The must-see exhibitions of 2019 — Europe
Masters of the Renaissance in Berlin, a Post-Impressionist in Britain and Degas at the Opéra — our updated guide to the best shows in Europe this year
Piero della Francesca’s (1416-1492) ethereally beautiful pictures and frescoes were made during a dark and turbulent period in Italian history. War destroyed much of his output, and what little remained was ravaged by renovation and redecoration over the years. Despite Giorgio Vasari having written as early as 1550 that the artist was ‘robbed of the honour that is due to his labours’, it was not until the mid-1800s and the beginning of the Grand Tours that the early Renaissance artist became popular again. This exhibition of 11 works, amassed from all over the world, will reveal why Vasari considered the artist to be one of the forefathers of the High Renaissance.
Don’t miss… Madonna and Child (1432). This rarely seen picture radiates with calm authority and tenderness. Like much of della Francesca’s work, it seems to meditate on the fragile transience of life.
The revival of women artists across the centuries continues with this show at the Belvedere in Vienna, bringing together 50 forgotten female artists of the Vienna Secession. The reasons as to why so many of these pioneering artists lapsed into obscurity are manifold — war, emigration, deportation and extermination by the Nazis being among the most pressing. Yet much of the blame should also be laid at the door of art historians, who systematically ignored their vital contribution to Viennese Modernism. This show goes some way to reviving their reputations.
Don’t miss… Dreams (1913). Helene Funke (1869-1957) was one of the most important Austrian artists of the inter-war years. This 1913 painting was inspired by her time in Paris where she became friends with the Fauvists painters Matisse, Braque and Vlaminck.
V&A, London, until 14 July 2019
In 1947, as Paris was still reeling from the horrors and privations of war, a young designer called Christian Dior (1905-1957) launched his New Look on an unsuspecting public. His fairytale dresses offered women the chance to be beautiful again. Today those knife-edged pleats and full-bodied skirts are legendary, and get prime position in this celebration of the House of Dior’s haute couture.
Don’t miss… The couture gown worn by Princess Margaret on her 21st birthday, a dreamy confection of chiffon and gold embroidery.
It is not widely known that Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) were brothers-in-law. One was a court painter in Mantua, while the other worked on paintings for the churches of Venice. Yet when Mantegna married Bellini’s sister Nicolosia in 1453, two great artists were united. Their personalities could not have been more different: Mantegna was bold and egotistical, while Bellini was quiet and unassuming, yet as this remarkable show testifies, they fed off each other’s talent, creating some of the most revolutionary art of the Italian Renaissance.
Don’t miss… Presentation at the Temple (circa 1453) by Andrea Mantegna, and Presentation at the Temple (circa 1472) by Giovanni Bellini — two near-identical paintings created by the artists in which they depict family members. The old man in the centre is thought to be Jacopo Bellini, the revered artist and father of Giovanni; the man and woman framing the scene are Mantegna and his wife — Bellini’s sister, Nicolosia.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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