The best art exhibitions to see in London in 2016

By Richard Moss and Lauren Cox | 22 December 2015 | Updated: 25 May 2016

Here's Culture24's regularly updated guide to the best exhibitions in London during 2016

Pablo Bronstein, Historical Dances in an Antique Setting (2016)© Pablo Bronstein. Photograph: BrothertonLock

Pablo Bronstein and Paul Nash at Tate Britain

In the Duveen Galleries, The Tate Britain Commission 2016 sees Pablo Bronstein (until October 9) create a new work for the heart of the gallery, which fuses the Argentinian's love of architectural drawing with dance interventions.

One of the greatest painters from the twentieth century, Paul Nash (October 26 2016 – March 5 2017), returns to the gallery. Nash travels from his early symbolism through to his iconic works of the First World War, and his post-war landscape series showcasing his involvement with surrealism. It is a major show, about a major figure.

It's business as usual later this year as the  (September 27 2016 – January 2 2017) heads back home to London with the announcement of the winner on December 5.

At Tate Britain it's all in the concept for Conceptual Art in Britain (1964 – 1979) (until August 29) which features the work of key conceptualists including Keith Arnatt, Conrad Atkinson, Michael Craig-Martin, Hamish Fulton, Margaret Harrison, Susan Hiller, John Hilliard, Richard Long, David Tremlett and Stephen Willats among many others.

And with the British heyday of conceptual art straddling the sixties and seventies, one of the highlights is surely Bruce Maclean, in a fine pair of flares, taking the piss out of plinth-based sculpture – years before the fourth plinth had ever even dreamed of.

The gallery follow up with  (until September 26), which celebrates the “spirited conversation” between early photography and British art. A feast of sumptuous photographs and paintings from the Pre-Raphs, Aesthetic types and British Impressionists awaits you.

Man Ray, Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932). Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper© Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

The new-look Tate Modern and Elton John's rare collection

New art is celebrated at the Tate Modern, which unveiled new galleries and spaces for live performances, video installations and interactive art earlier this year. It even boasts a new viewing platform with 360 views of the London skyline. Created by world-leading architects Herzog & de Meuron, the new extension comes courtesy of the conversion of the old Switch House increasing their display space by 60%.

Later this year, The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection (November 10 2016 - May 7 2017) will publicly exhibit the well-known musician's private, rare and unrivaled collection of vintage prints from the 1920s through to the 1950s together for the first time. The exhibition will showcase the works of more than 50 artists including Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray portraits of Picasso among many others.

a landscape with pink folds of hills in the foreground and blue hills in the distance
Georgia O'Keeffe Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II 1930© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
The major summer exhibition is  (until October 30), which promises to be an in-depth retrospective and the first “important solo institutional exhibition” of the Modernist artist’s glowing landscapes and "feminizing" flower canvasses in the UK for a generation.

Alongside O'Keeffe, the gallery shows Beirut-born Palestinian artist  (until August 21), now based in London, who gets a deserved major retrospective of her work which has evolved from performance and video to major installations and sculptures.

(until November 6) is an exhibition of multi-layered works by the late great Indian narrative painter who embraced tradition and experimentation in equal measure.

The fascinating Afro-Cuban artist and global modernist  (September 14 2016 – January 8 2017) is the subject of the now customary EY Exhibition in the autumn.

Lam, whose work has many elements; East and West, Surrealism and tradition, Africa and the Caribbean, is best known for his polymorphic abstractions that effortlessly fuse Cubism and abstraction with Afro-Cuban religion and traditions. Developed with Centre Pompidou in Paris, it will be the first museum exhibition of Lam’s work in London since 1952.

Tate Modern
sees out the year with a giant of 20th century post war art in one of its new spaces. Robert Rauschenberg (December 1 2016 – April 2 2017) will follow each chapter of the American artist’s six-decade career with major works including “loans that rarely travel”.

Among them will be Rauchenberg’s famous hybrids between painting and sculpture, as well as his graphic screen-prints which signaled his early commitment to political activism.

a dark interior scene with four men around a table
Supper at Emmaus Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 1601© The National Gallery, London

Caravaggio and his influence at the National Gallery

This autumn at the National, Beyond Caravaggio (October 12 2016 – January 15 2017) looks at the way Caravaggio’s work influenced his contemporaries and followers giving rise to the international movement known as ‘Caravaggism’.

Highly significant in the context of Caravaggio’s extended influence across Europe, Maíno’s Adorations: Heaven on Earth (September 28 2016 – January 29 2017) exhibits two masterpieces from Spanish painter Fray Juan Bautista Maíno, influenced by the naturalism of Caravaggio, for the first time in the UK. 

The National hosts the UK's first exhibition to focus on Australia’s significant and distinctive Impressionist movement. Australia’s Impressionists (December 7 2016 – March 26 2017) showcases the four major exponents of Impressionism – Tom Roberts Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder , and John Peter Russell.

Also at the National Gallery, Flower paintings from Holland are celebrated in the (until August 29) collection before an intriguing exhibition by gallery’s artist in residence, George Shaw, reveals the work he has produced (presumably using his customary Humbrol enamel) in response to the collection.
(until October 30) draws on Shaw’s own experience of walking in the forest near his home town as a teenager, with the feeling that "something out of the ordinary could happen at any time there, away from the supervision of adults".

The summer show, (until September 4), attempts to explore the connections between artists and the paintings they possessed. It takes its inspiration from works in the collection once owned by artists including Lucian Freud, Matisse, Degas, Lawrence, Reynolds, and Van Dyck.

Empathy Deck by Erica Scourti (2016) © Erica Scourti, commissioned by Wellcome Collection for 'Bedlam: the asylum and beyond'

Exploring the mind at the Wellcome Collection

Up in Kings Cross The Wellcome Collection’s first new exhibition of 2016, , (until October 16) is an intriguing look at the slippery subject of human consciousness and "the phenomena around its edges".

Coming up is Bedlam: the asylum and beyond (September 15 2016 -  January 15 2017) which explores the complex subject of mental health. Patient art, contemporary artistic responses and archival materials are used to explore the attitudes towards mental illnesses and trace the rise and fall of the asylum through the lens of its proverbial home, Bethlem Royal Hospital.

In keeping with the theme, RawMinds Wanderland (October 20 - October 30) exhibits an installation to explore how, when, where and why our minds wander.

Ragnar Kjartansson and Bedwyr Williams at The Barbican

For summer, the Icelandic artist  (until September 4) offers up his performances, films and paintings for an emotional journey that swings playfully between romantic melancholy and light-heartedness.

Autumn in The Curve sees the immersive and mercurial installations of  (September 29 2016 – January 8 2017) occupy the space for what will undoubtedly be a characteristically oddball take on everyday life and the world at large. 

What makes something vulgar and why is it such a sensitive term? The Vulgar (October 13 2016 - February 5 2017) explores the vulgarity of taste in fashion through the years with historical costume from the renaissance through to contemporary ready-to-wear designs using contributions from leaders in the field. 

The Forth, Clyde and Tay (1961) © UK Crown Copyright, on display in ‘20th Century through Maps’ at the British Library

Maps at the British Library 

The art and science of maps are the focus for the British Library's newest exhibition this Autumn. 20th Century through Maps (November 4 2016 – March 1 2017) includes Cold War, MOD maps re-imagining England as a post-nuclear battleground and Josef Goebbels’ demographic maps of the USA - designed to see at a glance where there were significant concentrations of people with German-Austrian backgrounds.

The British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts (until September 6) marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death and casts new light on how he became the cultural icon he is today through ten key performances.

Expect diary entries, playbills, costumes, the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare’s hand and one of only six authentic Shakespeare signatures, among the many treasures.

There’s another Shakespeare exhibition at Windsor Castle whose  (until January 1 2017) examines aspects of the playwright's life, work and influence, and celebrates his longstanding connection with Windsor and the royal court.

The British Library is also a key location for the London-wide celebration of the 40 years of Punk, with Punk 1976-78 (until September 2016) showcasing a range of fanzines, flyers, recordings and record sleeves from the British Library’s collections alongside rare material from the Jon Savage Archive at Liverpool John Moores University.

Also look out for Utopia at the British Library (until October 2), a free display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery exploring the history of Utopia, featuring an original first edition of the text and handwritten letters by Thomas More.

350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London at the Royal College of Physicians

The one-off exhibition, 'To fetch out the fire': reviving London, 1666, (September 1 - 16 December 16) follows the story of London's 17th century physicians who were almost ruined by the tragic fire and showcases collections that survived the blaze.

Guerilla Girls (2015)© Photo by Andrew Hindraker, courtesy of Geurilla Girls

Contemporary art at the Whitechapel

Guerrilla Girls: Is it even worse in Europe? (October 1 2016 – March 5 2017) explores the representation of artists who are female, gender non-conforming or from Africa, Asia, South Asia and South America. The Guerrilla Girls will display new artwork as part of an archive display at the Gallery following their 1986 poster which states It’s Even Worse in Europe along with new statistics based on information from European museums.

Summer brings the wildly colourful canvasses of Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures (until August 21) in which the Californian, New York based artist has added her trademark ceramic sculptures, chairs and even a film.

The post minimalist works of fellow American, Keith Sonnier's Light Works (until September 11), make for a refreshingly vibrant summer at the Whitechapel Gallery.

The way artists engage with the rapidly expanding cities of the Arab Region is explored in Imperfect Chronology: Mapping the Contemporary II (23 August 2016 – 8 January 2017) with a collection of modern and contemporary Arab Art from Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Etel Adnan, Marwa Arsanios, Ali Cherri among many  others.

The Whitechapel Gallery is transformed into a magazine spread at this joyous live event, Samson Kambalu: Introduction to Nyau Cinema (August 23 2016 – January 8 2017), where the Malawi-born artist showcases black and white films, inspired by cinema and rituals from his upbringing, alongside his writings.

Autumn at the Whitechapel sees a major exhibition with six large-scale installations from South African Artist, William Kentridge: Thick Time (September 21 2016 – January 15 2017), including an immersive collaborative work with designers from all over the world, to explore time, colonialism and the revolution.

Perceptions of the world are altered by Alicja Kwade (September 28 2016 – June 25 2017) as her installation defies the conventional understandings of time and space by manipulating and converting common materials into extraordinary art.

a pencil portrait of a woman's face
Winifred Knights, Self-portrait, 1920, Pencil on tracing paper © Trustees of the British Museum.© Trustees of the British Museum. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Winifred Knights and Adriaen van de Velde in Dulwich

Dulwich Picture Gallery has another great painting show lined up for the summer with (until September 18), which brings together the great paintings of one of the most original, pioneering British artists of the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition will reunite all her completed paintings for the first time since their creation, including the apocalyptic Modernist masterpiece The Deluge (1920).

Coming up later this year, Adriaen van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape (October 12 2016 - January 15 2017) is the first ever exhibition dedicated to one of the finest landscape artists of the Dutch Golden Age and showcases 60 works including the accompanying notes to gain a glimpse into the artist at work.

Auguste Rodin, Dance Movement C (1911). Terracotta, 34.3 x 18.1 cm© Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Rodin's dancers at the Courtauld Gallery

Rodin & Dance: The Essence of Movement (October 20 2016 – January 22 2017) sees out the year with the first major exhibition to explore Rodin’s fascination with dance and bodies in extreme acrobatic poses and focuses on the series of small scale experimental sculptures known as the Dance Movements, which were found in the artist’s studio after his death.

The big summer show is an intriguing one, featuring the bold colours, fluid forms and dense rich patterns of Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings (until September 25).

Georgiana Houghton was a Spiritualist medium who, in the 1860s and 70s, produced an astonishing series of largely abstract watercolours. Detailed explanations on the back of the works declare that her hand was guided by various spirits, including several Renaissance artists, as well as higher angelic beings.

Whatever their inspiration they appear to anticipate the abstraction of early 20th century art by several decades.

At the Courtauld Gallery, Regarding Trees (until September 25) displays drawings, ranging from the early sixteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries, which explore artists’ enduring fascination with the tree.

The Rolling Stones at the Saatchi Art Gallery

At the Saatchi Art Gallery, summer sees The Rolling Stones roll down High Street Ken and into the gallery for (until September 4), which combines over 500 original Stones' artifacts, with "striking cinematic and interactive technologies", to offer the most comprehensive insight into the band's fascinating fifty year history.

Backed by Mick, Keef, Ronnie and Charlie, it features never-before-seen dressing room and backstage paraphernalia, rare instruments, original stage designs, iconic costumes, rare audio tracks and video footage as well as personal diaries, poster and album cover artwork. 

Installation view of Carmel Buckley and Mark Harris: Sparrow Come Back Home© Courtesy of Carmel Buckley and Mark Harris

From calypso art ICA to Latin American art at the South London Gallery

The ICA end the year with Carmel Buckley and Mark Harris: Sparrow Come Back Home (December 6 2016February 5 2017) highlighting the depth of calypso culture with representations of Mighty Sparrow's body of work and archival material relating to Trinidadian social and political issues. 

In Autumn, the ICA presents a major solo exhibition by artist James Richards (b. 1983) (September 21 2016 – November 20 2017), recognising the significance of his unique approach to sound and video work among a generation of British artists.

Also worth checking at the ICA are the Fox Reading Room displays, which includes
Detroit: City of Techno (until 2 October), which takes a studied look at Detroit in the late 1970s and 1980s and the musical and environmental influences behind its early experiments with techno.

The displays in the Fox Reading Room also include Fluorescent Chrysanthemum (October 4 2016 – November 27 2016), which showcases experimental Japanese art, including fluorescent sculptures and abstract graphics, by contemporary artists from an exhibition at the ICA in 1968 highlighting the gallery's rich heritage.

During the Summer, the ICA presents the first solo exhibition with British stylist and accessories designer, Judy Blame (b.1960) (until September 11), revealing his distinct make-do-and-mend aesthetic that made him a key part of the Punk movement and subsequent 80s club scene, acknowledging him as one of the most influential designers today.

South of the river, on the Peckham Road, the “elegant” South London Gallery has an intriguing summer show,  (until September 4), which brings together highlights from the Guggenheim - New York’s collection of recently acquired Latin American works -  spanning installation, painting, performance, photography, sculpture, and video.

Vintage prints and feminism at The Photographers' Gallery

At The Photographers' Gallery, Terence Donovan, Speed of Light (until September 25) features the iconic photographer's classic and well-known vintage prints, rarely seen video works, magazine spreads, notes, sketches and photography gear.

Dandyism and Black Masculinity (until September 25) is Ekow Eshun's exploration of photographers whose imagery depicts black masculinity as performance, play and invention.

In the main gallery this Autumn, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s (October 7 2016 - January 8 2017) highlights the time when women's equality and civil rights were challenged through photo, performance and film.  

William Eggleston, Untitled (c.1975) (Marcia Hare in Memphis, Tennessee) © Eggleston Artistic Trust

From William Eggleston at the NPG to Fox Talbot at the Science Museum    

At the National Portrait Gallery, William Eggleston, Portraits, (until October 23) features 100 works surveying the photographer's entire career from the 1960s to the present day and is the most comprehensive display of his portrait photography ever.

The big autumn show at the NPG is Picasso Portraits (October 6 2016 – February 5 2017) which is a major exhibition of over eighty works focusing on Picasso’s portrayal of family, friends and lovers.

In the Science Museum's Media Space, they are taking us back to the beginning with Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph (until September 11), a major new exhibition about the photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot, drawing on one of the world’s most comprehensive and important collections of his work.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius (until September 4) is a must see exhibition in the museum where the facts and misconceptions of the renaissance's genius can be investigated.

Maurice Antony, James Ensor Surrounded by his Paintings (June 22 1937)© - Art in Flanders vzw / (c) DACS 2016

James Ensor at the RA

Autumn at the RA ushers in an intriguing James Ensor exhibition curated by one of our foremost painters.   (October 29 2016 – January 29 2017) features some of the 19th century Belgian painter’s most theatrical, satirical and macabre paintings selected by his contemporary Belgian admirer.

Alongside, the RA takes a world view of one of the most artistic movements, in  (September 24 2016 – January 2 2017), which features works by Kline, Pollock, Rothko, Newman, Still, de Kooning, Smith, Reinhardt and Gorky, as well as lesser-known – but no less influential – artists.

The Royal Academy’s Hockney landscapes exhibition was one of the most talked about painting shows of 2012, and the great man returns in 2016 for  (until October 2). After immersing himself in the Yorkshire landscape Hockney took a rest from painting, returned to LA where he eventually rediscovered his passion for portraiture.

The show features his subjects – all friends, family and acquaintances – including office staff, fellow artists, curators and gallerists such as John Baldessari and Larry Gagosian. Each work is the same size, showing his sitter in the same chair, against the same vivid blue background and painted in the same time frame of three days.

If it provokes even a smidgen of the excitement caused by the landscapes show, it will be a smash. 

Installation view of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Knickers, embroidery and music at the V&A

(until March 12 2017) sees the V&A return to fashion for a show that promises to be sensual and full of sexual appeal.

The exhibition explores the enduring themes of innovation and luxury with more than 200 examples of underwear from the 18th century to present day. Work by dress reformers and designers, who argued for the beauty of the natural body, as well as entrepreneurs and inventors who have played a critical role in the development of increasingly more effective underwear will be on show.

In the autumn, (October 1 2016 – February 5 2017) looks at the art of luxurious English embroideries that were the hallmark of English craftsmen in the medieval period. As well as the exquisite craftsmanship of the pieces the exhibition will explore the world in which they were created.

And while the rest of London celebrates punk, the V&A heads back to the previous decade for  (September 10 2016 – February 26 2017), which is a major exhibition examining the optimism, ideals and aspirations of the late 1960s, expressed through music, fashion, film, design and political activism.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, installation view, Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf (September 10 – November 6 2005)© Marc Camille Chaimowicz and the Cabinet, London

Autumn at Serpentine Gallery

A new exhibition for later this year, Marc Camille Chaimowicz: An Autumn Lexicon (September 29 2016 - November 20 2016), showcases paintings, sculpture and photography from the increasingly influential artist. A large installation, combining art historical references with glam rock popular culture, with coloured lights and a soundtrack will also be on show.

Over in the Serptentine Sackler Gallery, Helen Marten: Drunk Brown House (September 29 2016 - November 20 2016) presents ambiguous sculpture, paintings and text never before displayed in London. Similarly to Chaimowicz, an installation conceived specifically in relation to the Gallery will be on show.

Both artists are inspired by the natural surroundings and history of the Serpentine which was converted from a 1930s park café to a gallery in 1970.

Fashion at the FTM and Buckingham Palace

At the Fashion and Textile Museum, Missoni Art Colour (until September 4) explores the creative process of Italian fashion house Missoni and showcases over 60 years of fashion alongside paintings by leading 20th century European artists.

1920s Jazz Age Fashion & Photographs (September 23 2016 – January 15 2017)
presents a selection of more than 150 garments, illustrations and photographs from the decade after the Great War which offered women a completely new style. The exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum reveals the glamour and excess of the era.

Fashioning a Reign (until October 2) showcases 90 years of style from the Queen's wardrobe and exhibits more than 150 of her outfits at The Queen's Gallery, in Buckingham Palace. Her support of British couture and is highlighted by pieces created by renowned designers, including Sir Norman Hartnell, Sir Hardy Amies and Ian Thomas.

Also The Queen's Gallery (until October 9) brings together paintings, drawings and miniatures collected by monarchs from George III to Queen Victoria.

As part of the royal collection, (until October 9) features the exquisite butterfly studies made by the German artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian when, in 1699, she set sail for Suriname, in South America.

On show in the Buckingham Palace later this year, Portrait of the Artist (November 4 2016 - April 23 2017) showcases self-portraits by world-renowned artists including Rembrandt, Rubens, Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucian Freud and David Hockney together with images of artists by their friends, relatives and pupils, including the most reliable surviving likeness of Leonardo da Vinci by his student, Francesco Melzi.

Have we missed something? Leave a comment below.

Explore more of our regional guides:

The best exhibitions to see in the East of England in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in the Midlands in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in the North in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in Scotland in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in the South East in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in the South West in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in Wales in 2016
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