Art

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

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The seven wonders of the new Tate Modern

The Tate Modern that we all know and love has grown up. Here's seven things to hunt down on your first visit

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The latest art reviews

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Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings

Georgiana Houghton was a nineteenth-century spiritualist and medium who made art under the alleged influence of otherworldly beings. Her work fell into obscurity, but was recently rediscovered and re-evaluated as a precursor to twentieth-century abstraction. Houghton’s ‘spirit drawings’ are small, intimate and mesmerisingly exquisite, with swirling streaks of colour that overlap to form wild, spirographic latticeworks. They’re psychedelic visions of divinity, with titles such as ‘The Eye of God’, and quite astounding when you consider the staid, mid-Victorian milieu in which Houghton was working. In handwritten text on the reverse of each watercolour, Houghton explained the imagery and symbolism, or named her spirit guides (archangels, Renaissance painters). The sheer, almost hallucinatory level of detail is captivating. The gallery even provides magnifying glasses for up-close inspection – a trick copied from the British artist’s only show during her lifetime, in London in 1871. That exhibition left her financially ruined. The 22 pieces at the Courtauld constitute much of her surviving work, and are an absolute must-see.

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck

Okay, listen. There are paintings in this show by Picasso, Cézanne, Degas, Matisse, Van Dyck, Delacroix, Ingres, Corot, Manet, Rembrandt, Poussin, Titian and someone who Sir Joshua Reynolds thought was Mantegna but was actually Bellini. As a starting line-up, that’s not bad in anyone’s book. What links all these works is that they were once the property of another famous artist, and there are some really really great things here, from Constable’s heartbreakingly fresh ‘Portrait of Laura Moubray’, which once hung in Lucian Freud’s lounge (or whatever he called it), to a huge preparatory fresco study by Caracci, once owned by fash Regency portraitist Thomas Lawrence. If you like Ingres, you’re in luck: Degas lurrvved him and bought loads of his works.  But knowing that someone once owned something doesn’t necessarily invest it with extra significance, and ‘Painters’ Paintings’ is more frustrating than revealing. Overwhelmed by two large rooms of Degas’s collection, the works owned by the other artists feel sidelined. There are fun details but not many  surprises, though I like the fact that Reynolds flogged a nasty painting by Gainsborough of a gamine urchin tending some pigs for three times what he paid for it. Like him, you get plenty of bang for your buck here, but if you want real value for money, just spend an hour or four in the National Gallery upstairs. It’ll cost you nothing.

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  • 3 out of 5 stars
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Alex Katz: Quick Light

If you put all clever, jargon-filled analysis to one side, paintings of any kind tend to provoke one of two basic reactions in people. The first is: ‘I could do that.’ (Or just as often: ‘My five-year-old could do that.’ I worry about the pressure being put on these kids.) The second is: ‘I wish I could do that.’ The Serpentine’s new show of American artist Alex Katz will send you on a hell of a journey from one to the other. Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Katz came of age in a New York where abstract expressionism was in the middle of supplanting the old realists, and the anarchy of pop lay around the corner. In between, he developed an oeuvre which made nods to all three, while also being entirely its own thing. He’s best known for his portraits of friends and family: warm, crooked hybrids of naturalism and illustration. It’s in these that Katz’s playfulness comes through, especially in pictures such as ‘Vivien’ (pictured, 2015) , which shows his subject  in six different poses. But at the Serpentine – and all credit to them – it’s Katz’s landscapes, which usually play second fiddle, that really shine. It’s easy to heap praise on an 89-year-old artist for still working on canvases nearly 20 feet wide, but that does a disservice to him, because the simple fact is that they’re also very, very good. The work in the gallery’s central space, in particular, will knock the air from your chest. Katz has frequently likened his work to poetry, and there’s something haiku-like in his ab

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Mary Heilmann

Mary Heilmann is first and foremost a painter – though she never intended to be. Growing up amongst surfers and beatniks in California, she moved to New York in 1968 and found the city full of minimalists proclaiming the medium dead. She made a go of it as a sculptor, but after struggling in a bloke-dominated scene, contrarily moved to painting, nurturing her bright, breezy brand of abstraction. Although she uses minimalist devices like grids and squares, Heilmann has always kept one eye fixed on the world around her. ‘311 Castro Street’ (2001) is named after her gran’s house – it’s the same colour as the wallpaper. ‘Bush of Ghosts’ (1980) is a tribute to the Brian Eno and David Byrne album. ‘Good Vibrations’ (2012), with its multicoloured dots freckling the wall, is her take on an acid trip. Her delicate, domestic-scale ceramics, meanwhile, feel like a riposte to her male peers and their fondness for heavy-duty industrial materials. Heilman has no problem taking the odd leap into figuration now and again. A painting of an empty chair is a veiled elegy to friends lost during the Aids epidemic. And best of all, there’s the recent pictures of highways and ocean waves – so hopelessly cool you half-expect to hear the ‘Drive’ soundtrack playing in the background.

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

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Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama is one of those artists whose mythology often overshadows her work. Now 87 years old, she has had a litany of avant-garde terms thrown her way over the years – conceptualist, feminist, minimalist – and was an indisputably huge influence on pop art giants including Andy Warhol. Having done her time on the 1960s’ New York scene, in the early 1970s Kusama returned to Tokyo, checked herself into a mental institution and has lived there willingly ever since – travelling to her nearby studio to work. Add to this personal history her colourful dress sense (with bright wigs and polka-dotted smocks, she is like one of her own patterned paintings come to life) and her record-breaking auction results, and, well, the myth builds itself. But now on to the artwork itself. This ambitious new exhibition of paintings, sculptures and installations across two sites – Victoria Miro galleries on Wharf Road in Old Street and on St George Street in Mayfair – is teeming with Kusama’s continuing preoccupations: pattern, repetition, mirrored ‘infinity rooms’ and huge, distended pumpkins. It’s not hard to believe her claim that she has experienced hallucinations since childhood. Or, by extension, to think that she harnesses such visions through the act of creation. Especially when standing in the ‘All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins’ room. Here, you’re surrounded by a sea of the artist’s signature dotted gourd-shape lanterns, which seem to undulate while their shadow selves stret

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Jeff Koons: Now

Jeff Koons is why people loathe modern art. According to the haters, the American superstar is a cynical artistic oligarch, using shock and pop culture to make his pile: he made porn-art, he ripped off comic books, he did balloon sculptures – and he’s become one of the most expensive living artists in the process. So it’s no surprise that Damien Hirst has a massive collection of Koons originals, which he is displaying here in his fancy gallery. Hirst and Koons, a match made in hell. But the thing is, that view of Koons as megalomaniacal art moneylord, it’s fun, but it’s wrong. Dig beneath the glitzy surface, and there’s an actual human heart in there somewhere. This show pulls together works from throughout Koons’s career. It’s not quite a proper retrospective, but it’s near enough. It starts with his early Hoover readymades and ad paintings before moving on to the big stuff: a giant balloon monkey, some soft-focus porn, a giant bowl of eggs, basketballs suspended in water, framed Nike posters, inflatable lobsters and a huge pile of Play-Doh. It’s what you expect from Koons: big, bold, glamorous and expensive-looking. But there’s a fear in Koons’s work, a deep insecurity. It’s like he’s trying to preserve everything for ever. He seals his readymades away, protecting them. He makes balloons and inflatables out of steel, he makes hardcore porn with his beautiful (ex-) wife, he preserves basketballs like scientific specimens. The inflatables are childhood made permanent in

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds

Despite ancient texts being full of references to them, the Egyptian cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion remained a lost mystery for years. It wasn’t until the 1990s that an archaeological team discovered their remains – not on dry land, but a few miles off the coast, beneath the Mediterranean. This spectacular show is the first time these pieces from the drowned cities have been seen in the UK. The exhibition tells a pretty chirpy story of how, for many hundreds of years, the mouth of the Nile – where Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion once stood – was a major trading hub between Egypt and its Greek, and later Roman, neighbours across the sea. We think of these ancient empires being clear-cut and distinct, but in reality goods, art and even religions changed hands. So although the Greek settlers thought worshipping birds and cats was all a bit weird, they recognised the Egyptian deities as ‘translations’ of their own, and in Canopus they founded a temple to Serapis: a one-size-fits-all god who doubled as Osiris-Apis. Not everything on display here has been pulled from the depths: the museum has trawled its own collection and got some stunning loan pieces from Egyptian museums to flesh out the story. But it’s the submerged stuff that’s by far the most interesting, in turns exquisite (golden jewellery from the Ptolemaic era), surreal (a bronze ladle encrusted with barnacles) and monumental (20-foot statues of Greek monarchs dressed in pharaoh gear). The Indiana Jones-style e

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Edward Barber

A foot in Jesus sandal protrudes from under a police van, while an officer looks smirkingly on. A man stands in Hyde Park: on his head is a paper bag printed with instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. One reads: ‘Kiss your loved ones goodbye.’ A demure woman sits in a folding chair beside a sign which reads ‘Hello, can you stop for a talk?’ She might be canvassing for a politician or manning a WI stall. In fact she’s picketing Greenham Common RAF base, home to Uncle Sam and his cruise missiles. Edward Barber’s stunning photos from the early 1980s pinpoint a moment in the history of protest in this country. In some ways they look back to the Suffragette era: a lot of those active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and these demonstrations were women (‘Take the toys away from the boys’ says one placard. Mrs Thatcher is an honorary boy, presumably). In others, they look forward to Occupy: ordinary people on the streets expressing their anger. Barber’s shots appeared at the time in newspapers and CND material. Now, in spanking new digital prints, they stand tightly packed, shoulder-to-shoulder like the 30,000 women who formed a nine-mile human chain around Greenham in 1982. The room is painted the canary yellow of the radiation warning symbol; benches are drilled with holes in the shape of the CND logo. These details continue a theme in the work: a very English kind of pre-internet homespun creativity, full of wit and folk art. In the same vein, Barb

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Paul Strand

Goodness: It’s a quality you probably appreciate in your mum. But in an artist? We’re taught from an early age to admire art’s bad boys and girls, from Caravaggio via Picasso to Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. They have the coolest lives and make the best copy. But the photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976) was, unerringly, a good man. And his images, of New York City streets, remote rural communities, even crocuses in his back yard, are inseparable from his humanity. This extra moral dimension gives you something unusual to grapple with at the V&A’s staggeringly beautiful retrospective. Strand is responsible for some of the defining shots of America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and for helping to elevate photography to an art form.  Homing in on the shadows on his porch, or fruit in a bowl, he made what are regarded as some of the first abstract photos of all time. Yet, especially in these fledgling works, you sense a tussle between Strand’s creative aspiration and his social conscience. It’s there in his iconic shot of Wall Street commuters, taken in 1915 (pictured above). Strand was trying to understand cubism and how to create a modern image for a modern world. However, with its anonymous proles dragging their long shadows in front the stark edifice of the JP Morgan building, the modern world he describes is one of subservience and alienation. He was no sentimentalist, though. A year later, in upstate Port Kent, he photographed a traditional white picket fence

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  • 5 out of 5 stars
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Upcoming art exhibitions in London

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David Hockney RA: 79 Portraits and Two Still Lifes

After his mega 2012 RA show, David Hockney returns to the Royal Academy with a smaller show in the Sackler Wing of portraits made in Los Angeles over the past three years. The aquas and blues of the backgrounds immediately recall his seminal swimming pool paintings of the 1960s. Instead of bare-bummed beach boys, however, these relative small works are populated by Hockney’s current friends, family and acquaintances – including Barry Humphries, Lord Jacob Rothschild and super-gallerist Larry Gagosian.

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Georgia O'Keeffe

Landscape painter, flower painter, feminist artist… Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was all of these and more. She is also one of the most popular and accessible artists on the planet – her work being among the most widely reproduced of any twentieth century artist. It’s possibly due to the former that O’Keeffe has suffered critically over the decades; straitjacketed by categories that only partly explain her influence, she struggles to attain a singular presence in the history of modern.

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Ragnar Kjartansson

If you missed one of the standout shows of 2015, the Vinyl Factory’s presentation of Ragnar Kjartansson sensational musical installation, ‘The Visitors’, fear not as you’ll be able to experience it at the Barbican’s summer exhibition dedicated to the young Icelandic artist who has brought fun back to art. For his recent show at Palais de Tokyo, he transformed the galleries into living entities where the lines between fact and fiction were blurred. He’s played guitar naked in a bath, been the crooner of a big band, become a captain of a boat, and dressed up as a knight. 

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William Eggleston Portraits

William Eggleston, the man widely considered the godfather of colour photography, is a geniune art world legend and as cool as many of the people he's shot over the years. Joe Strummer and Dennis Hopper are among the names that feature in this retrospective of Eggleston's portraits of musicians and actors. But rarely seen images of this Memphis-born artist's home life are likely to be as big a draw.

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The 40 best photos of London ever taken

Our (almost) definitive list of the best photographs ever taken of the capital

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Free art in London

See all London's free art exhibitions this week

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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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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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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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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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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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