The trend of fewer temporary exhibitions in our museums is becoming established, as the cost of mounting blockbusters escalates beyond even the generous reach of sponsorship. This is in sharp contrast to the commercial galleries, which still put on as many as 10 or 15 different shows a year in the hope of tempting clients to part with their cash. Taking a keen look at forthcoming exhibitions is always a mixed pleasure: the expected counterpointed with the novel, the obvious with the obscure. Thankfully, there are still enough exciting prospects in the public sector to raise the spirits and move us to make a note in the diary.

At the National Gallery the year begins well with Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance (23 February to 30 May), a salute to this little-known Flemish master organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where the show was first displayed. Our National Gallery has a large and distinguished collection of Gossaerts and it will be good to see them thoroughly re-examined and put in context. Enormously accomplished, he was highly thought of by his contemporaries, and Vasari wrote that he was the first ‘to bring the true method of representing nude figures and mythologies from Italy to the Netherlands’.

Over the summer two free displays at the NG focus on Norwegian and Swiss landscapes, and Italian altarpieces before 1500, and then the major autumn show is Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (9 November 2011 to 5 February 2012). Not another Leonardo exhibition, I hear you murmur, but this one concentrates on his paintings rather than his drawings or inventions, and should be worth the cost of admission for the rarity of the exhibits.

At the hydra-headed Tate there are so many new shows (despite the refurbishment of the Millbank premises) that only a very limited selection can be mentioned here: Watercolour at Tate Britain (16 February to 21 August), which purports to be a fresh look at the glorious history of watercolour painting in Britain, but I suspect will be disappointing when it tries to link fashionable contemporary artists to the great tradition; Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape at Tate Modern (14 April to 11 September), presenting a major retrospective of perhaps the greatest of the Surrealists, and an influential figure to this day; The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World at Tate Britain (14 June to 4 September), a welcome scrutiny of Wyndham Lewis’s assault on modernity, the only really avant-garde ism to be predominantly English.

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle is at Tate Liverpool (24 June to 16 October), another popular surrealist re-examined; Gerhard Richter: Panorama at Tate Modern (6 October 2011 to 8 January 2012), a substantial retrospective of arguably the most overrated artist in the world; John Martin at Tate Britain (21 September 2011 to 15 January 2012), a timely reassessment of the prophet of doom and master of the fiery apocalypse — instructive viewing with Western civilisation on its last legs; and finally a celebration of the sculptor Barry Flanagan (1941–2009), who anthropomorphised hares in the pataphysical spirit of Alfred Jarry.

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This year is Dulwich Picture Gallery’s 200th anniversary, and the plan is to show a different masterpiece every month, borrowed from a major international institution in some way linked with the gallery. For instance, in February it will be Velázquez from the Prado, in April El Greco from the Metropolitan in New York, in August a self-portrait from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and in November a David Hockney from the Tate. Will this initiative pull in a new audience to augment the faithful local one? Probably not if our public-transport system gets worse rather than better.

Two blockbusters punctuate and adorn the year at the V&A. The spring extravaganza, The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860–1900 (2 April to 17 July), will examine the truth of art for art’s sake, or, as Emerson said, ‘beauty is its own excuse for being’. Taking the paintings of Rossetti, Whistler and Burne-Jones, and the designs of Godwin, Dresser and Morris, this show should beguile those who like their art with a tinge of decadence. Quite a contrast for the autumn, with Postmodernism: Style & Subversion 1970–1990 (24 September 2011 to 8 January 2012), though a movement which might be characterised as ‘pretension for pretension’s sake’ might actually have more in common with the Aesthetes than is usually expected, if a complete horror of beauty can be fitted into the definition. Or is that too subversive?

The Royal Academy opens with Modern British Sculpture (22 January to 7 April), curated by Penelope Curtis, the new director of Tate Britain. I wonder how much weight will be given to those forgotten heroes of early modernism, Frank Dobson and Leon Underwood? Will this be just a round-up of the usual suspects or a more far-reaching exploration of the radical sculptural development last century, from Moore and Hepworth to Caro and King then on to Flanagan, Long, Deacon, Woodrow et alia? A great opportunity: let’s hope the Academy can grasp it.

Watteau’s Drawings (12 March to 5 June) should be pure delight, concurrent with Esprit et Vérité: Watteau and His Circle at the Wallace Collection; followed at the RA by a photography show featuring Hungarians such as Brassai, Capa and Kertesz (30 June to 2 October). Degas Dancers: Eye and Camera in the main galleries (17 September to 11 December) will examine the intertwined themes of ballet and photography in the master’s subtle art and is a show I look forward to with keen anticipation.

Two new regional museums are opening this year: Turner Contemporary in Margate in April and The Hepworth in Wakefield, which should finally be ready in May. The latter claims to be the largest purpose-built art gallery outside London — we expect great things from both. I’ve seen the plans for the renovated and extended Holburne Museum in Bath, also reopening in May, and they look impressive. The permanent collection has just been augmented with a group of important paintings from the Somerset Maugham bequest, including some superb Zoffanys, while the opening show will be a selection from the collections of Peter Blake, demonstrating how his collecting mania has fed and inspired his art.

At the Hayward, which seems to have become the kiddies’ playground of modern art, the British Art Show arrives on its national tour (16 February to 17 April) to disprove or confirm this reputation. This is followed by a Tracey Emin retrospective (18 May to 29 August), about which I hesitate to prejudice the gentle reader. For more adult fare, there is a substantial assessment of the work of Rebecca Salter (born 1955) at the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut (3 February to 1 May), demonstrating the centrality of drawing to this quietly eloquent abstract artist.

Although the National Portrait Gallery seems completely dominated by photography these days, I do welcome one forthcoming exhibition: Ida Kar, Bohemian Photographer, 1952–68. Kar produced telling portraits of her artist contemporaries, even successfully capturing those who hated being photographed such as Craigie Aitchison.

Meanwhile, at Abbott Hall in Kendal there are a couple of shows of real painters to tempt us up to the Lakes: Sheila Fell (8 April to 25 June) and R.B. Kitaj (9 July to 8 October). With its unparalleled collection, Birmingham Museum has long been a centre for Pre-Raphaelite studies, and in The Poetry of Drawing it presents the largest survey of Pre-Raphaelite designs, studies and watercolours ever attempted (28 January to 15 May); should be stupendous.

Among the forthcoming attractions at the British Museum I am particularly looking forwar
d to is Out of Australia: prints and drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas (26 May to 11 September). The latest in an excellent series of free displays in the Print Room, it covers Australian graphic art from the 1940s to the present, featuring such masters as Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Fred Williams.

Also don’t miss A Collector’s Eye: Cranach to Pissarro at the Walker in Liverpool (18 February to 15 May). I thought private collectors like this modest property developer (a Mr David John Lewis) no longer existed. Thankfully, they do, for the art world needs them now more than ever.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Art, Arts reviews, Calendar, Contemporary art, Exhibitions, Installation, Painting