David Hockney chronicled the arrival of spring on his iPad from his Normandy home © David Hockney

For much of the past year, exhibitions in museums and galleries have been like magnificent mirages: they gleam alluringly in the distance, but as soon as we approach . . . 

The closures and cancellations have been frustrating. For us as viewers, though, they have proved one thing beyond question — that despite all the valiant efforts of online programmes, our appetite for seeing works of art in the flesh is undiminished. Those of us lucky enough to catch some of the great exhibitions that did manage to open in 2020 often found ourselves half-overwhelmed by the experience. It was as if we had been re-sensitised by temporary deprivation. And the crowd control imposed by Covid has proved, perhaps ironically, to be an added pleasure.

So what will 2021 bring, in terms of great exhibitions, in the shining, post-vaccinated future now on the horizon? Some of last year’s events were delayed — the Venice Biennale of Architecture, for instance, plans to stage its cancelled 2020 edition this coming year, which will mean the next biennale of art will be in 2022. There have also been predictions that Covid will spell the end of the blockbuster show, those mighty assemblages of work from all over the world that — although spectacular — are extremely heavy on resources and only work financially with big crowds and international tourism. 

Yet because such shows are usually several years in the planning, we are still seeing hopeful programmes devised in happier times. They might or might not happen as planned but will probably happen in some form, at some point. No one knows exactly what the year will bring and since this writer’s crystal ball is in the shop for repairs, all we can report are the best intentions of some of the world’s great institutions.

Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Chimpanzee’ (1957) © David Heald

In London, where museums and galleries are currently closed, the Royal Academy of Art plans Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, promising a spectacular showing of canvases that reveal the great painter’s obsession with our animal nature. Bacon investigated humanity by portraying it stretched to its primal limits: look forward to a parade of apes, dogs, bulls, contorted birds of prey — and, of course, biped mammals too. 

The RA also hosts David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020, which was shown in Paris last year. During lockdown at his home in Normandy, Hockney documented the new season with 116 iPad images printed on to paper that must surely count as one of the most joyous outcomes of the Covid year.

Paula Rego’s ‘The Dance’ (1988) © Paula Rego

At Tate Britain, meanwhile, 2021 should bring a diverse programme, of which two stand out. Paula Rego, still with us at 85, is a classic in her own lifetime. A Portuguese artist who adopted Britain as her home, her fierce portrayals of life — often women’s lives — draw on her native roots or delve into quasi-mythologised yet psychologically acute illuminations of the human condition. This is supposedly the largest and most comprehensive showing of this artist: a treat in store.

And The Making of Rodin, a collaboration with the Musée Rodin in Paris, focuses on the humbler side of the great sculptor’s practice: the thousands of plaster pieces created sometimes as maquettes for the more magisterial stone or bronze works, but sometimes for themselves. Their display of the artist’s speed and skill, the conjuring of likeness in a few rough plaster slabs, is thrilling.

Study for ‘The Thinker’ (1881) by Auguste Rodin © Musée Rodin

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is now open, with limited access by timed ticket, and ongoing shows include work from across the world. Notably, two chef d’oeuvre exhibitions: Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, and In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met. There is a rich hoard planned for 2021, including a first Met appearance for the American painter Alice Neel, who died in 1984, and whose haunting, enigmatic works are now hotly in demand. Next year also brings, with the Met’s usual sweep across time and genre, Goya’s Graphic Imagination and New Woman Behind the Camera, a celebration of dozens of sometimes overlooked or little-known female photographers.

At New York’s Museum of Modern Art, too, photography is due for a fascinating showing this year with Fotoclubismo, assembling the startling work of a group of amateur Brazilian photographers, who from 1946 to 1964 created a vivid insight into the country’s postwar flowering. Just as brilliantly enjoyable will be Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start. Nothing the great American sculptor did was ever less than enthralling, as he used his medium to experiment with space and movement. MoMA was his first home, and holds a trove of commissioned pieces.

MoMA holds a trove of Alexander Calder pieces, such as this 1927 work in wire, a tribute to entertainer Josephine Baker © MoMA

Across the world, important galleries are in suspension, waiting like caged creatures to be released from their various lockdowns. In some cities, such as Hong Kong, commercial galleries manage to stay open despite everything and their fine exhibitions are always worth seeing. Some artistic centres have fared better: Lagos, for instance, an exciting and fast-growing scene, recently held one of 2020’s few in-real-life art fairs with Art X Lagos, and its galleries remain open. For 2021, the magnificent Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town is planning a large-scale exhibition of Tracey Rose, entitled Shooting Down Babylon. The dynamite South African uses the body and performance, as well as film and photography, sculpture painting and print, to explore her explosive themes of post-colonialism and identity.

Tracey Rose explores explosive themes of post-colonialism and identity at her Cape Town exhibition © Zeitz MOCAA

Finally, a beacon of real hope for the coming year. Paris is about to witness the opening of a grand-scale project, many years in the making: the historic Bourse de Commerce, a circular Belle Époque building in full Parisian high style in the heart of Les Halles, has been remade by luxury goods billionaire and art collector François Pinault — with the genius of Japanese architect Tadao Ando — into an enormous contemporary art venue. With a towering glass domed roof at its centre, it is a remarkable feat of outward renovation and internal modernisation. Pinault adds this to an impressive portfolio of private museums: the Punto della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi in Venice already focus on the display of his collections. His grand new venture makes the French capital unique in the scale and ambition of its private contemporary art palaces, joining the (Jean Nouvel-designed) Fondation Cartier and the (Frank Gehry-designed) Fondation Louis Vuitton, among others. The opening is January 23, undeterred (at the time of writing) by a mere pandemic.

Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you listen


Get alerts on Visual Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article