Midwinter is one of the best times to see good, rewarding art. Here are five shows worth getting off the couch and putting on your woollies.
The meaty truth of the great Berlin-born British painter gets a big, sprawling stage in this centenary show. Few modern artists have so easily held their own alongside the old masters in the National Gallery. Freud belongs here. His early works with their hallucinatory precision emulate the objectivity of an earlier German portraitist in England, Hans Holbein, but his later, looser style was forged by looking long and hard at another Renaissance painter, Titian. His portraits are unsentimental, yet compassionate, carnal and yet all about the mystery of consciousness.
National Gallery until 22 January
All ages can enjoy this deep dive into the mysteries of ancient Egypt. This North African civilization’s gods and myths confused later generations before the imagery of the Pharaohs was deciphered in the early 19th century. The Rosetta Stone, discovered during the wars between England and revolutionary France, played a crucial role in this quest as it has the same text in three languages and alphabets. This magical key to hieroglyphs is of course a star exhibit here along with papyri like the Book of the Dead, which could eventually be deciphered once the code was broken. An exhibition that beautifully captures the thrill of discovering lost worlds.
British Museum until 19 February
Pieter Brueghel the Younger
What could be more perfect in winter than the art of the Brueghel family? Snow is one of their favorite subjects. Warmly dressed peasants dance and celebrate whatever the season is in paintings by Pieter the Younger, who imitated the rollicking poly-rustic exuberance of his (admittedly much more brilliant) father, in scenes full of heartwarming humor. Most seasonal of all is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s print The Fat Kitchen – all too true to that Christmas gluttony.
Barber Institute, Birmingham until 22 January
Sophie von Hellerman and Anne Ryan
This free display on the Turner’s tall window wall overlooking the sea is well worth catching. Anne Ryan’s carved figures dance and teem with chaotic energy. But it’s Munich-born, Margate-based painter Von Hellerman who really holds the space and seascape with her large, free-flowing fantasies, painted on location, full of color and light to bring the dark days to life.
Turner Contemporary, Margate until 16 April
JMW Turner with Lamin Fofana
It is impossible to imagine any darker or stranger midwinter than the ice worlds painted by Turner in his great imaginary scenes of Arctic whaling. His paintings of whalers trapped in the ice but still obsessed with catching whales are white, blue and ivory wonders of frozen seas, glowing fog and hysterical stranded crews. This exhibition sets some of Turner’s most eerie sea paintings against sound works by Fofana that remind you of the slave ships that sailed from Liverpool. All this makes for an atmospheric and unforgettable visit to the Albert Dock, with its dark basin of deep historic water.
Tate Liverpool to 4 June