The biggest exhibitions of 2019

From 500 years of Leonardo to the Anglophile Van Gogh, 2019 promises an eye-opening year in painting and sculpture.

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The universal man will be universally present in 2019. Leonardo da Vinci died on 2 May 1519 and the passage of five centuries has done nothing to decrease his appeal. Milan, where he lived from 1482 to 1499, will have no fewer than nine exhibitions to mark the half millennium, but the biggest and best shows of the Leonardo-fest will be in London and Paris.

Starting in February, 144 of his drawings from the Royal Collection, displaying the extraordinary range of his interests, will be on display simultaneously in batches of 12 in 12 locations around Britain (Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton, Sunderland, plus one venue to be announced). The culmination of this regional diffusion will be “Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing” at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace (24 May to 13 October); with more than 200 drawings it will be the largest display of his works for 65 years.

After their London airing, 80 of the drawings will head to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh (22 November to 15 March 2020). Among the works on display for the first time will be two blank sheets that, under ultraviolet light, reveal a beautiful series of previously unknown studies of hands and horses’ heads, circa 1481.

The Queen may own more than 550 sheets of Leonardo’s drawings (only the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan has more) but the Louvre has nearly a third of his paintings. Whether we are in or out of Europe at that point, its major exhibition (24 October to 24 February 2020) will be worth braving passport control queues for.

The other memorable date is the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. For the Dutch, needless to say, this is a big thing and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is beginning the year with a major show of all their holdings of his work (15 February-10 June) and ending it with a stellar pairing, “Rembrandt-Velázquez” (11 October – 19 January 2020). “Rembrandt and Saskia: Love in the Dutch Golden Age” at the Fries Museum Leeuwarden looks the pick of the other shows. Britain’s major galleries clearly prefer full centenaries and so are giving him a miss, leaving Dulwich Picture Gallery with “Rembrandt’s Light” (4 October to 2 February 2020) and the Holburne Museum in Bath (“Rembrandt in Print”, 4 October-
5 January 2020) to fly the Dutch flag.

In a year that promises a lot of post-1800 exhibitions and rather less in the way of old art, the Royal Academy is keeping one eye on its roots. It kicks off 2019 with the bizarre pairing of video artist with revered Renaissance man, “Bill Viola/Michelangelo” (26 January to 31 March). Both artists deal with the human figure and often elemental themes, but what links them beyond that (other than curatorial whim) will be intriguing to see. The RA follows this up with something less wilful, “The Renaissance Nude” (3 March to 2 June), which examines how Classical statuary sparked the age’s new interest in the human figure. It will offer premium works by the likes of Titian, Raphael, Dürer, Cranach and yes, both Michelangelo and Leonardo. The National Gallery’s sole major foray into the era comes with “Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance” (12 June to 29 September), a welcome look at a highly distinctive (think Bosch with added sheen) and little-known 15th-century figure from a country outside the artistic mainstream.


Bill Viola’s Fire Woman (2005)

It may be that Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery, is pining for his old job at the Prado in Madrid, but Spain figures again in the gallery’s major retrospective “Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light” (18 March to 7 July). Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923) had a bravura technique to match John Singer Sargent’s and also made both portraits and subject paintings: his sun-filled beach and fiesta scenes drip with Iberian glamour.

French sunlight accompanied by a large dose of chromatic and emotional intensity comes with “Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory” (23 January to 6 May) at Tate Modern. Sensuous, melancholy, dreamlike and filled with his obsession with his wife, Marthe, Bonnard’s work is ripe for re-evaluation. Two of Bonnard’s contemporaries also receive an airing: Gauguin, 50 of whose portraits will be on display at the National Gallery (7 October to 26 January 2020) in the first ever show dedicated to this less celebrated side of his art, and the Swiss-French Félix Vallotton, painter of enigmatic interior psychodramas and often sinister landscapes (Royal Academy, 30 June to 29 September).

Gauguin’s sometime painting partner Van Gogh will be the focus of a major show at Tate Britain, “Van Gogh and Britain” (27 March to 11 August), courtesy of his two periods resident here as an art dealer and teacher in Stockwell in 1873 and Ramsgate and Isleworth in 1876. His sister-in-law said his time in south London was the happiest of his life and it will be a treat to see Van Gogh freed from the tyranny of sunflowers and the south of France.

Northern climes will also be in evidence in the British Museum’s “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” (11 April to 21 July) and Dulwich Picture Gallery’s “Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway” (13 February-2 June). The two painters knew each other and while Munch’s images of the uncertainty and pain of human existence became famous, Sohlberg has remained a Norwegian secret. His rich and richly symbolic landscapes – beautiful, mysterious and haunting – will be one of the revelations of the year.


Van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne (1888)

The work of Jeff Koons and Keith Haring is more familiar, though rare on these shores. Koons will be showing a career-spanning selection of his works at the Ashmolean in Oxford (7 February-9 June) in a self-curated show that, appropriately for this most look-at-me of figures, wafts the sharp tang of a vanity project. Haring was the short-lived (he died aged 31 in 1990) third wheel of the Warhol-Basquiat jalopy and his grafitti-ish pictures did much to bring street art into the mainstream. This scion of the New York art scene will be transposed to Tate Liverpool (14 June to 10 November).

The year is rich too in hard-to-categorise talents. William Blake, who would surely be an internet sensation if he lived today, receives a major retrospective at Tate Britain (11 September to 2 February 2020). The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, meanwhile, will offer a reminder of the brilliance of the pioneering late-19th-century brothers-in-law and graphic artists William Nicholson and James Pryde (7 May to 4 August). Their poster and book designs remain hugely influential (felt indeed by the mid-century linocutters Sybil Andrews, Claude Flight and Cyril Power – “Cutting Edge” at Dulwich Picture Gallery, 19 June to 8 September), though strangely underappreciated. The same could perhaps be said of David Bomberg, whose artistic formation is the theme of “Young Bomberg and the Old Masters” at the National Gallery (27 November to 1 March 2020).

A bright light will also be directed on an unusual aspect of Henry Moore’s work. He often suffers from familiarity but the Wallace Collection’s “Henry Moore: The Helmet Heads” (6 March-23 June) will show how Moore finessed visits to the collection’s armour holdings into a series of strikingly sinister graphic works. The light then swivels to Lucian Freud, whose self-portraits will be scrutinised at the Royal Academy (27 October to 26 January 2020).

As late 2018 showed, Paris is no stranger to unrest, and Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845) lived through more than most – the revolution, Napoleon and the Bourbon restoration. “Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life” (28 February to 19 May 2019) at the National Gallery will be filled by teeming vistas of that febrile period that repay nose-to-the-frame inspection. Boilly (also in evidence at the Wallace Collection, January-May) was no Leonardo but this French minor-master deserves his place in the sun too. 

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 04 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions