Welcome to our pick of the best London exhibitions to see right now — get your winter dose of culture. We’ve roughly split the list by London regions and exhibitions outside the M25 to make it easier to navigate.
Exhibitions in Central London
STARS EXPLODE: Tadpoles streak across a screen or are those meteors? Is that a flower blooming or a star exploding? Brilliant white patterns emerge and disappear across a huge LED screen to the point that I just don’t care — because I’m transfixed by this ten meter wide evolving artwork. The programming ensures the patterns never repeat so everyone will have a different experience — it’s the most beautiful Rorschach test you’ll ever see. The ‘mother’ artwork is accompanied by similar smaller works that are just as intense.
Leo Villarreal at Pace London. Until 18 January, free. ★★★★★ (Tuesday-Saturday)
TOUCH ME: Butterflies alight on a jar of vases based on our movements. We touch the artworks to causing the flowers to rustle and send the butterflies aflutter. Tumbleweed in a desert landscape may be caught and the stars made to wheel through the sky in these fantastic interactive artworks. Ice angels can be created with your body and birds take flight when you approach. It’s an impressive technological feat combined with playful interactive art.
Dominic Harris: Imagine at Halcyon Gallery. Until 31 December, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
BODIES OF WORK: Figures made up of small metal blocks merge with the giant blocks they are leaning on or carrying. While upstairs giant sentries lean against the wall as is they’ve been committed to the naughty corner — what could be causing such giants to shy away? Gormley’s massive blockbuster exhibition may be over but there’s still a chance to catch some of his newer works in this free exhibition, even if it’s not as monumental as his Royal Academy show.
Antony Gormley: In Formation at White Cube, Mason’s Yard. Until 18 January, free. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
INDIAN ANIMALS: A bird flicks up a fish as it prepares to swallow it, surrounded by plants and other native creatures of India. It’s the kind of illustrations you’d expect to find in western museums, but these are all the products of Indian artists. The Wallace Collection is demonstrating how western commissions and Indian artists combined to create works that show influences from both hemispheres. The beautiful illustrations of palaces and tombs made me desperate to hop aboard the next flight to India and seek these sights out.
Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company at The Wallace Collection. Until 19 April, £12. ★★★★☆
SAD EYES: One million slides of the eyes of a five year old Tutsi boy, who artist Alfredo Jaar met at a refugee camp, symbolises the horrific numbers slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide. Covers of the magazine Newsweek show what was being reported rather than Rwanda — from how different genders approach computing to the myths of generation X. These relatively trivial matters prevented the Rwandan genocide from hitting the covers until there were already one million deaths. This political heavyweight exhibition doesn’t make easy viewing and it shouldn’t; it moves us all to question our Western centric news coverage.
Alfredo Jaar: 25 Years Later at Goodman Gallery. Until 11 January, free. ★★★★★ (Tuesday-Saturday)
ABSTRACT INSPIRATION: Energised abstract forms dancing across paintings — that’s what to expect from David Bomberg. This free one room display links his work back to the Old Masters and it becomes clear to see how Bomberg’s claustrophobic painting of Canadian sappers links back to the composition of a painting by El Greco. The National Gallery’s small free one room exhibitions that let you really hone in on one artist and spend some detailed quality time with their work tend to be excellent, and this one continues that trend.
Young Bomberg and the Old Masters at The National Gallery, Room 1. Until 1 March, free. ★★★★☆
THE LAST RHINO: A digital recreation of the last ever male Northern White Rhino huffs and struts around on screen — this is Sudan and his death sadly signalled the end of his subspecies. The climate emergency is a top priority and the rhino is one work in a timely exhibition on our changing world at Royal Academy. A playful installation explores a future where the warming oceans have led to an explosion in jellyfish numbers and strange imaginary creatures that can subsist on plastic inhabit vitrines. This show is dealing with some important issues, but it misses as often as it hits: tugging at the heartstrings one moment, while being too abstract to land its point at the next. It’s doing better than the climate, but that’s a low bar.
Eco-Visionaries at Royal Academy of Arts. Until 23 February, £12. ★★★☆☆
RAW MASCULINITY: A makeshift gym has been assembled from found materials, including weights fashioned from radiator segments. It harks back to artist Marcin Dudek’s his youth in Poland where squatters would create gyms in council estate basements with whatever materials they could find. There’s a raw masculinity and intimidation in this exhibition that reminded me of the concept of placing gyms in prisons to channel prisoners’ energy, lest it be used for more destructive ends.
Marcin Dudek: Akumulator at Edel Assanti. Until 20 December, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
A RECKLESS ROYAL: Drinking, mistresses and dandyish clothes — George IV was not a monarch of restraint. Thankfully, that also means he was a fine collector of objects: everything from grand Royal portraits to small paintings of domestic scenes, ceramics and plenty of golden bling. On the flip sides there are cartoons satirising him as obese and dressed in Chinese clothing or his love of all things Eastern, after all this is the monarch who commissioned the exotic Brighton pavilion. This is everything you want from the Royal Collection — flair, opulence and extravagance taken to extremes.
George IV: Art and Spectacle at The Queens Gallery. Until 3 May, £13.50. ★★★★☆
Exhibitions in South London
STRING THEORY: Gigantic landscapes tower over me — think of how big a landscape painting can be, and then double it. They literally extend out from the walls with branches and axes worked into them to give them real grit in portraying harsh and wintry fields. The central hall holds vitrines filled with strings and covered in equations referencing String Theory. In an adjacent gallery a painting of a parliament-like structure is ripped apart by a vortex — it feels very raw given the upcoming election. Very few artists can deliver the intensity that Kiefer does, and this is yet another momentous show of his work.
Anselm Kiefer: Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot at White Cube, Bermondsey. Until 26 January, free. ★★★★★ (Tuesday-Sunday)
Exhibitions in West London
Float through space as shops pass you by, then dive into a cityscape, along a motorway and through a subway train. This digital journey through Japanese architecture is mesmerising, and it’s only one half of an exhibition by Japanese design studio WOW. The other side gives you a chance to transform yourself into a Kokeshi, a traditional wooden doll, or to create a digital version of a Kokeshi with a virtual lathe. Children will love this exhibition and this adult was thoroughly enchanted as well by some interactive and immersive art at its finest.
WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade at Japan House London. Until 22 March, free. ★★★★★
Exhibitions in North London
A TRAGIC LIFE: A life that covers misbehaving at school, a mother who committed suicide and potential abuse at the hands of the grandfather whose death she aided. This semi-autobiographical tale of the life of Charlotte Salomon was all created while she was in hiding from the Nazis, before she was murdered at Auschwitz at the age of 26. She was clearly a huge talent and we all get to step into her tragic story, played out in over 230 works in this exhibition.
Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? at Jewish Museum. Until 1 March, £7.50. ★★★★☆
PLAY TIME: When asked about the idea of play a group of 5-8 year olds say that without play they’d feel sad, and adults are too busy with jobs and collaborating. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom, as I can’t recall the last time I had fun just for the sake of it. Wellcome Collection whips us through the history of play to today’s issue of children getting too much screen time. It’s a fascinating tour even if the actual chance to play is limited and often too concerned with social commentary.
Play Well at Wellcome Collection. Until 8 March, free. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday – Sunday)
REBEL REBEL: Libraries are a place for quiet reading, but a part this one has been invaded by little rebels. From a little girl full of spirit in Jane Eyre to a cartoon Dennis the Menace sabotaging a robot teacher, by way of Tracy Beaker and Pippy Longstocking. We get lots of literary examples of children misbehaving — even if their hearts are usually in the right place. It’s very much a kids focused show with spaces for drawing and dressing up, with displays at child heights so it’s easier for them to engage with. Cheeky children will enjoy this free exhibition.
Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels at The British Library. Until 1 March, free. ★★★★☆
BLACK LIVES MATTER: With the amount of bar and pie charts in this exhibition I felt like I’d walked into a PowerPoint presentation. However, the data on these works are far more important as they look at the increase in black literacy, teachers and ownership of land through infographics created by African-American activist W.E.B. Du Bois. In addition these stats have been revisited by contemporary artist Mona Chalabi to show that every dollar a black household has, a white household has 16.5 more — highlighting that barriers still remain. It’s a very numbers heavy show and not the easiest to access, but dig into the data and it’s eye opening.
W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives at House of Illustration. Until 1 March, £8.80. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday – Sunday)
ART ANGELS: A tightly wound form made of white feathers looks trapped inside a glass cage, a skeletal angel perches in a window and a demoniac man stares out at me from a painting. Contemporary artists are displayed alongside ancient Peruvian feathered head dresses in a show that’s all about angels. Given the gallery is located near Angel station this is a classier tie in to Christmas than Fortnum’s*, and thankfully Robbie Williams is nowhere in sight.
Angels at James Freeman Gallery. Until 21 December, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday – Saturday)
*My editor would like to clarify nothing can be more Christmassy than Fortnum’s — here’s the evidence to back that up.
OUTSIDERS: The art world is not the most accessible place at the best of times for aspiring artists. But it can be even more challenging for those who face barriers due to health, disability, social circumstance or isolation. The charity Outside In supports these artists and has displayed a selection of their works relating to the environment — from cityscapes to the orangutans impacted by deforestation. In an accompanying exhibition just outside London at The Lightbox in Woking, two collections have teamed up to show works of those who have felt like outsiders. It’s tough viewing, there are anguished screams next to a drawing of the asylum that one artist spent time in.
Outside In at Piano Nobile, Kings Place. Until 1 January, free & The Outside and The Inside at The Lightbox, Woking. Until 5 January, £7.50. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday – Sunday)
MAN & MACHINE: A number of Umberto Boccioni’s sculptures were destroyed in 1927, but they’ve now been recreated based on photographs and using 3D printing. This is fantastic news as the works are filled with dynamism as a man strides forward as he seems to be transforming into a machine — legs become wheels and muscles become steel. Given the original works were all about embracing the future it’s only fitting that the latest technology has been able to recreate what was once thought lost.
Umberto Boccioni: Recreating the Lost Sculptures at The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. Until 22 December, £7.50. ★★★★☆ (Wednesday – Sunday)
Exhibitions Outside London
A NEW HOME: Rocks from a river that divides India and Bangladesh clang together to recognise that it’s at this point that cultures clash, there’s a heartbreaking collection of everyday items Rohingya refugees bring with them when fleeing persecution in Myanmar and you hear about the different immigrant families who have settled in Cambridge. This political exhibition is filled with subtle works where some are a miss, but leave a lasting impact when they hit hard.
Homeland: Art from Bangladesh India and Pakistan at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. Until 2 February, free. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday – Sunday)
A section where we flag the exhibitions that didn’t cut it for us, but you may be interested in seeing nonetheless.
IT WAS ALL YELLOW: Acid drops from the ceiling, the whole gallery is bathed in a sickly yellow light and newspaper articles falsely proclaim killer Ian Huntley wants a sex change. This exhibition aims to address important issues like the toxicity of the media and their views towards trans persons but the individual threads of this show never come together, leaving a jumbled assortment of loose connections.
Patrick Staff: On Venus at Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Until 9 February, free. ★★☆☆☆ (Tuesday – Sunday)
A PHOTO MISFIRE: Gender identity, teenage brides and dancers with Down’s syndrome. This year’s photographic portrait prize tackles important issues and is filled with interesting stories. However, the actual photographs just don’t have the brilliant compositions and ability to capture emotion we’ve seen in previous years. The overall winner is quirky, with a woman holding a dog whose face has been blown up and placed on her t-shirt, but overall this is a poor showing for a prize that’s been on fire over the last two years.
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at National Portrait Gallery. Until 16 February, £6. ★★☆☆☆
PABLO WHO?: Dora Maar is best known as Picasso’s muse for his famous painting of a weeping woman. Tate Modern is trying to pull her out of Pablo’s shadow to highlight Dora Maar’s talent as an artist in her own right. With her mixture of styles from portrait photography to abstract painting there isn’t much to help her stand out aside from a few gems of surreal photography — such as when a hand appears out of a shell. As much as I wanted this to be a positive story, there’s insufficient strength in her work here to justify a whole exhibition.
Dora Maar at Tate Modern. Until 15 March, £13. ★★☆☆☆