Victoria’s Top Ten Art Exhibitions, December 2019


Now, December art show lists are a favourite of mine as I feel I can stop chasing the new openings (few exhibitions open this month) and, instead, focus on my absolute faves that I completely and utterly recommend wholeheartedly.

And so here we are. With a list that, for many of you, you may well have been able to predict without even reading the article! But, flippancy aside, this winter season we are blessed with some mighty works to enjoy – many for free – from the great and the underrated alike so, please, grab this opportunity to see these shows with both hands. I know I will be so, maybe see you there, yes?

Also, as an extra point, I’m back reviewing shows not just pre-empting them from this month so, in addition to these fab top ten lists (if I may say so myself), each week I will be reviewing an art exhibition about town and posting it on my website. So, there’s that to look forward to.

Love to you all and I hope you all get to drown yourself in art this Christmas season.

V x

Dora Maar, Tate Modern

And it’s this that will be my first exhibition review after my year-long break. I’ve been overseas all of November so am desperate to get to the Tate to see this overdue retrospective on this hugely influential surrealist and social documentary photographer. I guess there’s no avoiding the fact that Picasso’s presence will feature as the two had such a mutually beneficial relationship – artistically speaking, that is. (I can’t imagine it was an easy ride being his lover.) But Dora’s career long outstripped her relationship with Pablo, working well into her seventies. And her breadth of work, from her experimental photography to high fashion and social documentary images, is hugely impressive. Dora was an artist who explored and mastered so much of the challenge of photography as art. Runs to 15 March. Admission £13 (concessions available).

Anselm Kiefer, White Cube Bermondsey

Is Anselm Kiefer the most influential and important artist working today? Quite possibly. It’s certainly a close-run thing between him and Yayoi Kusama. And this latest extraordinary show at White Cube has the man still wrestling with mortality, existence, and the terrible legacy of the Holocaust. Jonathan Jones is not one I would usually agree with but his assertion in The Guardian that, “Kiefer has found a new way to represent nature for our age of climate crisis,” is bang on the money. His landscapes are as haunting and terrible as ever. Broken twigs, barren fields and smothered skies. The man is a master. Do not miss this. Runs to 26 January. Admission free.

Nan Goldin: Sirens, Marian Goodman Gallery

Praise the gods and all that is holy for this extraordinary show that leaves you aching with love and pain in equal measure. Nan’s photography has always focused on those overlooked, lives lived in the margins, and this exhibition brings together much of her familiar images of friends, lovers, drag queens and transsexuals that formed her social scene in New York in the 1970s as well as some new images from her archives. There’s no doubt that Nan captured something so glorious and celebratory in these lives – communities that society is more supportive of today – but there’s a haunting sadness that this was not the case when the images were taken. As Adrian Searle notes in his review in The Guardian, “How beautiful and proud and out there they are: having fun, partying, just being. Many have died, often too young.” What a wonderful and critical testament to those lives and to the endless struggle for self-expression Nan’s work remains. A MUST SEE. Runs to 11 January. Admission free. 

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, National Portrait Gallery

There are shows from the big names left, right and centre around town right now so I’m nervous that this absolute gem might have been lost amongst all the noise. And I would really recommend making time to see this as it is a display of the work and contribution of 12 extraordinary women from the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Whether they were artists, muses and models, the contribution of these women to the success and visual distinctiveness of the society has been much overlooked. Here, these women finally get their position front and centre. Not only is this a necessary correction but the exhibition itself reveals some fantastic work that feels so fresh and contemporary and reveals the impact the success of these paintings had on many of these women – for good and for worse. Fascinating and fabulous. Runs to 26 January. Admission from £18 (concessions available).

Olafur Eliasson: In real life, Tate Modern

And, so, going from, possibly, the most underrated show in London galleries right now to, what surely is, the most popular. There is no doubting that there is a completely different feel in this exhibition of immersive works than in other shows. It’s an Instagrammer’s paradise so prepare yourself for an army of selfie-takers. If that irritates you, you may find this show tricky. But what I love is how such exhibitions can be the gateway for those intimidated by galleries or those who feel art doesn’t relate to them. There is great beauty and cutting observation in Olafur’s works – particularly around nature, the environment, geometry and perception – and if those who visit this show are inspired and excited by this, then job done. I’ve already been once; I’ll be going again just to try and take it all in. Runs to January 5. Admission £18 (concessions available)

Antony Gormley: In Formation, White Cube Mason’s Yard

Now, there’s been a big Antony Gormley show at the RA this season (and it closes on December 3rd if you want to catch it). But if you’ve already seen it and want to see more, or perhaps you are deterred by the RA’s £18-£22 admission charge, let me recommend to you this more compact, and more free, display of new works from the popular sculptor over the road from the RA in Mayfair. ‘In Formation’ is a collection of Antony’s latest pieces that questions to what extent we are the product of our environment, and to what extent we are makers of it. Runs to 18 January. Admission free.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece, National Gallery

The tour de force that is The Virgin on the Rocks has been hanging on the walls at the National Gallery for years and years (and years). And, if you just want to gaze at the painting, perhaps wait till you can see it for free again from next February. But, for now, the secrets of this iconic painting are being revealed in this immersive exhibition that leads you through the mind of Leonardo da Vinci. With recent conservation work on the painting at its heart, this show gets us to consider the great man’s thoughts and ideas as he sets about the painting, to see the lost composition hidden beneath the painted surface, to discover the dramatic effects of light and shadow in his composition before finally coming face to face with the finished work itself and how it might have appeared in its original setting as part of an elaborate altarpiece. Runs to 12 January. Admission from £18 (concessions available).

Anna Maria Maiolino: Making Love Revolutionary, Whitechapel Gallery

There’s no doubt that there is a trend in the art world at the moment for shows that platform overlooked female artists but any sense that this contribution from Whitechapel is tokenistic has been shattered by reviews that have called this ‘one of the shows of the year.’ Anna is a contemporary Brazilian artist (Italian by birth) who has six decades of revolutionary feminist work behind her and this fantastic show demonstrates how this outlook has also been shaped by her experience of exile, deprivation and survival under authoritarian and patriarchal regimes. And her work comes in so many forms from photography to clay, from sculptures to drawings. How wonderful it is to see such a terrifically bold artist finally get her dues. Runs to 12 January. Admission £9.50 (concessions available).

Mark Leckey: O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain

This installation piece knocked me for six. Composed of new and existing work, this exhibition is an atmospheric, theatrical experience of spectral visions, sound and video. Mark has transformed one of Tate Britain’s galleries with a life-size replica of a motorway bridge on the M53 on the Wirral, Merseyside, where the artist grew up. The bridge – a recurring motif in his work – is the setting for a new audio play – film and found footage examining class, subculture, poverty, and collective joy. Beautifully nostalgic and searingly political at the same time. Runs to 5 January. Admission £13 (concessions available).

Kara Walker: Hyundai Commission, Tate Modern

New York-Based artist Kara Walker, who is renowned for her candid explorations of race, gender, sexuality and violence in works ranging from drawings to large-scale installations, was asked to fill the vast Turbine Halls in the Tate M – and the resulting work is fantastic. Wanting to challenge and overturn the representation of the British Empire as glorious, Kara used the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace as inspiration for an installation that instead lays bare the exploitation and racism upon which the Empire’s foundations were built. She uses water as a key theme, referring to the transatlantic slave trade and the ambitions, fates and tragedies of people from these three continents. Fantasy, fact and fiction meet at an epic scale. On display until 5 April. Admission free.

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