Sometimes it seems like an enormous digestive tract that processes the data of culture in centuries-long cycles. And sometimes it is newer and more radical than anything one might find among the ephemera of television, film and pop culture. The world of art, as seen in the major Washington museums this spring, functions both ways. Photography looms large, with exhibitions exploring not just its impact on painting, but its historical role as documentary object, and its ongoing influence through the related media of video and virtual art. Looking farther back, important shows will also explore the politics underneath the whimsy of one of the great surrealists, and the role of women in fashioning culture during an era in which their contributions were not readily recognized.

Most anticipated event:Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape” at the National Gallery of Art (opening May 6). Originally seen at the Tate Modern in London last year, this large retrospective of the Spanish artist’s work was enormously popular. Some critics groused about its focus on the political streak in the surrealist’s oeuvre, but they didn’t grouse too loudly. Even skeptics used words like “a blast” and “magnificent.” The show includes some 120 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints. It is likely to be the highlight of the spring season.

Most inescapable: The Civil War, represented in various exhibitions. At this point, 150 years ago, the Union was not doing very well. Victories were few and came at a high cost; defeat and disarray were more common. Several exhibitions of photographs and drawings will document the intersection of war and the nascent discipline of photography, including the Corcoran’s “Shadows of History” (opening Feb. 4), featuring works by Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and the National Portrait Gallery’s Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals” and “The Confederate Sketches of Adalbert Volck” (both opening March 30).

Most likely to skew young:The Art of Video Games” (opening March 16) at the American Art Museum. The exhibition, which include playable versions of some of the classic games of the last four decades (including Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower), takes for granted what it needs to prove: That video games are indeed art. And that will be the exciting test of this exhibition. How does it define art? Bring your skepticism. Bring your kids.

Most surprising event:Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists From the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections,” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (opening Feb. 24). Of course there were female painters, female composers and female “men of letters” during the long and bloody century that saw the end of the old regime and the squalid politics of its aftermath in France. This exhibition, featuring many works not seen before outside France, strives to go beyond the usual names, Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun and Anne Vallayer-Coster, to explore the work of some 35 artists from 1750-1850. If there are surprises to be had this season, this exhibition is likely to contain them — and it should make a nice complement to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” (opening Friday), which also aims to recover the lost history of women’s cultural contribution.

Secret tip: Stay late at work, walk to the Mall, and look at the Hirshhorn. Beginning March 22, the Hirshhorn will project a site-specific video work by Doug Aitken on the entire surface of its 360-degree tubular structure. Current plans include a soundtrack and a visual spectacle that will entice visitors to walk the perimeter off the building (crossing streets, dodging gardens). It is likely to be a beacon of unorthodox thinking on the fusty landscape of the Mall — and a reminder that coming soon (in 2013) the Hirshhorn will open its much-anticipated “bubble,” a seasonal event space designed by Diller Scofidio and Renfro.

Most likely to be worth the money: With so many free museums in town, the Phillips Collection has to work a little harder to get people past the $10-12 (on weekends) admission gate. But “Snapshot: Painters and Photography” is likely to be worth it. The exhibition (opening Feb. 4), organized in conjunction with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Indianapolis Museum of Art, features some 200 photographs and 80 paintings and other works by Pierre Bonnard, Felix Vallotton and Edouard Vuillard. It will also be a bitter postscript to the Kodak (now Eastman Kodak) Co., which helped create the passion for amateur photography with its hand-held camera in 1888 — and declared bankruptcy on Jan. 19.

Jump to: Art | Dance | Film | Theater | Classical | Pop | Museums