Must-see exhibitions of 2019 — Europe
Van Gogh’s sunflowers in Amsterdam, Eliasson and Sherman in London, contemporary photography in Arles — our updated guide to the best shows in Europe this summer and beyond
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) arrived in London in his early 20s, and his three-year stay in the capital was to have a profound and lasting impact on his life. Van Gogh and Britain will reveal how the young Dutchman, alone in London, became immersed in British culture — even becoming a fan of Charles Dickens. The show also features British artists who had an affinity with the brilliant but troubled genius, including Francis Bacon and David Bomberg.
Don’t miss… Prisoners Exercising (1890). Van Gogh was horrified by the poverty he encountered in England. This picture is based on a print of Newgate jail which inspired him to commit to making ‘art for the people’.
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are now among the most familiar images in the art universe, and this exhibition examines their gestation and what they reveal about the painter’s working methods and ambitions. There are 23 works on display, most of them related to the period in
the Yellow House in Arles, when he painted the flowers for his housemate Paul Gauguin.
Don’t miss…Sunflowers (1889). The ground and paint layers of Van Gogh’s celebrated still life are stable but extremely sensitive to vibrations caused by movement and changes in humidity and temperature. For that reason, the Van Gogh Museum’s most famous painting is no longer allowed to travel — you have to travel to it. But it’s worth it.
In her obsession with the gulf between appearance and reality, between truth and illusion, Cindy Sherman can stake a claim to be the most prescient artist of the 20th century. All the concerns she has been examining since the beginning of her career have become more pressing as the years have passed. That’s why this retrospective is likely to be one of the most telling and signifcant shows of the year. Bringing together more than 150 works spanning
40 years, it includes her groundbreaking series Untitled Film Stills, in which she photographs herself in a range of costumes, hairstyles and settings that captured the look of 1950s and 1960s Hollywood, and which has never before been seen in the UK.
Don’t miss…Untitled #92 (1981). In this photograph, one of the most affecting in the artist's oeuvre, Sherman captures herself in a moment of cinematic distress. Backed into a corner, her fingers and body crisped, she stares blankly into the camera. With the fate of the girl unknown, Untitled #92 presents a very real and heightened sense of danger and suspense.
An artist with a deep and honest faith, Fra Angelico (1395-1455) painted religious subjects that were designed to encourage his fellow brethren in prayer. This exhibition examines the beginnings of the Florentine Renaissance in the 1420s, with this pious ascetic taking centre stage.
Don’t miss… The Virgin of the Pomegranate (circa 1426), recently acquired from the Duke of Alba by The Prado for €18,000,000. It was painted during a period in Fra Angelico’s life when he was experimenting with light and space. The Pomegranate has a double symbolism — in the hands of the Madonna it refers to her chastity, while by touching it the Christ child prefigures his own death and resurrection.
This fabulous show looks at the artistic influences on Cristóbal Balenciaga, the fashion designer described by Christian Dior as ‘the master of us all’. His designs were characterised by their stark, striking silhouettes, and the contention
of this exhibition is that they were influenced by the simple, minimalist lines of religious habits. Balenciaga constantly studied the history of art and made use of the imagery he found there — from the flounce on a flamenco dancer’s dress to the black-on-black aesthetic of Habsburg court dress. The show brings together some of his most iconic and important creations — and a carefully selected group of paintings. Sumptuous doesn’t begin to describe it.
Don’t miss… Isabel de Borbón, wife of Philip IV (circa 1620). In this exquisite portrait by Rodrigo de Villandrando, the king of Spain’s wife wears a stiff, intricately embroidered court dress that emphasises her royal status. Although Spanish in cut, the gold brocade and white silk are in keeping with the style of the Portuguese court, which was then under Spanish rule.
There are huge blockbusters, and then there are smaller exhibitions of incredible beauty. This show of the work of Bartolomé Bermejo, who lived from around 1440 to 1501, falls into the latter category. It includes six loans that have never been seen outside Spain, including two of Bermejo’s masterpieces: the Madonna of Montserrat and Piedad Desplà, named after the man who commissioned
it, the archdeacon of Barcelona Cathedral.
Don’t miss… St Michael Triumphant over the Devil (1468), newly restored to all its former glory. This striking portrait reveals — as does the show as a whole — how a combination of technical skill and imaginative invention made Bermejo one of the great painters of his age.
This show of late 16th- and early 17th-century Masters is a contemplative study, part of a research project with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is responsible for some of the loans. Its aim is to reflect on the pictorial traditions of Spain and the Low Countries, two nations that were almost permanently at war during this period. Art history suggests that their traditions are essentially different; the show attempts to find parallels between them and qualities they share. What they definitely have in common is a plethora of Masters making art that worms its way into your brain: not only the men listed in the title, but also Ribera, Hals and others. Unmissable.
Don’t miss…View of Houses in Delft (c. 1658). Known as ‘The Little Street’, this composition by Golden Age Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is one of only two surviving outdoor vistas by the artist, better known for his intimate domestic scenes.
Throughout her provocative career, the German artist Rebecca Horn has explored the antagonistic contradictions that underlie our lives: subject and object, body and machine, human and animal, desire and violence. This exhibition looks back over five decades to examine the role of transformation in her work. A sister show, Body Fantasies at the Museum Tinguely in Basel (5 June-22 September), examines her use of machines and kinetic structures, but this one concentrates on the way that she employs materials and fetish objects such as fans, feathers and stilettos, and subjects them to constant change.
Don’t miss… Unicorn (1970), one of Horn’s first sculptures designed to be worn by a naked female performer. Made from a series of vertical and horizontal fabric straps and a canonical horn, Unicorn serves as a binding bodice that mediates on the fragility and vulnerability of the human body.
Since 1970, Arles has been staging a joyful and hugely popular photography festival. This year’s incarnation includes a celebration of its 50th birthday, a focus on young and emerging talent, and exhibitions that examine how contemporary photography deals with the body (under the heading ‘My Body is a Weapon’), the environment and its own history. There will also be music, talks, events and hopefully a lot of sunshine.
Don’t miss… Sans titre (2018). This black and white image, a central work in British photographer Alys Tomlinson’s Ex-Voto series, explores the life and work of Vera, an Orthodox Christian nun living in Belarus.
In any vote on the most popular of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall commissions, Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project would come top. His great yellow sun was an experience that everyone could share and think about, and that was absolutely his intention. This exhibition of more than 30 works from three decades, from installations to new paintings and sculptures, is the most comprehensive UK survey
of his work to date. It aims to explore key themes, from his early investigations into space, motion
and natural phenomena (such as Moss wall (1994), featuring lichen from his native Iceland) to his continuing experiments with light, colour and perception, such as Stardust particle (2014).
Don’t miss… Beauty (1993). This immersive installation, which is made from a punctured hose that sprays fine mist, creates an illusion of a rainbow when a bright light shines on it.
To be a social butterfly in Paris in the late 19th century required entry to the Paris Opéra — the fin-de-siècle equivalent to Studio 54 — where the brilliance of the audience was every bit as crucial as the performances on stage. As this exhibition reveals, it took the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917) years to inveigle his way backstage. Here, away from the tension and the drama of the spectacle, he captured those quiet, private moments behind the curtain, where the real business of living takes place.
Don’t miss… The Orchestra at the Opéra (circa 1870), a radical composition painted from the viewpoint of the audience, capturing the musicians in the pit and the dancers on stage.
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) saw himself as a displaced hero, an outsider, and painted himself accordingly. This hotly anticipated show of 50 portraits focuses on the French genius’s Symbolist period, which ran from 1880 to his death in the Marquesa Islands in 1903, and reveals that his gift for self-invention was of a piece with his paintings and sculpture. Bullish, saintly, angry, wronged, he personified them all across canvases, yet perhaps the most touching of pictures will be those of his friends and children, the ones he left behind in his quest for self-fulfilment.
Don’t miss… Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière (1888 or 1889). Gauguin’s sense of himself was multiple and various; in this portrait he is the the hero of his own life.
The Louvre, Paris,
24 October to 24 February 2020
At the time of Leonardo da Vinci’s death in 1519, Italy’s Renaissance superman was working as a court painter for the king of France, François I, and as a result, the Louvre holds almost a third of his pictures. To mark the 500-year anniversary of Leonardo’s death,
the museum has brought together as many paintings as possible attributed to the Florentine genius, together with notebooks of drawings.
Don’t miss… his notebooks (1478-1518). Leonardo had a life-long fascination with engineering, and even produced blueprints for weapons of mass destruction. Codex Atlanticus is a collection of drawings and notes created between 1478 and 1518 that reveal his mechanical wizardry.
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Lucian Freud (1922-2011) painted flesh like no other. By focusing on the small inconsistencies of skin tone, he lingered on the aspects we took for granted, like a reddened hand against a white torso or the hardened skin on the sole of a foot. In a world first, the Royal Academy has brought together more than 50 self-portraits in which the modern British master turned his unflinching eye on himself.
Don’t miss… Reflection, (Self-portrait) (1985). Brutal and inscrutable, Freud confronts his ageing face and paints it with a raw candour.