solace, escape and innovation. Yet, regardl

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture

Artists aren’t widely known for inventing things of practical use. Things of beauty, yes, but something you might wind up buying in a shop, carting home and assembling with the aim of making your life easier? Believe this show’s publicity, though (and there’s no reason to dispute it) and American artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is the man responsible for distracting restless babies and relieving dog-tired parents the world over by inventing the mobile. Calder, of course, wasn’t the first person to hang bits and bobs from wires and sticks and let them dangle in the breeze. Wind chimes have been around since prehistoric times. The earliest suspended toys demonstrating the planetary system date from the eighteenth century. Strung-up kinetic sculptures were even being created by radical artists such as Alexander Rodchenko, Naum Gabo and Man Ray in the 1920s, a decade before Calder set his art works shimmying into life, first with the aid of motors, then through the interaction of air currents on metal shapes suspended from axial beams, rods and strings attached to the ceiling. But, he was the first to give to his inventions the term ‘mobile’ – and to make exploring their possibilities his life’s work. And the results are utterly, endlessly entrancing – as effective, it turns out, on an audience of adults as infants. There’s delight from the off. First you’ll see Calder’s whimsical, riotous wire works from the 1920s, essentially drawings in space, including a strongman, lith

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Alec Soth: Gathered Leaves

Forty-six-year-old Minnesota native Alec Soth still lives in his hometown of Minneapolis. Since the early 2000s his version of Americana has been hugely influential: mostly small-town and second-city portraits with an emphasis on place, capturing ‘middle’ (ie non-wealthy) Americans in all their inglorious glory. A member of the illustrious photo agency Magnum, Soth’s focus is project-based documentary work that touches upon fine art (he publishes photo-art books through his Little Brown Mushroom press). If some of his earlier works – serene, middle-distance portraits with subjects looking fixedly into the distance – seem overplayed, it’s because his lyrical style has been so routinely emulated. In this, his first major exhibition in the UK, we are treated to four of his major projects from the last ten years, including his latest, ‘Songbook’, a group of large-scale photos first brought together as seven unbound publications. These ‘dispatches’ (as he calls them) are from a road trip during which he and writer Brad Zellar followed the local action across seven states. A child plays an electric guitar for a church service; a tween boy too young to smoke does just that while donning a fedora; a group of adults old enough to know better are in full foam-party throttle at the Crazy Legs saloon. Using black-and-white film, Soth’s aim is to recreate the quick, responsive feel of photos as he remembers them from his time working at a local newspaper. But perhaps his most haunting

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer

This is a show that serves up four Rembrandts. As a starter. Just to give a sense of the royal and artistic dialogues between Britain and the Netherlands at the time. So, we’re talking the sort of quality that only the oldest of old money can buy. The main meat of this show, however, isn’t all that refined, not in it subject matter at least. Three centuries after it was painted, Willem van Mieris’s ‘The Neglected Lute’ (c1710) is still pretty easy to decipher. A young woman has called on a gentleman to play him a turn. However, her audience of one clearly has other ideas. Plied with wine and oysters, she gazes a little woozily into her glass, while said instrument rests against her skirt, unplucked. In the background, a servant carries in another tray full of temptation. ‘However high you’re thinking, go lower – Benny Hill, it’s as obvious as that,’ said the surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, at the press launch for this deliciously unstuffy selection from Her Maj’s collection. And he’s spot on. Trysts, tussles and piss-ups are staples of these seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century paintings. And, like characters in a play, or perhaps a panto, the people in them signpost the action with a startling lack of subtlety. Nicolaes Maes’s ‘The Listening Housewife’ (1655) hushes you conspiratorially as she descends the staircase to discover a maidservant canoodling with her beau. Down to his undershirt and unbuttoned britches, the guy at the centre of Godfri

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Lee Miller: A Woman's War

It wasn’t until Lee Miller’s death in 1977 that her son Anthony Penrose discovered the role his mother had played in documenting World War II. Forgotten in the attic was Miller’s archive of negatives. A selection of her photographs exploring the role of women in the lead-up to, during and after World War II is exhibited in a remarkable display here. Don’t expect a dry history lesson. Miller was quite the character and a wilful woman who is the perfect visual storyteller of the period. Miller’s rise to accomplished photojournalist begins with a very personal introduction. Intimate holiday snaps with a European art-world set including the surrealists Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington are hung next to vibrant portraits of Miller by Picasso and the British surrealist Roland Penrose (whom she later married). Miller’s early career had been spent as a fashion model in New York, discovered by Condé Nast. You’ll see fashion images from the era juxtaposed with her first experiments of the photographic techniques. In 1929 she travelled to Paris with the aim of becoming an apprentice to the photographer and painter Man Ray. She became his lover and muse, as well as collaborator. But it wasn’t until the outbreak of World War II, when Miller was living with Penrose in Hampstead, that she could really put her talent to the test. British Vogue commissioned her to produce photo essays on the war effort like ‘Fashion for Factories’. Although informed by the newly created Ministry of Informatio

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Upcoming art exhibitions in London

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Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen

One of the most fascinating – and strange – artists of the past 100 years is the subject of one of the most anticipated shows of 2016. Strait-laced, and appearing rather stern looking photographs, the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was nonetheless an extreme painter, whose work was inspired by a lifelong interest in spiritualism and the occult. In addition to be an artist, she was a clairvoyant and a medium, a follower of the theosophical teachings of Madame Blavatsky, who made over a thousand paintings in secret, insisting that they should not be publicly show until 20 years after her death (in 1944). Characterised by grids, circles and flat areas of chalky colour, her paintings are, on the surface, abstract images made before abstraction had been born in Europe and with no knowledge of what was happening in the continent’s creative hotspots. Af Klint’s paintings are never entirely ‘abstract’, though – recalling flower forms, or populated by words, numbers and vectors, they come across like diagrams of enigmatic ideas, primordial forces and evolutionary themes. Was she just a crank? Ominously, in the early 1930s she made a map-like work, ‘The Blitz’, that seems to predict WWII. Camden Arts Centre introduced us to this intriguing and secretive artist a decade ago. The Serpentine’s spring 2016 show will bring together works from ‘The Paintings for the Temple’ series along with other paintings that have never been shown before in the UK.

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Botticelli Reimagined

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Florentine painter of exquisite mythological scenes (including that sad-eyed Venus being born from a sea shell), as well as graceful pictures of the Madonna and Child and countless flattering portraits of his Medici paymasters, was immensely popular in his lifetime. He’s also rare among early renaissance artists in that his work continues to achieve pop-cultural fame into the twenty-first century – via Dolce & Gabbana, Gaga and many others. Bringing together the biggest haul of Botticellis we’ve seen in London for decades, the V&A’s spring 2016 blockbuster is a chance to marvel at the strange, otherworldly beauty of the master, while looking at his influence, not just on art, but on film, photography, fashion and design. Included are works by René Magritte, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman. 

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Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers

Martin Parr has spent his career casting a quizzical eye over Britain, so he’s the ideal person to curate a show that looks at how international photographers from the 1930s to today have captured the social, cultural and political identity of the UK through the camera lens. There’s a stellar cast involved – including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Garry Winogrand, Tina Barney and Bruce Gilden. This show’s USP, however, is that, while its participants have spent time travelling through and documenting the UK, none have set up permanent home here. It makes for a unique ‘outsider’s view’ of Britain, from the Outer Hebrides to Dover, and covers a epic sweep of fairly recent history – from the coronation of George VI to surveillance photos of looters taken during the 2011 London riots. Perhaps it’s most engaging in the quieter details of everyday life, though – the corner shops and market scenes – some familiar, some lost to history.

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Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century

The American photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976) was one of the first to make a photographic abstraction (intentionally). Inspired by the latest trends in European art – which he saw in shows of Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and others in New York – he was applied a new-fangled language of geometric surface design, and a new way of looking at the modern world, initially to objects such as furniture (and its shadows), then to the streets of Manhattan. Taught by the social reformer and photographer Lewis Hine, Strand never entirely abandoned the human – and humanist – quality in his work. His iconic shots of Manhattan from the 1910s, for instance, often pit lone figures against the alienating abstract shadow play of the urban cityscape. His seminal shot ‘Blind’ (1916) of a beggar, meanwhile, is a bold simplification that immediately set the standard for street photography in the modern era. This show, the first in the UK since Strand’s death, includes photographs and films, ranging from shots of Manhattan’s financial district, wharves and factories, experimental films including ‘Manhatta’, and work he produced during his extensive travels in Egypt, Morocco and Ghana, including images he took during a visit to the Scottish Hebrides in 1954.

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Free art in London

See all London's free art exhibitions this week

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Photography in London

Get in the picture with our guide to the capital's best photography

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Latest art interviews

We speak to the biggest names and emerging talent in the art world

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The 100 best paintings in London

Our expert guide to the best paintings in the capital

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What's on at

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Barbican Centre

The Barbican Centre, a vast concrete estate of 2,000 flats and a leading arts complex, is a prime example of brutalist architecture, softened a little by time and rectangular ponds of friendly resident ducks. The lakeside terrace and adjoining café are good spots to take a rest from visiting the art gallery, cinema, theatre, concert hall or library within the complex. The art gallery on the third floor stages exhibitions on design, architecture and pop culture, while on the ground floor, the Curve is a free exhibition space for specially commissioned works and contemporary art. At the core of the music roster, performing 90 concerts a year, is the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). The annual BITE season (Barbican International Theatre Events) continues to cherry-pick exciting and eclectic theatre companies from around the globe. The Barbican regularly attracts and nurtures experimental dance, and the Pit Theatre is a perfectly intimate space.

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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National Gallery

Founded in 1824 to display a collection of just 36 paintings, today the National Gallery is home to more than 2,000 works. There are masterpieces from virtually every European school of art. The modern Sainsbury Wing extension contains the gallery’s earliest works: Italian paintings by early masters like Giotto and Piero della Francesca. The basement of the Sainsbury Wing is also the setting for temporary exhibitions. In the West Wing are Italian Renaissance masterpieces by Correggio, Titian and Raphael; in the North Wing, seventeenth-century Dutch, Flemish, Italian and Spanish Old Masters. In the East Wing (reached via the street-level entrance in Trafalgar Square) are some of the gallery’s most popular paintings: works by the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists, including on of Monet’s water lily paintings and one of Van Gogh’s sunflowers series. You can’t see everything in one visit to the National Gallery, but the free guided tours and audio guides will help you make the most of your time. There’s also a wonderfully atmospheric café stocked with Oliver Peyton goodies, and a fine-dining restaurant, the National Dining Rooms.

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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National Portrait Gallery

Portraits don't have to be stuffy. The National Portrait Gallery has everything from oil paintings of stiff-backed royals to photos of soccer stars and gloriously unflattering political caricatures. The portraits of musicians, scientists, artists, philanthropists and celebrities are arranged in chronological order from the top to the bottom of the building. At the top of the escalator up from the main foyer are the earliest works, portraits of Tudor and Stuart royals and notables. On the same floor, the eighteenth-century collection features Georgian writers and artists, with one room devoted to the influential Kit-Cat Club of Whig (leftish) intellectuals, Congreve and Dryden among them. More famous names here include Wren and Swift. The Duveen Extension contains Regency greats, military men such as Wellington and Nelson, as well as Byron, Wordsworth and other Romantics. The first floor is devoted to the Victorians (Dickens, Brunel, Darwin) and, in the Duveen Extension, the twentieth century. One of the NPG's most popular highlights is the annual BP Portrait Award where the best entrants for the prestigious prize are exhibited.

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Tate Britain

Tate Modern gets all the attention, but the original Tate Gallery, founded by sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate, has a broader and more inclusive brief. Housed in a stately Portland stone building on the riverside, Tate Britain is second only to the National Gallery when it comes to British art. The historical collection includes work by Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable (who gets three rooms to himself) and Turner (whose works are displayed in the grand Clore Gallery). Many contemporary works were shifted to Tate Modern when it opened in 2000, but Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Francis Bacon are well represented here, and the Art Now installations showcase up-and-coming British artists. The gallery also hosts the controversy-courting Turner Prize exhibition (Oct-Jan). The gallery has a good restaurant and a well-stocked gift shop, and the handy Tate-to-Tate boat service zips along the Thames to Tate Modern.

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Tate Modern

The permanent collection draws from the Tate’s collections of modern art (international works from 1900) and features heavy hitters such as Matisse, Rothko and Beuys – a genuinely world-class collection, expertly curated. There are vertiginous views down inside the building from outside the galleries, which group artworks according to movement (Surrealism, Minimalism, Post-war abstraction) rather than by theme.

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Whitechapel Gallery

This East End stalwart reopened in 2009 following a major redesign and expansion that saw the Grade II listed building transformed into a vibrant, holistic centre of art complete with a research centre, archives room and café. Since 1901, Whitechapel Art Gallery has built on its reputation as a pioneering contemporary institution and is well remembered for premiering the talents of exhibitions by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Frida Kahlo among others. Expect the rolling shows to be challenging and risqué.

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  • 3 out of 5 stars
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