London’s art institutions and major galleries are throwing open their doors to welcome visitors once again with a packed programme of big-name shows, immersive installations and retrospectives. From VR games of croquet at the V&A and forests springing up in the courtyard of Somerset House to a deep dive into the most famous sculptor of the modern era and a once-in-a-lifetime ode to Banksy, the art world has pulled out all the stops for its comeback. Here are London’s best new art exhibitions for summer 2021 – book your tickets now…
Accra/London – A Retrospective
19 May – 22 October
British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor began his six-decade career as a studio portraitist, photojournalist and lifestyle photographer in his hometown of Accra, where he chronicled a nation on the cusp of colonial independence. A move to London in the late Fifties saw him turn his lens on an increasingly multicultural post-war Britain, as he continued assignments for the influential South African magazine Drum. In the early 1970s Barnor returned to Ghana, where he established the country’s first ever colour processing lab, while simultaneously working as a portrait photographer. Forever a trailblazer, he was, for example, one of the first to photograph black models for magazine covers. This summer, the Serpentine celebrates Barnor’s singular work and legacy with a major retrospective, focusing on the period between 1950 and 1980.
22 May – 31 December
From white rabbits and flamingos to the Queen of Hearts and a Mad Hatter, Lewis Carroll’s novels about a little girl called Alice have been captivating audiences for over 158 years. This ‘Alice’ exhibition invites visitors, young and old, to take a mind-bending journey down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland with theatrical sets, immersive environments and a special Virtual Reality ‘mind-bending game of croquet’ – the first ever V&A show to offer a VR experience. Over 300 exhibits have been collated by curators Kate Bailey and Harriet Reed – from the original manuscript to surreal work by photographer Tim Walker – across five Alice-inspired worlds (arranged thematically spanning film, performance, fashion, art, music and photography), all of which explore the cultural impact of this fantastical tale.
The Arrival Of Spring, Normandy, 2020
23 May – 26 September
While at home in his rural farmhouse in Normandy during the pandemic last year, David Hockney put his time to good use. The multi-disciplinary artist – one of the most esteemed British creatives of the 20th century and no stranger to experimenting with new technologies and ways to create art – produced 116 works documenting the arrival of Spring, all ‘painted’ on his iPad and then printed onto paper, allowing the visitor to appreciate Hockney’s every mark and stroke. The result is a joyous series, celebrating both the season and the wonder of nature. “When the lockdown came… we were in a house in the middle of a four-acre field full of fruit trees. I could concentrate on one thing, I did at least one drawing a day with the constant changes going on, all around the house,” Hockney has said of the works.
19 May – 25 July
Themes of race, religion and sexuality are woven through the abstract textile works of South African artist Igshaan Adams, who lives and works in Cape Town. For his first solo exhibition in the UK, Hayward Gallery has brought together Adams’ suspended sculptures, large-scale weavings and intricate tapestries, all made with a kaleidoscopic range of materials formulating multiple patterns. Weavings placed strategically on the floor create pathways, designed by the artist as “desire lines” to replicate human traces in a terrain that represents both freedom and transgression. As the visitor navigates these paths, they’ll no doubt be struck by how Adams’ body of work, much of which has been created specifically for this show, contrasts dramatically with its iconic Brutalist gallery space surroundings.
Monads And Dyads
White Cube Mason’s Yard
14 May – 26 June
Originally born in France, artist Julie Curtiss now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she creates her bold, crisply detailed – often darkly humorous – cartoon-like figurative works, addressing themes of femininity and identity. Drawing on 18th and 19th century French painting, as well as the Chicago Imagists and ‘pop’ imagery of comic books, manga and illustration, Curtiss centres on the female body through deconstructed and fragmented details, such as high heels or long nails. Monads and Dyads is her first exhibition in London, featuring new paintings alongside a series of monochrome gouaches and a small group of sculptures that tap into the artist’s surrealist side.
The Global Goals Pavilion
1 – 27 June
The 2021 London Design Biennale centres around how design can address global challenges and crises. Integral to this is Forest for Change, The Global Goals Pavilion, a leafy landscape comprising 400 trees in the Somerset House courtyard. When artist and Biennale Artistic Director Es Devlin learnt that trees were originally banned from the building when Somerset House was first conceived 250 years ago, she decided to “counter this attitude of human dominance over nature, by allowing a forest to overtake the entire courtyard.” The result is a leafy oasis in the centre of the city, its purpose to bring life to the solutions needed to address climate change, inequality and the Covid-19 recovery.
Barbican Art Gallery
17 May – 22 August
Jean Dubuffet was the founder of Art Brut, which he defined as “pieces of work executed by people untouched by artistic culture.” An avid collector of this genre, he was also an artist, forever rebelling against conventional ideas of beauty. This show draws from four decades of Dubuffet’s work, highlighting his continual experimentation with tools and materials such as glass, coal, dust and gravel. Hanging alongside are pieces from Dubuffet’s extensive collection – by Aloise Corbaz, Gaston Duf and Laure Pigeon to name a few – which give further fascinating insight into arguably one of the most provocative voices in post-war modern art. As the great artist himself said: “Art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little. Anything but bore.”
4 June – 31 July
For her latest body of work, acclaimed figurative painter Chantal Joffe has turned her attention to her mother, Daryll, producing a number of portraits which address issues of aging, motherhood and visibility. Part of an ongoing series the London-based artist started some three decades ago, the works on display – some painted from family photographs, the others from life – tableau the shifting relationship between mother and child over time. One, Story, depicts the artist and her siblings as children, curled up on a sofa while their mother reads them a bedtime story – others show Daryll now, alone. Addressing the shifts in dynamic between mother and child, the show is incredibly moving in its honesty and warmth.
The British Museum
17 May – 15 August
It’s been a decade since The British Museum started acquiring contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa and to showcase the remarkable breadth of its collection, the cultural behemoth has put together this extraordinary exhibition. Over 100 works on paper including etchings, photographs and artists’ books have been brought together from artists born in or connected to countries from Iran to Morocco, touching on themes of gender, identity, history and politics. Whether addressing the Syrian uprisings or the burning of the National Library of Baghdad, the show introduces the visitor to challenges these countries and societies face, all portrayed through the lens of modern art.
The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing
19 May – 22 August
Characterised by a vibrant approach to colour and light, Jennifer Packer’s portraits of close family and friends, are an emotionally intimate, startlingly powerful insight into contemporary black lives. “My inclination to paint, especially from life, is a completely political one. We belong here. We deserve to be seen and acknowledged in real time. We deserve to be heard and to be imaged with shameless generosity and accuracy,” the artist has said. In this major survey – the New York-based artist’s first institutional solo show in Europe – 34 works dating from 2011 to 2021 are on display, including new paintings, rarely seen drawings and extraordinary still lifes of flowers and interior scenes, including Say Her Name (2017) painted in response to the death of Sandra Bland, who was widely believed to have been murdered in police custody in 2015. This show certainly packs a punch.
7 July – 24 October
Paula Rego is one of the most significant figurative artists of her generation, her compelling paintings, pastels, etchings and sculptures touching on themes of sexuality and gender, fear, desire, power and grief – with women often the protagonists of the narrative. This, the most comprehensive retrospective of her body of work to date, charts Rego’s own extraordinary tale, highlighting the personal nature of her work and its socio-political context. Over 100 pieces, from collage, paintings and large-scale pastels to drawings, etchings and sculpture, are on show, including early work from the 1950s which document personal struggles, as well as pastels from her powerful Dog Women and Abortion series, and her richly layered, staged scenes of the 2000s.
4 June – 3 October
French artist JR wears many hats – he’s a TED Prize winner, Oscar nominated filmmaker, and has appeared on Time’s 100 most influential people list. He is also a dynamic storyteller, receiving critical acclaim for his global art projects that not only bring together diverse groups of people but that also create dialogue around issues ranging from women’s rights to immigration and gun control. Saatchi Gallery showcases the iconic pieces that trace his career, starting with his artistic evolution, including his documentation of graffiti artists in Paris in the early 2000s, right through to his large-scale architectural interventions and digitally collaged murals of communities. Highlights include The Secret of the Great Pyramid to mark the Louvre Pyramid’s 30th anniversary, and Tehachapi, his unique art project at a maximum-security prison in California.
The Making Of Rodin
18 May – 21 November
The Kiss and The Thinker have rendered Auguste Rodin the most famous sculptor of the modern era. And yet, while we are familiar with his bronze and marble pieces, this fascinating show shines a light on the importance of clay and plaster in his oeuvre, as he constantly experimented with movement, light and volume. The exhibition encapsulates the atmosphere of the artist’s studio, with plaster casts in all shapes and sizes helping to show how Rodin worked, while also underlining the dynamics between the artist and his collaborators including fellow sculptor Camille Claudel, the Japanese actress Ohta Hisa, and the German aristocrat Helene Von Nostitz. Thanks to Musée Rodin in Paris, which has given Tate unprecedented access to its collection, there are over 200 works to view here, many never before seen outside of France.
The Modern Life
The Design Museum
19 June – 5 September
“Dwellings should be designed not only to satisfy material specifications; they should also create conditions that foster harmonious balance and spiritual freedom in people’s lives.”
So said Charlotte Perriand, a visionary self-called “interior architect” for more than seven decades, whose pioneering designs shaped the 20th century. Perriand’s family helped curate this exhibition, which recreates some of her most famous interiors – stepping inside the apartment she designed for the Salon d’Automne in 1929 is magical. Alongside are displays of her furniture (the iconic Chaise Longue Basculante is standout), as well as sketches, photographs and scrapbooks, and works by her friends and colleagues including Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso in whose shadows she so long lived. A true celebration of a fiercely independent woman and her unique creative process.
Infinity Mirror Rooms
18 May – 12 June 2022
Visitors are invited to step into infinite space as they experience Yayoi Kusama’s immersive installations at Tate Modern, which shimmer with endless reflections. Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life is Kusama’s largest work to date, an other-worldy vision created by hundreds of tiny twinkling lights in a mirrored space. It is shown alongside Chandelier of Grief is more haunting, a ‘boundless universe’ of rotating crystal chandeliers. A small collection of photographs and moving images further provide historical context for the Tokyo-based artist’s mirrored rooms. Tickets are booking up fast for this magical spectacle, so be quick.
50 Earlham Street
From 20 May
The artist’s identity may still remain a mystery, but followers of Banksy should make their way to an enormous 12,000 sq ft warehouse in Covent Garden where the world’s largest collection of privately-owned Banksy art is on display. The touring exhibition focuses mainly on the artist’s work from 1997 to 2008, with myriad iconic pieces on display including Girl and Balloon, Flower Thrower and Rude Copper as well as a chance to catch some of the lesser-known prints, canvases, sculptures and limited-edition pieces. With many of the works returning to their private owners after the show, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many original Banksys in one location.