The exhibitions to see in 2021

Published 7 January 2021

From an exploration of Iranian art to the optical illusions of Bridget Riley, 2021 is packed with fantastic exhibitions to inspire you when our museums reopen.

Paula Rego, The Dance, 1988 © Paula Rego

This past year has been a challenge for everyone, and we’ve been grateful for the continued solace and inspiration museums bring us. As we move into 2021, we’re looking forward to when we can visit our favourite spaces again and see some of the fantastic exhibitions they have in store.

From celebrated painters to contemporary trailblazers, we’ve got something for every cultural appetite in our list of must-see exhibitions in 2021.

Francis Bacon, Yayoi Kusama and Canaletto are just some of the sensational names to get excited for.

Here’s our pick of exhibitions for the year ahead – with plenty more to be announced. Keep an eye on our listings and museum websites for the latest information on visiting.

Don't forget, you can enjoy benefits at hundreds of museums, galleries and historic houses, plus 50% off major exhibitions, with a National Art Pass – and know that your pass is helping to support museums and galleries through 2021 and beyond.

Exhibitions to see in 2021 if you love...

Painting and drawing

Extraordinary painters past and present dominate 2021's must-see exhibitions.

You’ve the chance to see one of the most important painters of the 20th century, as Francis Bacon's powerful works come to the Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition, Man and Beast, focuses on Bacon’s unwavering fascination with animals and how this lifelong interest informed his understanding of the human form.

Also gracing the Royal Academy’s galleries is the vivid work of American painter Milton Avery. Often compared to the likes of Matisse, he is considered one of North America’s most accomplished 20th-century colourists.

At the Lightbox in Woking, it’s the work of Hubert Arthur Finney that’s under the spotlight, as the exhibition Out of the Shadows celebrates his use of light and dark.

And journeying back in time to 18th-century Venice, the Holburne Museum in Bath are showing an important collection of paintings by legendary Venetian artist Canaletto, which are leaving their home at Woburn Abbey for the first time in 70 years. Elsewhere, diving into the work of an 18th-century symbolist, Waddesdon Manor host 34 rarely seen watercolours by Gustave Moreau, depicting the well-known fables of playwright and poet Jean de La Fontaine.

Canaletto, The Entrance to the Grand Canal, with the Dogana and the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, 1731-36, © From the Woburn Abbey Collection

Sculpture and installation

These two arresting art forms have the powerful effect of immersing you in another world.

Yayoi Kusama's dazzling Infinity Mirror Rooms have caused a sensation across the globe over the last few years, and her Infinity Mirror Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life returns to London’s Tate Modern, following its original creation for their space in 2012. This room and a second, Chandelier of Grief, pull you into Kusama’s immersive world of infinite reflections.

Meanwhile at Modern Art Oxford, you can see Ruth Asawa’s signature hanging sculptures and explore how this visionary artist championed the vital role that creativity plays in society. The exhibition also explores her extraordinary life, notably her time spent in an internment camp during the Second World War where, despite everything, she learned artistic skills and developed the belief that art can be life-changing.

And in Edinburgh, Jupiter Artland is being given an enormous burst of colour, as Scottish multimedia artist Rachel Maclean's new commission is unveiled in the woods. Her extravagant, outlandish characters and vibrant fantasy worlds are created using green-screen technology, and a mix of film, sculpture, printmaking and photography.

Tate Modern Turns 20: Yayoi Kusama, Chandelier of Grief, 2016, © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy Ota Fine Arts and Victoria Miro

Creative pioneers

An official artist for the First and Second World Wars, John Nash experimented with oil painting, wood engraving, watercolour and line drawing across his expansive 70-year career. An exhibition at Towner Eastbourne contextualises his work within the 20th century events that shaped and inspired him.

Anish Kapoor's visceral large-scale works toe the line between painting and sculpture, and demonstrate the versatility of this internationally acclaimed artist at Modern Art Oxford. At the same venue earlier in the year is Samson Kambalu, whose powerful installation explores sovereignty and resistance, focusing on the history between Malawi, the UK and the US.

And, known for her storybook approach to imagery and her bold representations of women, Paula Rego at Tate Britain is a real treat, providing an expansive look at this leading figurative artist. The exhibition features over 100 works, including paintings, collage, drawings, sculpture and etchings.

Anish Kapoor studio, 2019, © Anish Kapoor. All rights reserved, 2019

Science and nature

The natural world and the study of science gives artists a marvellous playground to explore.

Featuring cutting-edge research, special commissions and the work of artists from across the globe, AI: More than Human offers a snapshot of the fascinating world of artificial intelligence. Opening at the World Museum in Liverpool the exhibition dives headfirst into the complex relationship between humans and technology, looking at the roots of AI in Japanese Shintoism as well as early experiments in computing from Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage.

And, capturing the beauty of plants, flowers and insects, Mary Newcomb's intricate and delicate drawings are on display at Compton Verney. Newcomb’s work is like a love letter to mother nature, and the exhibition features over 50 works plus extracts from her writing and work by artists who inspired her.

Mary Newcomb, Insects on Hogweed, date unknown, © Mary Newcomb Estate

Culture and stories

Whether inspired by real life or elaborate fantasy worlds, these exhibitions tell stories from around the globe.

A major exploration of Iranian art and culture, Epic Iran comes to the V&A, where 5,000 years of fascinating culture will be on display, including exquisite sculpture and ceramics, luxurious carpets and textiles, and photography and film.

At the Ashmolean, the complex and rich culture of Japan’s capital city is given a closer look in the exhibition Tokyo: Art & Photography. And, at the Guildhall Art Gallery and The Box, Plymouth, an ambitious project to unite contemporary indigenous artists in the USA with museums and collections in the UK results in an extensive exhibition exploring Wampanoag life in America today.

Charting the incredible influence of one of Britain’s most-loved children’s stories, Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at the V&A explores the weird and wonderful world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Filled with elaborate sets, immersive experiences and digital projections, this theatrical exhibition looks at the many faces of this story over the years through film, performance, fashion, art, music and photography.

Meanwhile at V&A Dundee, you can examine the relationship between club culture and design in the immersive exhibition Night Fever: Designing Club Culture.

Detached folio from an illuminated manuscript of the Shahnameh for Shah Tahmasp, 1525-1535, Tabriz, © The Sarikhani Collection

Modern-day icons

To finish we’ve got a real treat – four art legends demonstrating their rightful place as major players on the stage of modern and contemporary art.

Op-art extraordinaire Bridget Riley comes under the microscope at the Lightbox. The exhibition enables a closer look at work from every decade of Riley’s impressive career, exploring her fascination with perspective and her skill at manipulating optics.

At the Royal Academy, beloved painter David Hockney and performance art icon Marina Abramović both receive major exhibitions, the former of his works on iPad.

And finally, brand new works from Tracey Emin will grace the grounds of Jupiter Artland in 2021. Starting with I Lay Here for you, a powerful bronze figure scaled up from a small clay figurine, Emin’s work at Jupiter Artland will mark her first Scottish show since 2008.

Bridget Riley, Nataraja, 1993, © Bridget Riley, 2020. All rights reserved. Photo © Tate

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