The best art exhibitions to see in London in 2016

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

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

a semi abstract painting of wrecked German planes in a field
Paul Nash, Totes Meer, Death Field, 1940-1© Tate

Paul Nash and the Pre-Raphaelite photographers at Tate Britain

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 Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age (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.

Meanwhile 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. Later in the year it's business as usual as the Turner Prize Exhibition (September 27 2016 – January 2 2017) heads back home to London with the announcement of the winner on December 5.

Autumn sees one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century painters return to the gallery for a major exhibition that will be one of several great painting shows in London in 2016.

Paul Nash (October 26 2016 – March 5 2017)
will journey from his early symbolism through the iconic works of the First World War, the interwar period and his involvement with Surrealism and his post-war landscape series. A major show, about a major figure.

a photo of a red celluloid object in a wire basket
Mona Hatoum, Cellules (detail), 2012-2013© Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris © Photo Sébastien Normand

Georgia O'Keeffe and the new look Tate Modern

Over the water at Tate Modern it’s a truly whopping great year with new galleries and spaces effectively heralding a new Tate Modern. Created by world-leading architects Herzog & de Meuron, the new extension comes courtesy of the conversion of the old Switch House and will increase Tate Modern’s display space by 60%.

The new look Tate Modern will be unveiled with a complete re-hang, presenting new international perspectives on modern and contemporary art on June 17 2016.

On the exhibition front the gallery starts off with a show all about marketing, art, self-promotion, identity and, inevitably, selfies.  (until June 12) explores the relationship between photography and performance via the work of some big hitters like Cindy Sherman, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein and Yayoi Kusama.

Next up is the Beirut born, Palestinian, London-based artist Mona Hatoum (until August 21) – who gets a deserved major retrospective of her work which has evolved from performance and video to major installations and sculptures.

The major summer exhibition is Georgia O’Keeffe (July 6 – 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.
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
Alongside O'Keeffe, the gallery shows Bhupen Khakhar (June 1 – November 6) an exhibition of mutli-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 Wilfredo Lam (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 the Combines; Rauchenberg’s famous hybrids between painting and sculpture, as well as his graphic screenprints 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

Carravagio at the National - States of Mind at the Wellcome

Spring at the National Gallery brings Dutch Flowers (until August 29) which celebrates flower paintings from Holland in the collection before an intriguing exhibition by the National Gallery’s artist in residence, George Shaw, reveals the work he has produced (presumably using his customary Humbrol enamel) in response to the collection.

George Shaw: My Back to Nature (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, Painters' Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck (June 22 – 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.

For autumn 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’.

At The Barbican the first artist in 2016 to take a tilt at their famously curved art gallery, The Curve, is Pakistani artist Imaran Qureshi whose  (until July 10) is a series of exquisite miniature paintings, drawing upon The Curve as a motif.

In the main art gallery  (until June 19 2016) is a vibrant portrait of modern Britain seen through the lenses of international artists - wryly curated by Martin Parr.

For summer the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson (July 14 - 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 Bedwyr Williams (September 29 – January 8) occupy the space for what will undoubtedly be a characteristically oddball take on everyday life and the world at large. 

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

The Wellcome's early summer exhibition, This Is A Voice (until July 31) is an acoustic journey exploring the human voice through emotions, intonations and meaning with the help of a diverse range of artists ranging from Laurie Anderson and Marcus Coates to Meredith Monk and Henry Chopin.

Later this year, Bedlam: The asylum and beyond (September 15 2016 - January 15 2017) traces the rise and fall of the asylum through the lens of its proverbial home, Bethlem Royal Hospital. Patient art, contemporary artistic responses and archive material help tell the story.

a painted portrait of an Elizabethan man with beard
Portrait of Richard Burbage© by Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Shakespeare back from the dead at the British Library

Over the road, 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.

The art and science of maps are then the focus of 20th Century through Maps (November 4 2016 – March 1 2017), which 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 is also a key location for the London-wide celebration of the 40 years of Punk, with Punk 1976-78 (May to 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 (May 24 – 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.

a photo of a corner of a book with a doodle of an Elizabethan galleon in the corner
From the Private Library of John Dee, Cicero, Opera, Omnia Vol 2, with ship drawing. © RCP and John Chase

John Dee's Lost Library magically re-appears

Staying on the books theme, one of the most hotly anticipated exhibitions of the year is at the Royal College of Physicians where Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee (until July 29) is delving into the personal library of the Elizabethan courtier, mathematician, magician, astronomer, astrologer, imperialist, alchemist and spy. Complete with his magical accouterments and doodles.

There’s another Shakespeare exhibition at Windsor Castle whose Shakespeare in the Royal Library (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.

Down in the East End, The Whitechapel continues its exploration of the theme of technologies for the latest installment of their ongoing  Artists’ Film International programme featuring Eva and Franco Mattes whose Dark Content Episodes 1, 2, 3 (2015) is a series of videos about Internet content moderators. Tor Jørgen van Eijk also weighs in with some analogue computer feedback to create a a kind of dark techno rave backdrop film. (both until June 5)

Karin Sander, Igor Jesus and Igor Bošnjak (June 7 - August 7) then pick up the baton with a trio of filmworks including some arty, scratchy archive stuff and a Tarkovsky-esque topographical exploration of a single oil painting.  

Summer brings the wildly colourful canvasses of Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures (June 8 - August 21) in which the Californian, New York based artist has added her trademark ceramic sculptures, chairs and even a film.

Alongside, the post minimalist light works of fellow American Keith Sonnier's Light Works (June 10 - September 11) will make for a refreshingly vibrant summer at the Whitechapel.

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 in Dulwich - Botticelli at the Courtauld

Dulwich Picture Gallery has another great painting show lined up for the summer with Winifred Knights (1899-1947) (June 8 - 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).

While you're there Making Discoveries: Ruben's Ghost (until July 3) is the latest display to look beneath the paint, this time via a life-size X-ray of the Gallery’s painting Venus, Mars and Cupid by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.

At The Courtauld Gallery, Regarding Trees (June 18 – September 25) display of drawings, ranging from the early sixteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries, explores artists’ enduring fascination with the tree.

Abstract watercolour with mesh of white contour-like lines
Georgiana Houghton, Glory be to God, c.1868© Victorian Spiritualists' Union Melbourne, Australia

Georgiana Houghton's Spirit Drawings and The Rolling Stones

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

Georgiana Houghton (b. 1814) 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.

Rodin’s Dancers 1900 – 1917 (October 20 – January 22) 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.

At the Saatchi Art Gallery, summer sees The Rolling Stones roll down High Street Ken and into the gallery for Exhibitionism (until September 4), which combines over 500 original Stones' artefacts, 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. 

a photo of a woman wearing a white cloak, fur collar and balaclava helmet in a road tunnel
French Elle, 1 September 1966, 'Du Nouveau sous le nouveau tunnel' Fashion by Cardin© Archives Elle/HFA Courtesy of the Terence Donovan Archive

Judy Blame at the ICA - Terence Donovan at the Photographers' Gallery

In April Chinese artist Guan Xiao (b.1983) (April 20 – June 19) brings his sculpture and video exploring ways of seeing and their influenced by digital image circulation ti the gallery

During the Summer, the ICA presents the first solo exhibition with British stylist and accessories designer, Judy Blame (b.1960) (June 29 –  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.

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

Also worth checking at the ICA are the Fox reading Room displays, which includes
Detroit: City of Techno (26 July – 2 October) takes a studied look at Detroit in the late 1970s and 1980s and the musical and environmental influences behind its early experiments with techno.

South of the river, on the Peckham Road, the “elegant” South London Gallery has an intriguing summer show, Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today (June 10 - 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.

At The Photographers' Gallery, Terence Donovan, Speed of Light (July 15 - September 25) features the iconic photographer's classic and well-known vintage prints, rarely seen video works, magazine spreads, notes, sketches and photography gear.

a black and white photograph of two men duplicated twice to make four in the garden of house with photography equipment.
William Henry Fox Talbot and Nicolaas Henemann at the Reading Establishment, 1846. © National Media Museum, Bradford

Fox Talbot at the Science Museum - Picasso at the NPG

The  (until June 26) showcases the work of the four hopefuls, Laura El-Tantawy, Erik Kessels, Trevor Paglen and Tobias Zielony and Made You Look, Dandyism and Black Masculinity (Jul 15 - Sep 25 2016) is Ekow Eshun's exploration of photographers whose imagery depicts black masculinity as performance, play and invention.  

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.

In the Guildhall Art Gallery, they showcase the work of the City of London’s photographer-in-residence since 2013, for Unseen City: Photos by Martin Parr (until July 31) as he captures the pomp, ceremony and unguarded moments in the City of London. 
The National Portrait Gallery’s (until June 26) is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a selection of masterpieces on loan from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow focussing on the golden age of Russian artistic and literary production between 1867 and 1914.

William Eggleston, Portraits, (July 21 - 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 is Picasso Portraits (October 6 2016 – February 5 2017) a major exhibition of over eighty works focusing on Picasso’s portrayal of family, friends and lovers.

a painting of a man in pink trousers, kipper tie and trilby seated in a chair
David Hockney Barry Humphries, 26th, 27th, 28th March 2015 Acrylic on canvas© David Hockney. Photo, Richard Schmidt

Hockney back at the RA - Botticelli at the V&A

A short hop away, The Royal Academy’s (until June 15) is a focused survey of the Venetian Renaissance during the first decade of the sixteenth century with around 50 works by celebrated artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Sebastiano del Piombo and Lorenzo Lotto. The exhibition also considers the influence of Albrecht Dürer who visited Venice in 1505 – 6.

The RA’s Hockney landscapes exhibition was one of the most talked about painting shows of 2012, and the great man returns in 2016 for David Hockney RA: 79 Portraits and 2 Still Lifes (July 2 – 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.

Autumn at the RA ushers in an intriguing James Ensor exhibition curated by one of our foremost painters.  Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans (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 New York of artistic movements, in Abstract Expressionism (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.

Beauty is the theme at The V&A whose  (until July 3) explores the enduring impact of the Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) from the Pre-Raphaelites to today.

a black and white photo of a young man in dungarees
Paul Strand, Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France, 1951.© Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation
Knickers at the V&A - Giacomo Manzù at the Estorick

y (until July 3)
is a major retrospective of the work of American photographer and film maker, Paul Strand (1890-1976), and the first in the UK since the artist’s death.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (until March 12 2017) sees the V&A return to fashion for a show that promises to highlight its sensual, sexual appeal.

The exhibition explores dress reformers and designers who argued for the beauty of the natural body, as well as entrepreneurs, inventors and innovators who have played a critical role in the development of increasingly more effective and comfortable underwear.

In the autumn Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery (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 You Say You Want a Revolution: Records & Rebels 1966-70 (September 10 2016 – February 26 2017) a major exhibition examining the optimism, ideals and aspirations of the late 1960s, expressed through music, fashion, film, design and political activism.

At the Fashion and Textile Museum, Missoni Art Colour (until September 4) explores the creative process of Italian fashion house Missoni and the textiles of Ottavio and Rosita Missoni in the context of 20th century fine art.

At The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace Scottish Artists 1750-1900: From Caledonia to the Continent (until October 9) brings together paintings, drawings and miniatures collected by monarchs from George III to Queen Victoria.

Maria Merian's Butterflies (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.

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.

Finally, 2016 has already been another vintage year at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in Camden, where The Experience of Colour Astrazione Oggettiva (until July 31 2016) reveals how, in the 1970s, a group of painters from Italy’s northern Trentino region published their ‘Manifesto of Objective Abstraction’.

As well as reacting against what they considered to be the superficiality of contemporary culture, Mauro Cappelletti, Diego Mazzonelli, Gianni Pellegrini, Aldo Schmid, Luigi Senesi and Giuseppe Wenter Marini came up with a disciplined yet abstract  approach to colour and its optical and perceptual effects.

From August 2016 the Estorick and its gardens will undergo extensive renovation, reopening in January 2017.

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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