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10 January 2024

The art exhibitions to see in 2024

The most intriguing shows of the year, from the National Gallery at 200 to purple landscapes and charcoal heads.

By Michael Prodger

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo in the National Gallery is an impressive and storied work. It was painted on the orders of Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, later Pope Clement VII, for Narbonne Cathedral, but it had another purpose too. Michelangelo, Sebastiano’s mentor, saw the commission as a way of asserting his supremacy over Raphael, his upstart rival, and supplied several drawings for the figures that Sebastiano translated into paint and combined in a powerful, crowded gestural composition. Raphael’s response was an even more potent painting – of exactly the same huge dimensions: his Transfiguration, now one of the greatest treasures of the Vatican Museum.

Three centuries later, Sebastiano’s painting played another central role in the story of art. In 1824, it was designated “NG1” and was the first painting officially to enter the National Gallery’s collection at the foundation of the institution. This bicentenary year, the gallery will be celebrating its birthday with a series of exhibitions and events reflecting on its path to pre-eminence. The original cohort of 38 paintings has now grown to a collection of more than 2,300.

[See also: Rubens and body positivity]

Building work in the Sainsbury Wing means that big exhibitions there are limited this year, but “Van Gogh: Poets and Lovers” (opens 14 September) should be suitably starry and marks 100 years since the gallery acquired the painter’s perennial crowd-pleasers Sunflowers and Van Gogh’s Chair. Meanwhile, the collection is being comprehensively rehung and 12 major works – from Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Constable’s The Hay Wain to Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus – are being loaned to galleries around the country.

As one Caravaggio leaves the gallery, however, another arrives in the form of The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610). “The Last Caravaggio” (18 April) examines his final, haunting painting, on loan from Naples, the city that was simultaneously a refuge and place of great danger to him, for what it says about the violent life and mysterious end of this most stormy of artists.

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The Royal Academy (RA), older than the National Gallery by more than 50 years, has a varied roster of offerings for 2024. For lovers of high Victoriana, the arrival of Frederic Leighton’s great paean to languorous female beauty, Flaming June (1895), will be enough to induce a swoon. The painting, a melting swathe of orange, arrives on 17 February for an 11-month stay while its home gallery, the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, undergoes refurbishment. Meanwhile, the Summer Exhibition offers its annual diverting miscellany (18 June) and Michelangelo and Raphael pick up their rivalry, with a little Leonardo to ginger things up further, in “Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael: Florence, circa 1504” (9 November).

The RA will also reflect contemporary mores with “Entangled Pasts 1768-now: Art, Colonialism and Change” (3 February), a gathering of more than 100 works to spark a “conversation” – dread word – and probe “art and its role in shaping narratives of empire, enslavement, resistance, abolition and colonialism”. Intriguingly, it will place contemporary Royal Academicians, such as Frank Bowling and Yinka Shonibare, alongside historic alumni such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. Touching on some of the same themes, “The Time Is Always Now”, at the reliably intriguing Box in Plymouth (29 June), examines representations of the black figure and its presence in Western art.

Portraiture arrives in various forms. “Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads” at the Courtauld Gallery (9 February) will highlight the work of the most expressive survivor of the postwar Bacon-Freud generation in the most expressive of mediums. “Sargent and Fashion”, meanwhile, at Tate Britain (22 February) concentrates on glamour, class and the preternatural facility of the soigné, anglicised American. Portraits of a different kind feature in “Géricault’s Horses” at the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris (15 May), an exhibition that marks the 200th anniversary of the death of the quintessential romantic painter. Géricault’s fascination with horses meant that the animals were never just that, but also brilliantly anthropomorphised images of the life force and self-portraits too.

This year, the rediscovery and reinterpretation of women artists will continue apace. There is a long-overdue exhibition of the work of the Anglo-Swiss neoclassicist Angelica Kauffman at the RA (1 March), bringing to the fore the accomplished portraits and history paintings of one of only two female founding members of the Academy. “Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind” at Tate Modern (15 February) will present the 90-year-old artist as a figure of significance in the conceptual art world of the 1960s to 1980s rather than as merely a Beatles Wag. Meanwhile, “Women Artists in Britain, 1520-1920” at Tate Britain (16 May) is a welcome survey show that aims to reveal how many female practitioners were working without the recognition they deserved, and the many others who were simply overlooked. Among the latter is Dora Carrington, Bloomsbury acolyte and, according to Virginia Woolf, “a bustling eager creature”, who gets her own show at Pallant House, Chichester (9 November). One area women artists have long made their own has been the use of textiles, which is one focus of “Beyond Form: Lines of Abstraction, 1950-1970” at Turner Contemporary, Margate (3 February). It also formed a key element in the work of the feminist artist Judy Chicago (“Judy Chicago: Revelations”, Serpentine North, 22 May).

Landscape will get a good showing too. The pick of the exhibitions is in Berlin where a major retrospective, “Caspar David Friedrich: Infinite Landscapes” (Alte Nationalgalerie, 19 April), marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of the painter of mystical nature and human insignificance. The coming year also sees the 150th anniversary of the first impressionist exhibition, an event that changed the course of art. The major celebratory show will be “Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism” at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (26 March), but “Monet and London: Views of the Thames” at the Courtauld Gallery (27 September) will offer the chance to reassess the copious paintings of the city by the group’s leading light. Elsewhere, “Forbidden Territories: 100 Years of Surreal Landscapes” at the Hepworth Wakefield (21 November) promises unquiet ramblings in nature, though not perhaps as strange as the living, organic landscapes of the French artist Pierre Huyghe (Punta della Dogana, Venice, 17 March). Meanwhile, “Soulscapes” at Dulwich Picture Gallery (14 February) will look at the role of landscapes in the work of the African diaspora.

Landscape, in vivid reds, purples, blues and oranges, was also a central motif in the work of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group of German avant-gardists in 1911-12. “Expressionists” at Tate Modern (25 April) promises to be a comprehensive and revelatory display of 130 works by the circle, a heady group whose members included Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and Franz Marc – all of whom used colour as a means of visceral subjective articulation.

As aficionados, gallerists, artists, the curious and the rich reel from the visual cacophony of the Venice Biennale (20 April) they should remember to offer a small prayer of thanksgiving to Giorgio Vasari, the progenitor of art history, who died 450 years ago on 27 June 1574. They should also perhaps heed the closing line of his short life of Sebastiano del Piombo, when he chided the painter’s acolytes for studying art, “to no great profit, for they learnt little from him but how to live well”.  

[See also: The madness of Claude Monet]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously