Midwinter is one of the best times to see good, rewarding art. Here are five shows worth getting off the sofa and putting on your woollies for.
The meaty truthfulness of the great Berlin-born British painter gets a big, sprawling stage in this centenary show. Few modern artists have held their own beside the old masters in the National Gallery as easily. 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 from looking long and hard at another Renaissance painter, Titian. His portraits are unsentimental yet compassionate, carnal 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 civilisation’s gods and myths confounded later generations before the pictorial language 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 part in this quest as it has the same text in three languages and alphabets. This magic key to hieroglyphs is naturally a star exhibit here along with papyri such as the Book of the Dead, which could finally 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 favourite subjects. Warmly dressed peasants dance and celebrate whatever the season in paintings by Pieter the Younger, who imitated the roly poly rustic exuberance of his (admittedly much more brilliant) father, in scenes full of heartwarming humour. Most seasonal of all is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s print The Fat Kitchen – all too true after that Christmas gluttony.
Barber Institute, Birmingham until 22 January
Sophie von Hellerman and Anne Ryan
This free exhibition set against the Turner’s tall, sea-facing window wall is well worth catching. Anne Ryan’s cut out figures dance and swarm with chaotic energy. But it’s Munich-born, Margate-based painter Von Hellerman who really holds the space and seascape with her big, free-flowing fantasies, painted on the spot, full of colour and light to bring the dark days alive.
Turner Contemporary, Margate until 16 April
JMW Turner with Lamin Fofana
It is impossible to imagine any bleaker, 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 yet still obsessed with catching whales are white, blue and ivory wonders of frozen sea, glowing mist and hysterical stranded crews. This exhibition sets some of Turner’s eeriest sea paintings against soundworks by Fofana that remind you of the slave ships that sailed from Liverpool. It all makes for an atmospheric and memorable visit to the Albert Dock, with its dark basin of deep historical water.