When lockdown hit in Spring last year, the art establishment made great efforts to keep inspiring us. From virtual exhibitions to 360-degree tours, galleries across the world did their best to help us enjoy their collections, even if we couldn't visit in person. And we heartily applaud them for that.
But ultimately, however clever the tech, and high-resolution the picture, seeing a digital version of a work of art is never going to compare to the real thing. Not to mention the sights, sounds and sensations of mingling amongst like-minded people, all enjoying art together at a profound and human level.
So it's incredible to think that we're now able to return to our beloved galleries and feast our eyes on some of the world's greatest art, both classic and modern. Read on as we reveal the pick of the 2021 shows for you to reignite your love affair with the world of art.
Dodecalis Luminarium – Corporation Park, Blackburn, Lancashire
Another immersive art experience to help you reconnect with the world of physical art, this time landing in Corporation Park, Blackburn, from Thursday 19 to Sunday 22 August. The Dodecalis Luminarium is a large building-scale creation of air-filled chambers, colour-rich winding paths and an awe-inspiring maze of colour; an otherworldly experience to anyone lucky enough to witness it, inside or out.
Inviting visitors of all ages to explore the changing patterns of light, this is a hugely impressive, precision-engineered feat of 'hide and seek' architecture. Translucent panels and neon-like contour lines of vibrant intensity create stained-glass-window-like effects, while the passages trailing out from a central dome create sensations of both warm, natural, organic experience and the cool, sci-fi futurism of being onboard a spacecraft. And who wouldn't want to experience that?
Van Gogh Alive – Kensington Gardens, London
Thanks to being featured in shows like Emily in Paris, Van Gogh Alive is the hippest exhibition on the planet right now. But it's not just selfie-taking Instagram influencers for whom this London outing is a must-visit. It's an incredible experience for the rest of us, too, as you find yourself surrounded by huge digital projections of the Dutch post-impressionist's canvases, infused with evocative aromas. Expect the visit to take around 60 to 75 minutes. It runs until 26 September, but tickets are already sold out on some dates. This is the one you'll be telling your kids about, so don't leave it too late to book.
Aliza Nisenbaum – Tate Liverpool, Liverpool
Born in Mexico, Aliza Nisenbaum is a New York-based painter best known for her bright, large-scale portraits of community groups. Inspired by the dedication of Liverpool's key workers, the artist has created a series of new paintings of NHS staff from Merseyside who have worked tirelessly for their community during the pandemic.
Sitters include a professor of Outbreak Medicine, a respiratory doctor who became a father during the first wave, and a student nurse who comes from a family of nurses, all of whom chose to return to frontline work during the crisis. The exhibition runs until 5 September.
Grayson's Art Club – Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester
Grayson's Art Club, the popular Channel 4 TV series hosted by Grayson Perry, came into sharp focus during the first lockdown, as thousands of housebound viewers used it as the inspiration to unleash their inner artist. Now comes an exhibition of some of the best results, hand-picked by the artist-presenter himself.
All the works on display are very personal visual representations of lockdown, made by the public, well-known artists and celebrities. This celebration of creativity at a time of national emergency provides a unique record of what's already seeming like a historical epoch. The exhibition runs until 31 October. NOTE: It's free, but you can't just turn up: you have to book a ticket online in advance.
UnTurning, Ambera Wellmann – The Mac, Belfast
There's still time to see UnTurning, an exhibition by Canadian-born and New York-based painter Ambera Wellmann on show at The Mac in Belfast until 8 August. As the gallery puts it, Wellmann's paintings "negotiate the devastation of the present, one in which the cultural logic of heteronormativity and capitalism are naturalised in the human psyche". In her works, you'll see distinctions between human and animal, figure and ground – elusive figures and motifs manifesting in uncanny physical forms.
In her latest body of work, which features fragmented body parts, Wellmann is inspired by The Study of Feet and Hands, 1818–1819 by Théodore Géricault in preparation for his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa of the same year. A fascinating show not to be missed.
Portraits of an LGBTI+ Generation – Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, Glasgow
Since 2019, LGBTI+ Elders Social Dance Clubs, part of The Coming Back Out Ball, have been presented all around the country for the whole rainbow community, creating a welcoming space for this community to come together, share stories and meet new people.
Tiu Makkonen is the photographer in residence with The Coming Back Out Ball project, which organises social dance nights for older LGBTI+ people. This multimedia exhibition, created in collaboration with filmmakers Graeme Roger and Ania Urbanowska, presents ten portraits of some of the participants. Running until Sun 29 August, the exhibition is free, but tickets must be booked in advance from the GOMA website.
Artes Mundi 9 – National Museum Cardiff, Wales
The ninth edition of the critically acclaimed Artes Mundi exhibition and associated prize features work by six artists working in a diverse range of media.
From the Dominican Republic, Firelei Báez's fantastical, colourful and intricate paintings combine visual cues spanning from lavish textiles and wall coverings to calligraphic patterns and beaded jewellery. South African Dineo Seshee Bopape makes powerful, unsettling sculptural installations that utilise everyday, commonplace materials such as bricks or soil, while Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi makes poignant, intense videos that ask questions about how we might engage with, relate to and confront, painful moments within a nation's histories.
The films of Puerto Rican artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz reflect on environmental challenges to communities through economic change. From India, Prabhakar Pachpute creates immersive, large-scale drawings addressing issues of labour, the individual and the collective. And finally, American artist Carrie Mae Weems' work centres on family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the consequences of power. The exhibition runs until 5 September.
New Perspectives: Outside In – Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Since January 2021, young people's group L-INK at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne have come together online to engage in the process of creative collaboration with the aim of co-curating a new display. The resultant exhibition here reflects the varied discussions had between the group as they explored issues surrounding identity in relation to domestic spaces within the confines of their own homes. It runs until May 2022.
Canaletto: Painting Venice – Holburne Museum, Bath, Somerset
The most important set of paintings of Venice by Canaletto, one of the most important members of the 18th-century Venetian school, have left their home at Woburn Abbey, a private art collection, for the first time in more than 70 years. This once in a lifetime exhibition at Holburne Museum in Bath represents, then, a unique opportunity to study 23 beautiful and historically important paintings up close, as well as explore Canaletto's life and work.
Frank Walter: Music of the Spheres – Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh
Yes, it seems difficult to believe, but the Edinburgh Art Festival returns this summer. And as part of this major cultural event, the Ingleby Gallery will present the first-ever exhibition devoted to Caribbean artist Frank Walter's 'spools' – the small circular paintings which, in their consistency of scale and form, provide a kind of lens through which to witness the workings of Walter's inner eye.
Painted with a rare directness and immediacy, on whatever material came most readily to hand, his works describe a visionary artist – romantically and spiritually inclined in the manner of William Blake or Hilma af Klint – but rooted in the landscape of Antigua, the island of his birth.
A Passion for Landscape: Rediscovering John Crome – Norwich Castle Museum, Norwich
Celebrating the bicentenary of one of Britain's great Romantic artists, this is the first major exhibition dedicated to John Crome since 1968. one of the principal artists and founding members of the Norwich School of painters, Crome was a master at capturing the Norfolk landscape, often focusing, with rapid brushstrokes, on the quiet corners, capturing small streams, creaking gates and ancient, gnarled trees. A long-awaited opportunity for the public to reacquaint itself with one of the country's greatest painters, the exhibition runs until 5 September 2021.
Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life – Hepworth Wakefield, Yorkshire
To mark the 10th anniversary of the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire, this is the largest exhibition of sculptor Barbara Hepworth's work (taking place across all ten gallery spaces) to take place since her death in 1975. It will display some of her most celebrated work, including the modern abstract carving that launched her career in the 1920s and 1930s, her iconic strung sculptures of the 1940s and 1950s, and large-scale bronze and carved sculptures from later in her career.
Contemporary artists Tacita Dean and Veronica Ryan have also been commissioned to create new works which will be presented within the exhibition. And Artworks by Bridget Riley from the 1960s will also be presented in dialogue with Hepworth's work from the same period. The exhibition runs until February 2022.