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Installation view of Bruce Nauman at Tate Modern featuring Anthro/Socio (Rin de Sp inning) 1992 . Photograph by Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood). Artwork (c) Bruce Nauman / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020
Installation view of Bruce Nauman at Tate Modern featuring Anthro/Socio (Rin de Sp inning) 1992 . Photograph by Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood). Artwork (c) Bruce Nauman / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020

Top ten art exhibitions in London

Check out our critics’ picks of the best art currently on show in the capital at some of the world's best art galleries

By Time Out London Art

Sure, we're living through weird times, but in London's museums and galleries it's (almost) business as usual. Pretty much every art space in town is back open, so here are the best shows in town right now, just like before the end-times. Some galleries may now require booking for shows you used to be able to just rock up to, and others may have drastically reduced visitor numbers so you may have to queue, and almost all of them have changed their opening hours. Either way, check the gallery websites before heading out. From modern and fancy, to classical and serene, we've got your next art outing sorted. 

The ten best art exhibitions in London

Tracey Emin 'It - didnt stop - I didnt stop' (2019) © HV-studio Courtesy the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

1. Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch

Art Royal Academy of Arts, Mayfair

Tracey Emin lies nude on a bed, weeping and bleeding. Her splintered body is spattered with red, caked in dripping bodily fluids. Opposite, Edvard Munch’s women mirror Emin’s poses in soft watercolours, all staring emptily into the distance. This exhibition of the great Norwegian artist’s paintings of nude women alongside Emin’s own naked self-portraits is dark, harrowing and almost physically painful. Not a lot of laughs here, but a hell of a lot of feelings.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye 'Elephant' (2014) © Lynette Yiadom -Boakye

2. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Art Tate Britain, Millbank

A cheeky smile can get you pretty far in life, and even further in art. Just ask Mona Lisa, her semi-smirk has helped make her the most famous painting ever. That’s because that smile is enigmatic: we don’t know why it’s there or what it represents. English painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye pushes that idea - the enigma of the portrait - to an extreme.

Artemisia Gentileschi 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria' (about 1615-17) © The National Gallery, London

3. Artemisia

Art National Gallery, Trafalgar Square

Revenge is a dish best served cold, as the ancient proverb goes, and Baroque superstar Artemisia Gentileschi served it near freezing, over and over again. Delicious.

It’s a good story. Artemisia was the daughter of famed painter Orazio Gentileschi. She learned how to paint in his workshop before being apprenticed to Agostino Tassi, who raped her at the age of 17. Her father pressed charges, and young Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews during the trial to make sure she was telling the truth. Tassi was found guilty and exiled, and Artemisia dedicated the rest of her life to painting men being beheaded by strong women, finding huge success in the process. Revenge.

It’s a modern feminist fable from the seventeenth century, and most of it’s true. The rape, trial and success all happened. But reducing Artemisia to ‘scorned woman who beheads men’ misses so much of her story, and ignores so much of her talent. 

So yes, the show starts with two amazing visions of Judith slicing off Holofornes’s head. She’s dressed in aqua blue in one, searing yellow in the other. The lighting is all soap opera dramatism, big clashes of light and dark, and the faces are all stern, forceful determination. The later work, with Judith in yellow and blood spurting from Holofornes’s wound as she slices through his neck, is staggering.

And the rigid determination you see in Judith’s eyes appears over and over in this show. You can see it in Jael as she calmly but brutally hammers a massive nail into Sisera’s head, in Lucretia as she prepares to take her own life, and it’s in every self-portrait Artemisia painted. These are freight train women: figures with an unstoppable drive. 

But Artemisia’s later works – commissions for wealthy international patrons and churches – are just big, bold, brilliantly done, ambitious paintings. What you realise looking at the stumbling figure of Saint Januarius or the ludicrously luxurious fabrics of Ahasuerus is that Artemisia wasn’t just a woman, or just a painter of women, she was a painter. Full stop. And she could hold her own against most of the best of her era. 

There are some dud bits here – the crossed eyes of Saint Catherine, the muddiness of her ‘Judith and Her Maidservant’ compared to her father’s version nearby – but that’s ok. Because Artemisia wasn’t a fable, a myth, a good story to be used across the centuries. She was a painter. Just a painter, and that’s what we should be celebrating.

Introductions: Early Embodiment from A Countervailing Theory, (2019) © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

4. Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory

Art Barbican Centre, Barbican

Drawing, for Toyin Ojih Odutola, is a form of storytelling. These new works, exhibited around the 90-metre sweep of the Barbican Curve, form part of an epic series relaying an imagined ancient myth. The artist uses pencil, pastel, ballpoint pen and charcoal to create the mega-sized portraits that are as delicate as they are beautiful. 

Titian 'Rape of Europa' (1562) © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

5. Titian: Love, Desire, Death

5 out of 5 stars
Art National Gallery, Trafalgar Square

Bodies flailing through the air, mythical creatures rushing by in a blur, golden rays of light and mounds and mounds of flesh: Titian’s poesie series is wild, dramatic, violent and very, very sensual.

Umiaq and north wind during spring whaling by Kiliii Yuyan
Umiaq and north wind during spring whaling by Kiliii Yuyan

6. 'Arctic: Culture and Climate'

Museums British Museum, Bloomsbury

Walking into this show about the culture and history of the arctic is a bit of a shock, because you’re immediately slapped around the face with a map from a totally different perspective. The north. The very, very north. It’s the world from the top down, and you suddenly and immediately realise that you’ve been looking at the map in the same, European, way forever, and it has totally ignored other cultures. 

Installation view of Bruce Nauman at Tate Modern featuring Anthro/Socio (Rin de Sp inning) 1992 . Photograph by Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood). Artwork (c) Bruce Nauman / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020
Installation view of Bruce Nauman at Tate Modern featuring Anthro/Socio (Rin de Sp inning) 1992 . Photograph by Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood). Artwork (c) Bruce Nauman / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020

7. Bruce Nauman

Art Contemporary art Tate Modern, Bankside

Obscene, violent, vulgar, intense and somehow totally mundane: American artist Bruce Nauman’s art is a horrifying exploration of life’s absurdity.

'Figure (Sarvabuddhadakini). Na-ro-mkhah-spyod-ma' (19th century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

8. Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution

Museums British Museum, Bloomsbury

The British Museum's major exhibition for spring 2020 is devoted to the Tantras, sacred Indian texts from the 6th century that shaped the meditational and devotional practices of Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism. Since their dispersion, Tantric writings have had a dramatic impact on the major religions of South Asia, even inspiring revolutions. They continue to inform the philosophies and practices of people today, having been reimagined as a means of breaking convention. This exhibition will include over 100 objects, including sculptures, art installations and manuscripts.

JMW Turner 'Rain, Steam and Speed - the Great Western Railway' exhibited 1844 The National Gallery, London © The National Gallery, London

9. Turner’s Modern World

Art Tate Britain, Millbank

J.M.W. Turner is now one of the most famous and well-established painters to have ever come out of Britain. Which can make it hard to appreciate just what a radical Turner was during his lifetime. His loose, loose and looser-still approach to landscape painting repeatedly shocked the painterly establishment, but it wasn’t just his artistic style that was innovative. Turner was fascinated by the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution, as captured in the 100% glorious ‘Rail, Steam and Speed’. And - guess what? - you can see it irl in this show!! Which basically justifies the price of an entry ticket on its own accord. Only this being Turner, you’re also guaranteed a whole heap of other genius works too. (Can we stress enough how much we love a bit of Turner painting a train?)

Mayflower Primary, Tower Hamlets. Photo credit: Tate

10. Steve McQueen: Year 3

4 out of 5 stars
Art Tate Britain, Millbank

The best thing about Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ project is imagining all the gammon-faced, xenophobic, anti-immigration bigots it’s going to get frothing with rage. Because the artist and filmmaker’s project is a brazen, forthright, unapologetic celebration of multi-cultural London. 


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