Our pick of the best exhibitions to see right now in London's galleries and museums. We've split the list into geographical areas to make it easier to plan your cultural day out.
Exhibitions in central London
CREEPY HEADS: One human head has half a dissected sperm whale for ears, and another has two sets of eyes and a mouth that makes the face look like it's glitching. Meanwhile, a meditating human-hare hybrid's ears stretch to the ceiling. Welcome to the downright creepy and surreal world of David Altmejd's sculptures... we are so here for it.
David Altmejd at White Cube, Mason's Yard. Until 21 January, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
FLAMING TREES: Trees are ablaze in the middle of salt flats and wetlands in dramatic photographs, with flames so intense they appear almost painted on. The trees aren't harmed in these cleverly staged and stunning images.
Murray Fredericks: Blaze at Hamiltons Gallery. Until 21 January, free. ★★★★☆ (Monday-Saturday)
PUNCHY PORTRAITS: Intense portraits abound at this exhibition, which brings together four heavyweight painters who all knew each other; Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews. It's quite the line-up and delivers with tender nudes and distorted faces. Andrews was the least familiar to me, and he has some great works here — though they don't quite reach the superlative heights of the other three. If you love portrait painting, this is a must-see.
Friends and Relations at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill. Until 28 January, free. ★★★★★ (Monday-Saturday)
CONFIDENCE & INTIMACY: This exhibition is all about highlighting female artists from the early 1900s to show that Modernism wasn't just a movement of male artists. Käthe Kollwitz is the highlight with her confident self-portraits and tender drawings of intimacy. The other artists in this show have some great works on display but there's just not enough room to fully show off the talents of all seven artists.
Making Modernism at Royal Academy of Arts. Until 12 February, £17-19. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
CHILDREN OF COLOUR: The children of the Asian and African diaspora who were taken into the care of the Foundling Hospital are the subject of this eye-opening exhibition. It shines a light on their stories, as well as the shocking 'fashion' for wealthy British families to have Black page boys, often in a collar, and the use of Asian women to look after their children. It's distressing at times, but this small exhibition is one of the most important this museum has hosted to date.
Tiny Traces at The Foundling Museum. Until 19 February, £9.50. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
OPTICAL ILLUSIONS: An Ames Room which make people appear small at one end and large at the other, and colours and dots that fool the eye are part of this museum filled with optical illusions. If it sounds very funfair-esque, we're glad to report that the science is a key part of the experience, so that visitors can have fun while understanding why our brain sees movement in a still image. With art and museum experiences popping up all over London, this is one of the strongest we've seen.
Twist Museum at 248 Oxford Street. £16.50-£29.50. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
Exhibitions in south London
TOWERING SCULPTURE: You may not have heard of Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, but her huge woven sculptures, spilling out fibres like the innards of corpses, are powerful pieces that deserve greater recognition. She grew up through the second world war and communism, witnessing her mother's arm being severed by a bullet from a Nazi soldier, and the shadow of this can be felt throughout the show. But it's not all darkness as many of her works also reflect a desire to be closer to nature, clearly showing she was ahead of her time. A revelatory exhibition.
Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope at Tate Modern. Until 21 May, £16. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
PLANT POWER: The Garden Museum offers a different take on Lucian Freud from the major exhibition of the artist's work at The National Gallery. There are no fleshy nudes here, but tender portraits with a focus on gardens and the artist's love of plants. A highlight is a view out of the window depicting a chunk of land covered in detritus, with nature still powering through — life finds a way. It's a small show and while not all of it won me over, there are a handful of great paintings that show a subtler side to Freud.
Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits at Garden Museum. Until 5 March, £14 (includes entry to the museum). ★★★☆☆ (Open daily)
EMERGING ART: This annual collection of emerging and early-career artists returns to South London Gallery for a strong showing. Highlights include Meitao Qu's miniature architectural model as a critique of urbanisation, and Beverley Onyangunga's look at mining in Congo and the use of child labour. Emerging art by its very nature is a mixed bag but this year's crop is a cut above the previous two years, which were largely forgettable.
Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2022 at South London Gallery. Until 12 March, free. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
MOON BATHING: Get up close to Luke Jerram's Museum of the Moon — a scale representation of Earth's Moon recreated using high-resolution NASA photography. It's travelled around London but this is its best setting yet, in the grand palatial setting of the Painted Hall. For the the eagle-eyed visitor, there are lunar references to spot within the spectacular painted ceiling too .
Luke Jerram: Museum of the Moon at Old Royal Naval College, Painted Hall. Until 5 February, £12.50. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
OUT OF THIS WORLD: The Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition is an annual highlight, and has an innovative selection of images this time around — even more so than usual. We're used to seeing beautiful aurorae, but an extra-special image depicts the lights shaped like wings, like a phoenix in the sky. There are light trails of cars underneath the Milky Way, a comet breaking apart and a crescent moon next to a Chinese skyscraper. The show is always a treat and this year's selection feels even more impressive.
Astronomy Photographer of the Year at National Maritime Museum. Until 13 August, £10. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
Exhibitions in west London
BLACK, BOLD & BRILLIANT: If you want to see a contemporary artist who really knows how to paint a portrait, visit Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's exhibition at Tate Britain. All her sitters are fictional, which makes these confident portrayals all the more impressive. There are no labels and no descriptions, but each painting (every one of them featuring Black people) is a strong enough statement by itself. If the show sounds familiar, it has been on before, but was cruelly cut short by the second lockdown. Now it's back from touring for a deserved second run at Tate Britain.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly in League with the Night at Tate Britain. Until 26 February, £16. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
FASCINATING VACCINATING: In the first post-Covid exhibition to tackle Covid itself, this free display looks at the race to create a vaccine and the path to get there. It goes from footage of London's empty streets in the early days of the pandemic, to how the vaccine was made and distributed throughout the world, including the battle to get it to the most remote locations. It may not have many eye-catching artefacts on show but it tells arguably the most important story of recent times.
Injecting Hope: The Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine at Science Museum. Until 7 January 2024, free. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
THE LOST RHINO: With the last male Northern White Rhino dead and only two females left, the species is nearly extinct. This fantastic 3D holographic representation of one of the creatures questions whether this is how we'll view them in the future. The exhibition also displays other representations, such as historical sketches of an armoured rhino and a taxidermied specimen, but no actual rhinos, all coming together to ask the existential question of what it is that makes a rhino, a rhino.
The Lost Rhino at Natural History Museum. Until 19 March, free. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)