This summer sees hundreds of museums and galleries around the country eagerly reopen their doors to visitors. Here’s our guide to the best exhibitions in London for summer 2021 and beyond.
Please note that for most shows tickets will need to be booked in advance and dates may sometimes differ from those shown here. Please always check open dates, times and booking information before making a special journey.
Rebellious French artist Jean Dubuffet kicks off the reopening of the Barbican. Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty (until August 22) is the first major survey of the post-war modern artist’s work in the UK in over 50 years, showcasing four decades of his career. Alongside Dubuffet’s own experimental, gritty and authentic art the exhibition features works from his collection of Art Brut, which he acquired and drew influence from throughout his career.
Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle (June 17 – August 29) brings together more than 200 photographs, an audio-visual installation and a series of drawings exploring the Yanomami, one of Brazil’s largest indigenous groups. Andujar has spent the last five decades documenting and defending the Yanomami as their territory and way of life is at risk of illegal mining and the spread of Covid-19.
Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights (until August 1) addresses the ongoing battle for equality and a fairer world and explores how recent world events shine a light on social and racial inequalities. The exhibition invites you to explore the work of contemporary activist groups while also discovering pioneering women who have fought to see a fairer world, from Suffragists Sophia Duleep Singh to football coach Hope Powell.
Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe (until October 7) is a series of 9 evocative self-portraits by Gambian-British artist Khadija Saye who used her experimental photography to explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience. In the same year her work was exhibited in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale Saye and her mother were tragically killed in the Grenfell fire and this display commemorates her creative communication of her lived experiences – as well as her enduring artistic legacy.
The British Museum tells the dramatic story of a murder that shook the Middle Ages and left medieval Europe reeling with Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint (until August 22). To mark the 850th anniversary of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s murder at the hands of King Henry II’s knights, the exhibition charts Becket’s turbulent story through rare manuscripts, beautiful jewellery and exquisite reliquaries.
Nero: the man behind the myth (until October 24) brings together 200 objects to explore the rise and fall of infamous Roman emperor Nero, whose short and tumultuous reign coincided with some of the Roman Empire’s most momentous events. The exhibition questions the traditional narrative of the notorious emperor and asks whether he was really the cruel megalomaniac we know him as today.
Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa (until August 15) showcases artists with a link to the middle east, who use their work to explore topics like gender, identity, history and politics. The exhibition features around 100 works on paper, which recount significant sociopolitical events including the Syrian uprisings and the burning of the National Library of Baghdad.
Camden Art Centre
At Camden Art Centre, Walter Price – Pearl Lines (until August 29) is a new body of work by American artist Walter Price, who produced a series of expressive paintings and drawings made in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. By eking out his dwindling paint supplies by adding white paint Price both draws attention to the unstoppable cycle of waste and excess and mirrors his own exhaustion.
Alongside, Olga Balema – Computer (until August 29) is the first UK solo exhibition for the Ukrainian artist. Centred around a single flat sculpture consisting of a large digital print of a domestic carpet, the installation reflects Balema’s approach to making art that deliberately de-stabilises her own practice and in this case proposes a tenuous and uncertain relationship between the artwork and its defining structures.
Over at Chisenhale Gallery, Yu Ji: Wasted Mud (until July 18) is the first UK solo exhibition by Shanghai-based artist Yu Ji, whose work explores a tension between physical matter and energy. The exhibition encompasses sculpture, video, print and performance which all question the relationship between the body and its surroundings.
In the summer, a commission from Montreal-based artist Abbas Akhavan (August – October) examines the relationship between the traditional building material cobb and green screen technology. Through these contrasting technologies, Akhavan recreates sections of a historic Syrian landmark believed to have been destroyed by ISIS.
In Kensington the Design Museum has Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work (until August 22), a celebration of the graphic designer who has produced timeless and iconic graphic design so ingrained in our lives – from road signage, wayfinding signs and even the gov.uk typeface – that they have become part of our national visual identity. The show spans Calvert’s six-decade career and coincides with the launch of Network Rail’s new typeface, designed by Calvert in collaboration with typeface designer Henrik Kubel.
Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street (until October 24) looks at the phenomenon of sneakers – footwear originally designed as purely performance shoes for specific sports but which have now become cultural symbols and firm fashion favourites. The exhibition takes you through the history of iconic styles and the process of designing some of the most ingenious sneakers of today, while also focusing on the figures who have shaped the scene, such as Michael Jordan and Run DMC.
In the summer, Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life (June 19 – September 5) celebrates Charlotte Perriand, the French designer and architect whose work helped shape the 20th century, but was often overshadowed by her male collaborators. Perriand believed good design should be available to all, and her influential vision and talent helped shape the modern interior.
Dulwich Picture Gallery
The first major photography exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Unearthed: Photography’s Roots (until August 30) explores the link between photography and nature. In the show, which features key figures in the history of photography as well as work by a selection of overlooked photographers, the history of photography is traced through depictions of nature, from Fox Talbot’s early paper negatives to the eroticism of Robert Mapplethorpe and Nobuyoshi Araki.
Journeys (until August 22) is a display which delves into the gallery’s collection to question the nature of migration. Chosen by a group of Community Curators, aged between 29 and 69 whose heritages span multiple countries including Yemen, Pakistan and Ireland, the works on show reveal the importance of migration for facilitating a cultural exchange of ideas.
At the Estorick Collection Italian Threads: MITA Textile Design 1926 – 1976 (until June 20) tells the story of Manifattura Italiana Tappeti Artistici, or MITA, a celebrated Italian Textile firm, which was founded in 1926 and featured some of the most talented Italian designers of the time. The exhibition showcases 50 years of the firm’s bold rug, tapestry, scarf, and printed fabric designs produced for everything from private homes and clubs to ocean liners.
In the summer the gallery has Olivier Debré: Fervent Abstraction (June 30 – September 26) the first major show of the French post-war painter’s work in more than 40 years. Debré’s style, which he termed ‘fervent abstraction’ used vibrant and intense colours to communicate the emotions he felt when experiencing natural phenomena such as storms, typhoons and rivers.
Fashion and Textile Museum
At the Fashion and Textile Museum, Chintz: Cotton in Bloom (until September 12) brings together 150 examples of chintz fabric to tell the textile’s extraordinary story. Chintz was originally a complicated and elite textile reserved solely for the upper classes due to the level technical craftsmanship required to manufacture. But in the 18th century, when the manufacturing process became easier, the lightweight, washable but still highly decorative fabric became a sensation across Europe.
A display of designs by textile artist Annie Phillips is on show until the summer. Annie Phillips: Ancient Technique and Contemporary Art (until September 12) showcases designer’s vibrant batik designs that put a bold, vivid and modern spin on the ancient textile artform.
Later in the year, Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture (October 1 – February 2022) celebrates the role of the boutique clothing shops which helped spark a fashion revolution in the 1960s. The exhibition focuses on the radical clothing, inspired by deigns from Morocco and the Far East, sold by a handful of Chelsea boutiques, and explores era-defining stores such as Biba, Granny Takes a Trip and Ossie Clark. The show also features clothes worn by the biggest names of the era, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
At the former home of Sigmund Freud, the Freud Museum shares the psychoanalyst’s experience during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920. 1920/2020: Freud and Pandemic (until September 12) explores the devastating impact the deadly virus had on the Freud family and reveals how, during unspeakable turmoil, Freud made one of his greatest breakthroughs in the field of psychanalysis. The exhibition relates the events of 1918-1920 to events experienced during the Covid-19 crisis and draws parallels between the two deadly pandemics that occurred a century apart.
At the Garden Museum, Constance Spry and the Fashion for Flowers (until September 26) celebrates the work of pioneering florist Constance Spry, whose use of uncommon flowers, foliage and even vegetables in her displays made her one of the 20th century’s most influential floral decorators. The exhibition mines Spry’s personal archives to feature an insightful collection of photographs, documents and personal items which tell the story of her extraordinary life and work.
Visitors can also take in the first UK museum exhibition of Shara Hughes (until June 5) which brings together a group of new site-specific works by the New York-based artist. Four new large-scale flower paintings adorn the walls of the museum’s Nave and draw attention to the striking beauty of a number of different flowers, including the umbrella orchid and the poppy.
In Kate Friend: Botanical Portraits as Chosen by… (until August 1) photographer Kate Friend has created portraits of prominent figures with a twist, by asking her subjects to choose a flower for her to photograph at their home, studio or garden. The exhibition features photographs of flowers chosen by artists, photographers and gardeners alongside photographs of the participants’ homes and workspaces.
Later in the year Eliazbeth Blackadder: Favourite Flowers (October 19 – November 21) celebrates the work of renowned Scottish artist Elizabeth Blackadder whose garden serves as year-round inspiration for her paintings. Centred on the theme of growth, the exhibition brings together a selection of her watercolours, etchings and screenprints.
Guildhall Art Gallery
At Guildhall Art Gallery you can explore the glittering world of flamboyant playwright, composer and performer Noel Coward in Noël Coward: Art & Style (until December 23) which celebrates the dazzling visual side of his life and work. The exhibition explores his impact on the fashion and culture of the time and how this enduring legacy can still be seen today.
The touring exhibition Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America (July 23 – September 5) opens later in the summer. With a newly-crafted wampum belt, created from traditional shell beads, created by the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts at its core, the exhibition explores the history, art and culture of the Native Americans who met the passengers of the Mayflower 401 years ago.
At the Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery there’s a new exhibition by renowned artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney exploring the dynamic relationship between humanity and the natural world. Matthew Barney: Redoubt (until July 25) features a new feature-length film set in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and following a hunter in pursuit of wolves across the wilderness. The film is accompanied by a series of sculptures cast from fallen trees and more than 40 engravings.
Alongside, Igshaan Adams: Kicking Dust (until July 25) presents the intricate textile works of South African artist Igshaan Adams in his first UK solo exhibition. The works on show are comprised of patterns and take inspiration from indigenous dance. By drawing similarities between woven material and the complexity of cultural identities the works explore themes around race, religion and sexuality.
Heath Robinson Museum
Over at the Heath Robinson Museum John Hassall: Illustrator and Poster Artist (until August 29) celebrates one of Britain’s most high-profile artists of the early 20th century. John Hassall was a well-known artist and designer whose work spanned book illustration, postcard and magazine art, toy design, pottery and oil painting. One of Hassall’s most prolific outputs was advertising posters, and his bold lines and cheerful style saw his work become embedded in popular culture.
Horniman Museum & Gardens
At the Horniman Museum we take a closer look at our closest living relatives, primates, with Monkey Business (until January 3 2022). Bringing together a selection of models, photography, film and more than 60 taxidermy specimens, the exhibition places you in the heart of the forest to explore how these incredible creatures live, eat, play and interact.
Imperial War Museum London
In Lambeth, the Imperial War Museum has an immersive, site-specific artwork by internationally-renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei History of Bombs (until September 5) sees the museum’s atrium completely transformed by an artist for the first time since the building opened as Ai Weiwei’s stark artwork reveals the relationship between the individual, society and the state and explores our human capacity for destruction.
At the National Gallery, Conversations with God: Jan Matejko’s Copernicus (until August 22) is the first time the gallery has exhibited a painting by a Polish artist. Jan Matejko’s epic painting celebrates one of Poland’s most famous figures, and one of the most important names in the history of science, mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who theorised that the Earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa. The enormous artwork was painted by Matejko in 1873 to mark the 400th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth.
Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited (July 22 – October 31) reunites the five views of the Saxon fortress of Königstein, near Dresden, painted by Italian landscape painter and often-overlooked nephew of Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto. Commissioned as part of a larger series of views of Dresden and its surroundings the paintings capture the drama of this foreboding historic site.
Seeing out the year, Poussin and the Dance (October 9 – January 2 2022) reveals how the French classical painter captured his heady and joyous paintings of dance. The unique paintings, bringing the Classical world of gods and mortals to life are shown alongside the ancient sculpture he studied and a reconstruction of the wax figurines he used to choreograph his works.
Old Royal Naval College
In Greenwich at the Old Royal Naval College Luke Jerram’s awe-inspiring Gaia (until July 1) is on show. The extremely popular seven metre exact replica of the Earth takes pride of place in the building’s spectacular Painted Hall and aims to create a sense of awe, communicate a understanding of the interconnection of all life and instil a sense of responsibility for our fragile planet.
Royal Academy of Arts
At the Royal Academy of Arts the recent work of prolific artist and 20th century British icon David Hockney are on show. David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020 (until September 26) presents 116 new works created in the midst of the pandemic, in which Hockney captured the unfolding of spring in digital drawings on his iPad. The exhibition charts the entire spring of 2020 at his home in Normandy in what is a joyous celebration of the seasons during one of the most uncertain and challenging years of the past century.
Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul (until August 1) presents new works by Emin alongside a selection of oils and watercolours by the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch, an artist who Emin has long admired and found inspiration from. Featuring 18 works by Munch and more than 25 works by Emin, the highly personal show explores how both artists created their art through embracing painful experiences.
Drawing inspiration from Titian, Goya, Manet and Gauguin, Michael Armitage: Paradise Edict (until September 19) brings together a selection of works – including 15 large-scale paintings – by Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage. Armitage’s work explores East African culture and folklore, challenging cultural assumptions and exploring politics, history, civil unrest and sexuality.
Later in the year is the academy’s annual Summer Exhibition 2021 (September 22 – January 2 2022) which has run uninterrupted for more than 250 years. This year’s offering is curated by Yinka Shonibare and centres on the theme of ‘Reclaiming Magic’. It’s the world’s largest open-submission art show bringing together art in all mediums from household names as well as emerging new talent.
Over at the Saatchi Gallery, JR: Chronicles (until October 3) is the biggest solo exhibition to date of French artist JR, following the artist’s journey from teenage graffiti artist to critically acclaimed artist, Oscar-nominated filmmaker and one of the most influential figures working today. The exhibition showcases recent projects, including a large-scale collaborative piece created to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Louvre pyramid and an art project undertaken at a maximum-security prison in California.
At Serpentine North Gallery, James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective (until October 22) celebrates the six-decade career of British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor. Working between Accra and London, Barnor captured major social and political changes through his portraits, photojournalism and editorial commissions.
At Serpentine South Gallery the paintings and drawings of American expressionist Jennifer Packer get their first dedicated exhibition outside of the US. Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing (until August 22) presents Packer’s intimate portraits, interiors and floral still lifes which portray the essence of contemporary Black lives. The 34 works on display respond to the treatment of Black Americans, and her floral works are sometimes described as funeral bouquets made in response to the tragic institutional violence against the Black population.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
At Sir John Soane’s Museum, The Romance of Ruins: The Search for Ancient Ionia, 1764 (until September 5) brings together a series of evocative and poetic watercolours by William Parr which document the 1764 expedition to discover ancient Green ruins in Ionia, an ancient region on the western coast of present-day Turkey. A lover of Greek architecture, Soane collected books relating to the expedition, which are shown alongside Parr’s watercolours.
Over at Somerset House there’s an exploration of all things skate culture in No Comply (July 19 – September 19). Celebrating the UK’s thriving skateboarding scene, a hobby and lifestyle which has experienced its biggest uptake since 2000 during the Covid-19 lockdown, the exhibition takes a look at the work of leading photographers, filmmakers and designers who champion the subculture and document its influence on UK life and society. In the year that we see skateboarding debut at the Olympics, this exhibition brings together film, photography, art, fashion and design to explore the country’s diverse skateboarding community.
Later in the year, Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules (October 21 – March 6 2022) takes you into the pages of the beloved and iconic British institution that is the Beano. The exhibition brings you face to face with the Beano gang to explore how the comic has inspired generations of rulebreakers and features contributions from a host of rebellious artists of today.
At Tate Britain, Turner’s Modern World (until September 12) explores how one of Britain’s greatest artists recorded a period of intense environmental, social and technological change – the Industrial Revolution. Living and working at the peak of the revolution, Turner’s fascination with the way the world was changing around him is evident through his prolific and revered artworks. Bringing together some of the artist’s major works the exhibition explores what it meant to be a modern artist in Turner’s time, and explores his involvement in political and social causes of the time.
Paula Rego (July 7 – October 24) is a major retrospective of the Portuguese-born painter and printmaker whose career has spanned six decades. The largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Rego’s work to date, the exhibition features over 100 works and tells her extraordinary life story, explores her socio-political interests and reveals how she has revolutionised the way in which women are represented.
Over at Tate Modern the enduring legacy of influential abstract artist and designer Sophie Taeuber-Arp (July 15 – October 17) is explored in the first retrospective of her work held in the UK. One of the foremost abstract artists of the 1920s and 30s, Taeuber-Arp’s extraordinary work made a significant contribution to modern art and this exhibition brings together examples from her diverse portfolio, many of which have never been seen in the UK before.
The EY Exhibition: The Making of Rodin (until November 21) is a landmark exhibition of the formative French sculptor, bringing together more than 200 works, many of which have never been seen outside of France. The exhibition explores how Rodin’s trailblazing style defined modern sculpture, and focuses on his use of plaster and clay to give his works their characteristic movement and personality.
A Year in Art: Australia 1992 (June 8 – Spring 2022) responds to a pivotal year in Australian history during which High Court ruling overturned terra nullius – the declaration that the land belonged to no-one, used by the British to colonise the land in the 18th century. The exhibition explores how artists have recognised the relationship that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have with their land and examines the long-lasting impact of colonialism and the issues this causes in Australian society today.
The gallery invites you to step inside a hugely popular immersive installation by internationally-acclaimed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and experience infinite space. Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms (until June 12 2022) is a rare opportunity to experience two artworks: Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life and Chandelier of Grief, both of which give the experience of existing in a seemingly endless space.
Over at the V&A and featuring more than 300 pieces, the major fashion exhibition Bags: Inside Out (until January 16 2022) is the UK’s most comprehensive foray into the world of bags and features luxury brands including Chanel, Mulberry and Hermès as well as some surprising examples from history. Star items include the first ever Hermès Birkin bag – the handmade handbag which became the most sought after and expensive bag in history, a gas mask bag owned by Queen Mary during WWII and Sarah Jessica Parker’s infamous Fendi Baguette bag from Sex and the City.
Celebrating the academy’s 100-year anniversary, which took place in 2020, On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 (until September 12) delves into the RAD’s archive to take you behind the curtain and into the dance studio of one of the world’s most famous dance education organisations. The exhibition presents over 60 original objects and over 80 archival images, including costumes, designs and photographs that chart the RAD’s history and explore how the organisation shaped the future of dance training.
Historical ceramics from the Middle East have long been revered and celebrated, and Contemporary Ceramic Art from the Middle East (until October 17) brings together contemporary ceramic artists from the Middle East and North Africa to explore how the tradition of decorative ceramics influences their work today. Split into three themes: tradition, identity and politics, the exhibition looks at how these artists use ceramics to celebrate their nation’s past, explore their culture and communicate political messages.
Organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection Epic Iran (until September 12) explores 5,000 years of exquisite artworks travelling from its ancient civilisations into the 21st century via painting, ceramics, textiles, sculpture, antiquities, photography and more.
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser (until December 31) explores the origins, adaptations and reinventions of one of the most enduring children’s classics of the last 150 years, with an immersive jump down the rabbit hole via a suitably theatrical show that charts the evolution of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from manuscript to a global phenomenon beloved by all ages.
At the Whitechapel Gallery, Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy (until August 29) is a major retrospective featuring more than 150 works charting the ground-breaking career of the surrealist Eileen Agar. Spanning seven decades, the exhibition reveals Agar as one of the most dynamic, prolific and influential artists of the 20th century and explores how she brought a sense of mystery to daily life, transforming the everyday into the extraordinary.
In A Glittering City: Ayo Akingbade with Duchamp & Sons (until August 15) artist and filmmaker Ayo Akingbade explores the idea of place and belonging, building up a portrait of London through the voices of the city’s youth. Working with the gallery’s youth collective, Akingbade produced a new film commission which is shown alongside a film essay in which art students discuss their ideas for the future of social housing.
Drawing on specially-selected works from the Hiscox Collection, Desde el Salón (From the Living Room): Sol Calero selects from the Hiscox Collection (until August 15) is a display curated by Berlin-based Venezuelan installation artist Sol Calero in which she presents ocean and mountain- scapes, botanical imagery and maps alongside domestic images of walls, windows, chairs and rugs. Including work by the likes of Yto Barrada, Annie Leibovitz, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, the exhibition celebrates both the natural and domestic realms.
Phantoms of Surrealism (until December 12) reveals the pivotal role of women in the Surrealist movement in Britain, both as artists and organisers. The exhibition takes its name from an appearance made by performance artist Sheila Legge to launch the opening of the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 in which she paraded around Trafalgar Square in a bridal gown with her head completely shrouded in roses. Legge’s surrealist work will be accompanied by work from other notable female surrealists, including Claude Cahun, Ithell Colquohoun and Diana Brinton Lee.
William Morris Gallery
At the William Morris Gallery, former home of the Arts and Crafts pioneer, Within The Reach Of All: The Century Guild (until August 31) is the first exhibition in 20 years to explore the work of this collaborative group comprising architects, designers and artisans. Established in 1882 the guild spanned architecture, painting, furniture, sculpture, textiles, wallpaper and metalwork, all instilled with the Arts and Crafts ethos of beauty and functionality.
Distant Fellowship: Morris and South Asia (until August 31) explores the link between William Morris and South Asia, revealing and problematising his connections with the region. The exhibition features new work from artists in residence Priya Sundram and Nia Thandapani who have created a pattern based on Morris’s designs which is being produced by a traditional Indian block printing method. The pattern is used to create a domestic style space in the gallery where visitors can explore alternative resources around Morris and South Asia in various community languages.