Unmissable shows of 2009

    lan well for February. I do not recall a month with quite as many unmissable shows unveiled at once. Tate Britain, which has been in startlingly good form of late, opens its annual account with a gorgeous-sounding examination,Van Dyck and Britain(February 18-May 17).

    Was there ever a better portraitist than Van Dyck? Others were deeper than him, yes, but for sheer brilliance of touch and the ability to find an arresting likeness, he has no peers. His best work was done in Britain, too.

    Later in the spring, the V&A will be mounting an ambitious survey of baroque art, Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence(April 4-July 19), in which second helpings of Van Dyck will be on offer.

    Tate Modern’s mouthwatering February treat is a show devoted to the Russian constructivist couple Alexander RodchenkoandLyubov Popova, Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism(February 12-May 17). Nothing in modern art is quite as revolutionary as the revolutionary art produced in Russia after 1917, and these two were at the forefront of the most radical developments. Look out for Rodchenko’s film posters and Popova’s constructivist paintings.

    Picasso’s debt to earlier artists, which was huge, is the subject of a fascinating-sounding survey heading for the National Gallery. Picasso: Challenging the Past (February 25-June 7) sees him go mano a mano with assorted masters he admired and wished – you feel – to conquer. The greatest tussle was with Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Picasso locked himself away for months as he kept painting and repainting his versions.

    Admirers of the early days of modernism – and who in their right mind is not one of those? – should also note that the Estorick Collection is celebrating the 100th anniversary of futurism with Unique Forms: The Drawing and Sculpture of Umberto Boccioni (January 14-April 19).

    Modern architecture of the same heroic heft is examined in Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture (Barbican, February 19-May 24), an extravaganza examining the career of the modernist maestro. Still with architecture, and, indeed, still with the modern – though of an ancient sort – how excellent that the Royal Academy is reliving the career of the thoroughly progressive and monumentally influential Andrea Palladio (1508-80). Most of our greatest Stuart and Georgian architecture owes its simplicity and clarity to his example (Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy, January 31-April 13).

    The British Museum’s February delight for us is Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran (February 19-June 14), a look back at a fantastical Persian emperor whose court commissioned some of the most beautiful and playful Islamic art the world has seen. Anyone foolish enough to believe Islamic art has always been austere and joyless should see what immense pleasureableness was searched for in the past, when Islamic art was truer to its roots than it is today. Note the carpets in particular. Later, the BM has another stupendous display of bling for us, a show devoted to the Aztec emperor Moctezuma (from September 24).

    Having recently tackled Chinese art, the newly global Charles Saatchi is planning Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East (February 5-May 6). As this is a thoroughly obscure stretch of artistic terrain, surprises are guaranteed. I’m also looking forward to the first survey of Ger-hard Richter Portraits(February 26-May 31) at the National Portrait Gallery. Oh, and theWhitechapel Gallery, which has been closed for ages, reopens in April. Hurrah.

    How unfortunate, though, that sterling’s great plunge should have occurred just as a particularly fine year of international art skips into view. In other epochs, I would have advised you to book quickly for various excellent journeys; but, as we need to ration our travel, you should know at least that the first show devoted to Van Gogh and the Colours of the Night (February 13-June 7) opens in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, starry, starry night and all. In the most moving letter he ever wrote, Vincent revealed how he saw the stars as the souls of dead poets and artists; and how fiercely he wished to join them. The quickest way to do that, he concluded presciently, was to commit suicide.

    The second foreign unmissable is the Venice Biennale (June 7-November 22). It is the Olympics of art and its World Cup, with the Cannes festival thrown in. Anyone with the tiniest interest in modern art has to see it.