Hockney, Freud, Hirst Exhibits to Lure Art Fans in 2012: Preview

"For the Love of God" (2007) by Damien Hirst. The sculpture, made from platinum, diamonds and human teeth, will be at Tate Modern from April 4 through June 24. Source: Tate via Bloomberg

Three champion British artists line up in London for a grand parade of exhibitions at the start of Olympic year. First out is David Hockney, whose “A Bigger Picture” (Jan. 21-April 9, 2012) will fill the main galleries of the Royal Academy almost entirely with new pictures.

In recent years, Hockney has been hard at work in a quiet corner of East Yorkshire. When asked to paint a portrait of the Queen, he replied that unfortunately he was, “very busy painting England actually, her country.”

He has not only been painting it, he has been drawing it on his iPad and experimenting with a hi-tech medium consisting of high-definition images taken by nine cameras pointing in slightly differing directions. The results, a sort of moving Cubist collage, will be unveiled to the world at the exhibition. The RA recommends booking in advance for this exhibition. Rumor has it that the projected attendance may exceed the previous record at the venue held by one of Hockney’s idols, Claude Monet.

Hockney wasn’t too busy to spend time a decade ago sitting for a portrait by his friend Lucian Freud. The exhibition “Lucian Freud Portraits” (Feb. 9-May 27) at the National Portrait Gallery is the first major showing of the artist’s work since his death last July. The restriction of the title is in reality not much of a limitation since to Freud a picture of just about anything was a portrait, certainly a depiction of a person wearing no clothes (to him, “a naked portrait”).

Personal Portrait

Had Freud lived, this exhibition would have marked his 90th birthday year. As it is, it will be the first opportunity since 2002 to see a retrospective in London of work by a painter who increasingly looks not only like one of the great U.K. artists, but among the most important painters of the past 50 years anywhere. I must, however, declare an interest, since one of the portraits is of me. I’m looking forward to seeing myself for the first time in some years.

Third contestant in this artistic triathlon is Damien Hirst, the first big museum retrospective of whose art will be at Tate Modern (April 4-Sept. 9). Included will be many celebrated -- or notorious, depending on your point of view -- pieces, among them “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991) otherwise known as Hirst’s shark. In the Turbine Hall, meanwhile, will be the sinister yet sparkling “For the Love of God” (2007), the diamond-encrusted platinum skull which, even though there is controversy as to whether the original 50 million pound ($78.5 million) asking price was ever paid, must be the most costly memento mori in art history.

Claude’s Light

After the excitement of the Leonardo extravaganza, things will be quieter on the Old Master front, though “Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude” (March 14-June 5) at the National Gallery might be an intriguing exercise in compare and contrast between the 19th-century British master and his idol, Claude Lorrain.

The main event of the season at Tate Britain is similar in concept: “Picasso and Modern British Art” (Feb. 15 -July 15) will juxtapose the most influential artist of the 20th century with his numerous local admirers. No prizes for guessing which will come out looking best.

The British Museum will be continuing its series on pilgrimages with “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” (Jan. 26- April 15), and in the decorative-art department the Victoria and Albert Museum has “British Design 1948-2012” (March 31-Aug. 12), though whether U.K. goods, fashion apart, have deserved many medals for good looks in recent years is debatable.

In Paris, the Musee d’Orsay has “Degas and the Nude” (March 13-July 1), an investigation of the French master’s professional preoccupation with naked women. While at the Grand Palais “Beaute Animale: De Durer a Jeff Koons” (March 21-July 16) promises to be a treat for lovers of hares, puppies and piglets.

Information: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk; http://www.npg.org.uk; http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/; http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk; http://tate.org.uk/britain/; http://www.britishmuseum.org; http://www.vam.ac.uk; http://musee-orsay.fr; http://www.rmn.fr.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent books are “A Bigger Message: Conversations With David Hockney” and “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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