In Focus

Art: the big exhibitions of 2021 in the UK

After the closures and cancellations of 2020, this year - Covid permitting - promises a wide range of major exhibitions

The National Gallery’s 2021 schedule includes at least one guaranteed block­buster: Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist (6 March-13 June). Featuring 100 drawings, paintings, prints and documents, the show will be the first to focus on the Nuremberg-born master Albrecht Dürer’s travels to Italy and the Low Countries, where he met artists and thinkers and marvelled at the treasures shipped to Antwerp from Spain’s American colonies. Dürer recorded his forays beyond Bavaria in his diaries, sketching constantly and noting down his observations to provide a richly detailed account of 16th century life. Book early: this is the first major Dürer exhibition in this country for nearly 20 years. 

The 18th century is particularly well-represented in this year’s exhibition calendar. Tate Britain’s Hogarth and Europe (3 November-20 March 2022) will explore William Hogarth’s depictions of London life alongside contemporary paintings of similar scenes created in Paris, Amsterdam and Venice. Although Hogarth is sometimes thought of as a narrowly English artist, he was alert to artists ploughing a similar furrow on the continent, and mined their work for inspiration just as they borrowed from his. 

At the Royal Academy, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast (spring, dates tbc) will examine the artist’s lifelong interest in animals, demonstrating that while he was far from an animal lover – he hated dogs – he was deeply fascinated by them. Taking in paintings from every stage of his career, the show suggests that Bacon felt he could best understand human nature by observing the often vicious, unfiltered behaviour of animals. A highlight will be his trio of bullfight paintings, which will be exhibited together for the first time. 

Following Bacon’s death, the unofficial mantle of “Britain’s greatest living artist” arguably fell to Paula Rego, who is to be the subject of a huge new retrospective at Tate Britain (16 June-24 October). The exhibition will feature more than 100 paintings, collages, sculptures and drawings created between the 1950s and the present day, moving from the more abstract style of her early career, to her celebrated depictions of folktales from her native Portugal. In particular it will focus on Rego’s ground­breaking approach to depicting the female form.

Another must-see is the British Museum’s exploration of the life and legacy of the Emperor Nero (27 May-24 October). Nero, who ascended the throne aged 16 in AD 54 and died just 14 years later, is one of history’s most infamous rulers, his few achievements overshadowed by his wanton cruelty, grandiose building projects and extravagant personal tastes. The show, however, will take a more nuanced view of his reign, presenting a wealth of artefacts, and inviting visitors to decide whether he really was the tyrannical monster of legend.

For fans of contemporary art, the 11th iteration of the Liverpool Biennial – originally scheduled for 2020, now due to open on 20 March – will feature the work of dozens of major international artists displayed throughout the city’s museums, galleries and landmark structures. Special commis­sions will be installed in unlikely venues: previous biennials have featured displays of artists’ work in a disused electricity substation, an ABC cinema and a Chinese restaurant.

Tate Modern in London will host a major exhibition devoted to Auguste Rodin. The Making of Rodin (29 April-30 October) will highlight the important of plaster casting in the sculptor’s art, and will feature over 200 works. The Bankside museum will also host one of contemporary art’s cult figures, showing the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms (29 March-27 March 2022). Kusama’s idiosyncratic mirror installations – offering a vision of endless reflections – have become something of a phenomenon in the Instagram age.

Similarly celebrated is the performance artist Marina Abramovic, who is to get her first ever UK retrospective at the Royal Academy in the autumn (25 September-12 December). Marina Abramovic: After Life will feature a wealth of archival material, installations and often uncomfortably intense films – some specially commissioned for the show – tracing the Belgrade-born artist’s progress from the 1970s, when she came to prominence with performance art which pushed her to physical and mental extremes, to the headline-grabbing spectacles for which she has more recently become world famous. 

The V&A Dundee, meanwhile, is to mount an exhibition devoted to the evolution of nightclub design since the 1960s. Night Fever (from 27 March) will examine the powerful effects club culture has had on society at large: how, from Studio 54 in New York to Manchester’s legendary Haçienda, to the Ministry of Sound in London, clubs became epicentres of pop culture.

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