London exhibitions 2020: The best art and museum displays to see in December

Zoe Paskett and Nancy Durrant
·10-min read
<p>A detail from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s A Passion Like No Other, 2012, on display at Tate Britain</p> (Lynette Yiadom-Boakye)

A detail from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s A Passion Like No Other, 2012, on display at Tate Britain

(Lynette Yiadom-Boakye)

Aaaand we’re back. Again. London’s museums and galleries are breathing a huge sigh of relief to find that we’re emerging into (an admittedly tightened) Tier 2, but you know what, we’ll take it. We’re desperate to get back in those cathedrals of art, especially now the weather has turned chilly, and see the growing number of brilliant exhibitions you can actually visit in person. There is plenty for culture lovers to gorge on: galleries and museums reopen the shows that were finally opened between lockdowns, with big hitters from Artemisia to Bruce Nauman, and a flood of new exhibitions is on its way.

Tickets are reduced to keep up social distancing and these shows are bound to be popular, so be sure to book a slot in advance, and bring a face covering.

There are months full of art to see you through the winter, so take your pick from these:

Titian: Love, Desire, Death

National Gallery
National Gallery

Six Titian masterpieces reunite for the first time in 300 years at this major show. This exhibition focuses on these mythological paintings created by the artist in the 1550s and 1560s for Philip II of Spain, when the Venetian master artist was at the height of his creative powers. Elsewhere in the gallery, painter Nicolaes Maes steps out of Rembrandt’s shadow in the Dutch Master of the Golden Age show (until September 20).

Until January 17, National Gallery,

Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi
Zanele Muholi

The South African artist’s first major survey exhibition the UK is a striking tour de force. Their work - both photography and film - focuses on the lives and stories of black LGBTQ+ people living in their country, who despite the post-apartheid constitution outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation, remain a target for violence and prejudice. Despite that, they love, and thrive. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s not for you - these are beautiful, moving artworks packed with blessed humanity.

Until June 6, Tate Modern,



Few painters worked with the skill of Artemisia Gentileschi, yet she was widely forgotten (no prizes for guessing why). In one of the year’s most anticipated exhibitions, her “incredibly violent” works of art come to the National Gallery after a long postponement. The 17th century painter was the first woman to gain membership to the artists’ academy in Florence, and this exhibition is the first of its kind in the UK, which places her in the league of elite artists where she belongs.

Until January 24, National Gallery,

Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul

Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin

This show, which Tracey Emin has curated, places the contemporary artist’s work in conversation with that of her hero, Edvard Munch. Given free rein at the Munch Museum in Oslo (outside which she recently installed a major bronze sculpture), she has chosen works that seem to connect on both a formal level and an emotional one. Those familiar with the visceral nature of Emin’s paintings (there are a few sculptures and neons but not many) will not be surprised to find that it’s a pretty intense experience.

From December 7 to February 28, Royal Academy,

The Possibility of an Island and other exhibitions

London’s new ever-changing exhibition space Cromwell Place reopens with a new set of shows from different galleries (the spaces rotate between member galleries, so there’s always something new to see). This time A3 Arndt Art Agency presents a group showcase of work from across South-East Asia and the Asia Pacific region to 11 Dec, the De Morgan foundation presents paintings and ceramics by British artists William and Evelyn De Morgan to Dec 6, Lehmann Maupinn is showing works on paper, sculpture and architectural fabric works by the important Korean artist Do Suh to 20 Feb, and Andrew Gifford’s recent paintings of hawthorn trees goes on show later in the month from John Martin Gallery (16-20 Dec).

Cromwell Place,

Summer Exhibition (in the Autumn)

Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd
Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

In its two and a half century history, the Summer Exhibition has always taken place, well, in the summer. As the Royal Academy says, “summer is a state of mind”, so this year, it moves to the colder months but keeps all the usual treats. Jane and Louise Wilson coordinate the display, which opens with two rooms entirely dedicated to Black artists. It features a combination of household names and emerging artists all selected from an open submission, throughout the building’s gorgeous galleries.

Until January 3, Royal Academy,

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Poetic, enigmatic and beautiful, around 80 of the British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings will go on show in the most extensive survey of her work to date. All the work here has been created since her Turner Prize nomination in 2013. Her fictitious figures, created from her imagination or inspired by found images, raise important questions about identity and representation - but they are also just really stunning paintings.

From December 2 to May 9, Tate Britain,

Bruce Nauman


If you’ve got a phobia of clowns there’s one room you’ll probably want to skip in Bruce Nauman’s exhibition. Clown Torture 1987 is a deliberately overwhelming video installation of five sequences of clowns playing over each other. It’s been more than 20 years since Nauman’s last major exhibition in London. The American contemporary artist has become known for his bright neon light installations, but since starting out in the 1960s he has been working across sound, film, sculpture, printmaking and plenty of different media. The Tate Modern exhibition will feature a number of immersive installations too, so you can throw yourself into his world.

Until February 12, Tate Modern,

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer

Richard Haughton
Richard Haughton

Choreographer and dancer Michael Clark has a long history of collaborating with artists throughout his career – so it’s about time for a major exhibition dedicated to him, and no better place than the Barbican. From his rise to fame in the 1980s to Olivier Award-winning compositions and an appearance on the Glastonbury Pyramid stage, Clark’s radical choreography has made waves in the dance world. This exhibition revisits his work through arts, fashion, film, music and pieces by Wolfgang Tillmans, Sarah Lucas, Cerith Wyn Evans and more.

Until January 3, Barbican,

Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers

You can't go out to a club, so the Design Museum is making itself into one. This exhibition explores the people, art, design, technology and photography central to shaping electronic music. A 3D show of Kraftwerk, the dance floors of Detroit, Chicago, Paris and Berlin and an installation that reacts to sound all feature in a display that overwhelms the senses.

Until February 14, Design Museum,

Driverless: Who is in control?

Science Museum Group
Science Museum Group

Does it feel a bit like there’s no one at the wheel right now? Well, maybe that’s something to get used to. Artificial intelligence is increasing its grip on all aspects of our lives, from getting a takeaway to everyone’s favourite smart submarine Boaty McBoatface. This exhibition looks at the tech with the potential to define the future.

Until January 5, Science Museum,

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus

Around 35,000 litres of water cascade from a figure atop Kara Walker’s 42ft fountain. Fons Americanus is the latest installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Her sculpture is based on the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, but, rather than celebrating the British Empire, it explores the connected histories of Africa, America and Europe. The water references the transatlantic slave trade and the sculptures it contains pay tribute to the fates of the people it affected.

Until February 7, Tate Modern,

Steve McQueen: Year Three

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Turner Prize-winning artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen has conducted an ambitious project. He invited every Year 3 pupil in London to have their photograph taken by a team of photographers, and has brought the class photos together into a single installation at Tate Britain, showing the future of the city.

Until January 2021, Tate Britain,

Rashid Johnson: Waves

Anxiety and escapism – two states most of us can relate to at the moment, and the main themes of Chicago-born artist Rashid Johnson’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. In a new series of sculptural paintings, he has replaced his canvases with fractured ceramic mosaics. Each shows human figures on the edge of breaking point, continuing his series Broken Men.

Until December 23, Hauser & Wirth,

Bags: Inside Out

I’ve never seen the attraction myself but I absolutely expect to be won over by this, the UK’s most comprehensive exhibition to be dedicated to that obsession-inspiring fashion accessory, the bag. From rucksacks to Baguettes and Birkins, turn-of-the-century Louis Vuitton trunks to Winston Churchill’s dispatch boxes, the V&A curators have delved in and had a good rummage to find out how and why the bag evolved and became the ultimate must-have. Possibly because they come in handy, but it can’t only be that.

From December 12, V&A,

Turner's Modern World

Daniel Hambury
Daniel Hambury

A train is never just a train in the eyes of JMW Turner - it's a thrilling sign of the times. This exhibition, which spans the painter's career, aims to show how he reflected the changing era in which he lived - not for him the allegorical or the nostalgic; his ‘history’ subjects were contemporary; he saw the sublime not just in raging seas and magnificent mountain ranges, but in the fire and power of the new industry. From his celebrated naval battles to his later, near-impressionist landscapes, there's a Turner here for everyone.

Until March 7, Tate Britain,

Arctic: culture and climate

The Trustees of the British Museum
The Trustees of the British Museum

There are more than 40 different indigenous groups that inhabit the vast Arctic, and all have evolved their way of life over 30,000 years (yep, you read that right) to work symbiotically with the harsh but rich and beautiful landscape. Now they're all at threat. Within a generation, all of this might be lost. This exhibition of wonderful objects, from a bag made from salmon skin to a parka made of seal gut (lovely and waterproof) tells the story of a rapidly disappearing human relationship with the earth.

Until February 21, British Museum,


The National Gallery, London
The National Gallery, London

This small but intriguing exhibition explores the idea of sin, as a religious concept but also as a fundamental aspect of the human condition — our tendency to fall short of good moral conduct, try as we might. It’s a perfect subject for artists, especially those from Christian cultures commissioned by the powerful - the notion of ambiguity in the matter of sinning comes through many of these works, from Tracey Emin neons, to Warhol prints and enigmatic scenes by the likes of Bronzino, Bruegel and Velazquez.

Until January 3, National Gallery,

The Covid Letters: A Vital Update

As the country went into lockdown, the Prime Minister wrote a letter intended for (though not received by) every household in the UK, urging residents to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. In response, the fashion designer Jonny Banger invited children under the age of 16 to customise the letter however they liked, to make their voices heard. That one of them dipped his bum in blue paint and sat on it should give you an idea of the depth of feeling expressed in the resulting exhibition.

Until January 17, Foundling Museum,