Top 5 London Art Exhibitions 2019: A Personal Selection

But Nigel, it’s already 2020! And it’s February!

Indeed, it is, and I hope you’ve all had a wonderful start to the new year. If you haven’t followed me on Instagram yet, I highly encourage you to do so! I’m a lot more active there with a fabulously wonderful community of like-minded followers.

On to the exhibitions!

The selection this time was a very hard decision given the plethora of high-quality exhibitions from each institution.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing – The Queen’s Gallery

Leonardo da Vinci, The head of Leda, c.1505-8. Credit: Royal Collection Trust/(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

This was the easiest one to recommend on this list. Sure, there weren’t any of Leonardo’s coveted paintings, but it was an incredible time to see nearly a third of his elusive drawings in the Royal Collection. The exhibition was stellar in its ability to guide us through Leonardo’s complex timeline and simultaneous projects. Rarely seen highlights generally known to the public included the famous head studies for Leda, studies for The Last Supper, his entertaining grotesque drawings, and of course many of his anatomical drawings.

But for Renaissance specialists like myself, it was a dream to see many of his Battle of Anghiari drawings together, metalpoint studies for the unfinished Sforza monument, and the splendid series of Deluge drawings in black chalk and pen and ink. It was also an opportunity to reconsider other aspects of Leonardo’s career, notably his work as a military engineer; visitors were treated to extraordinary map drawings and quirky inventions for an assortment of weapons. Like Leonardo’s creative mind, it was a show which just kept on giving.

Klimt / Schiele: Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna – Royal Academy of Arts

Gustav Klimt, Study for The Dancer€™ (Ria Munk II), 1916-17. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

This exhibition re-evaluated my assumptions of what an exhibition pairing these two artists could bring to the table. Oftentimes, they are presented in a manner than sees them as rivals, rather than teacher and student. But this show managed to give each artist space to shine with monographic rooms instead of thematic sections comparing their works. Drawing from the Albertina Museum’s collection of drawings, the result was a 2-for-1 survey which left me with a well-rounded understanding of both artists’ approaches to drawing and the human body.

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst – British Museum

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895. Private Collection, Norway. Photo: Thomas Widerberg

A few things made this exhibition worth visiting. First, the opportunity to see a rare lithograph of Edvard Munch’s famous The Scream alongside one of the earliest studies for said painting. Second, the fantastic loan of several of Munch’s original printing plates, woodblocks, and lithographic stones, all presented with their respective products. Finally, unlike other monographic shows, the exhibition consistently placed Munch’s works alongside those of his peers, offering a wider understanding of the artist’s diverse influences and his unique way of tackling similar ideas.

The Citi exhibition: Manga – British Museum

Takahashi Yoichi, Captain Tsubasa, 1981-88. ©Yoichi Takahashi/SHUEISHA

This was the kind of exhibition which greatly appealed to the otaku of the younger generations but also found an open-minded audience of parents and grandparents. In many ways, it served as a great introduction to a global phenomenon often centred around giant fighting robots, magical fairy girls, overpowered heroes, romances and high school crushes. But as this eye-opening exhibition eventually revealed, manga artists covered every type of topic imaginable, from something as simple as sports or international cuisine, to deeper stories exploring death, politics, and philosophy. It was incredibly heart-warming to see children reading manga to their parents, and some parents even introducing their own childhood manga to their kids at the dedicated reading zone.

Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance – National Gallery

Bartolomé Bermejo, Desplà Pietà, 1490. Barcelona Cathedral © Catedral de Barcelona (fotógrafo: Guillem F-H)

This free one-room show about an artist I had never heard of took my breath away. Attention in Spanish art is usually given to great seventeenth-century artists like Diego Velázquez, Jusepe de Ribera, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Yet the early fifteenth century also gave rise to Bartolomé Bermejo, a truly phenomenal artist whose creative output aligns more closely with early Netherlandish and Flemish painting. This reduced version of the Museo del Prado’s survey on the artist brought together seven works spanning his entire career, six of which had never been shown in the UK, as well as a related contract from the Spanish archives. The unprecedented loan of Barcelona Cathedral’s Desplà Pietà outside of Spain was an absolute treat to see.

Honourable Mention:

The Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill: Masterpieces from Horace Walpole’s Collection – Strawberry Hill

The Gallery. Photo credit: Kilian O’Sullivan

Although this exhibition opened back in October 2018 (I visited in February 2019) I felt it was too important not to mention!

Curatorially and logistically ambitious, a significant portion of Horace Walpole’s collection returned to their original locations within the Gothic Revivalist ‘castle’ since their dispersal in 1842, a feat that was on par with the Royal Academy of Art’s previous Charles I exhibition. The result was a once-in-a-lifetime, time-travelling experience for historians. Featuring portraits and miniatures by Britain’s finest artists, there were also oddities like a pair of gauntlet gloves worn by James I. Walking through its hallowed halls, there was a very real sense that these objects belonged nowhere else but there, as if they were somehow intrinsic to the architectural interiors.

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