Five New Year blockbusters

Published 7 January 2015

The new year brings a host of exciting new exhibitions – here are five of our favourites.

1. Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, National Portrait Gallery

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Facing disgrace after his provocative 'Madame X' outraged audiences to the Paris Salon of 1884, John Singer Sargent fled to London where he successfully re-established himself as one of England’s leading portrait painters. While Sargent normally worked to commission painting for the aristocracy, this exhibition focuses on the lesser-known pictures he created of his artistic circle of friends – including Robert Louis Stevenson and William Butler Yeats. In these portraits he was free to experiment creatively; sitters are depicted in informal poses, sometimes in the act of painting or singing. (2 February – 25 May.)

2. Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, Tate Modern

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For Marlene Dumas portraiture is not part of a wider oeuvre, it is a single obsession. Even as a child she sought only to represent the face or figure. ‘I never did a tree,’ she told the New York Times in 2008. Yet her work is far from typical of the genre. Intense and at times unsettling, she captures terrorists, movie stars, deformed babies and strippers in inky swirls of paint. Particularly poignant is the series of weeping women she produced in the year after her mother died, her heartbreak spilling out across the canvas. (5 February – 10 May.)

3. Inventing Impressionism, National Gallery

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Renoir, Degas and Pissarro all feature in this display of impressionist masterpieces, yet the real star of the show is Paul Durand-Ruel ​– a courageous art dealer who supported the movement at a time when it was being ridiculed or ignored. As well as financial support, he pioneered revolutionary business tactics – such as stock building, exclusivity clauses and one-man shows of 'his artists' – that single-handedly reversed the group's fate. 'Without him', said Monet, 'we wouldn’t have survived'. (4 March – 31 May.)

4. Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art, British Museum

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From the prehistoric simplicity of Cycladic figurines to the realism of the Hellenistic age, this exhibition traces a transformative period in Greek art. The body had long been recognised as the most important subject for artistic endeavour, yet it was largely reserved to represent religious idols and mythological figures. From about 500 BC, Greek sculptors began to depict real people; a male nude could just as easily be Apollo or Heracles, as that year's Olympic boxing champion. Featuring gods, sports stars and monstrous beings, the array of sculpture on display here reveals changing ideals of beauty, piety and honour in Ancient Greek society. (26 March – 5 July.)

5. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, V&A

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The show that saw audiences queuing around the block when it went on display in New York in 2011 comes to the designer's hometown, with an additional 30 garments and a new section on his early days as a designer. As well as the iconic pieces he created for David Bowie and Bjork and examples of the infamous 'bumster' low-rise jeans, the exhibition also focuses on his outrageous catwalk shows – a life-sized hologram of Kate Moss dressed in yards of rippling fabric is one of the highlights. There is also a chance to see pieces from the unfinished collection McQueen was working on at the time of his suicide in 2010. (14 March – 19 July.)

Need a second opinion? Watch art historian Jacky Klein take us through her picks of the season.

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