Frequently referred to as “the Mona Lisa of the Middle Ages”, The lady and the unicorn tapestries have entranced viewers since they were unveiled in the 15th century. Regarded as national treasures in France, the medieval artworks have inspired books, songs, even films, regularly appearing in the Harry Potter series (they hang in Gryffindor Tower).

“I’m still in a state of shock about the unicorns coming here,” says AGNSW director Michael Brand. “They were created 500 years ago yet have left France only three times. It’s hard to imagine anything of more mysterious beauty.”

Chief curator of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, Mami Kataoka, is directing the 21st Biennale of Sydney, which the AGNSW will co-host from March 16. It will include Hong Kong artist Samson Young’s multimedia work Songs for Disaster Relief, which takes aim at so-called “charity singles”. It incorporates a whispered performance of the 1985 song We Are the World (which was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie). The installation was featured at this year’s Venice Biennale in May.

In addition to Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age, a stunning exhibition of 78 works from the Rijksmuseum devoted to the 17th century Dutch masters on display until February, the gallery will present a major survey of Australia’s French impressionist John Russell. The 19th-century painter was friends with van Gogh and Rodin; a regular dining companion of Monet’s; and teacher of colour theory to Matisse. But he remains largely unknown at home.

Major exhibitions of influential Indigenous artist Judy Watson; early abstract expressionist artist and former AGNSW deputy director Tony Tuckson; and several immersive video works by significant South African contemporary artist William Kentridge will also feature in 2018.

The gallery has acquired a number of new works and will show them next year, including etchings that led to Picasso’s groundbreaking anti-war manifesto Guernica. Turner Prize-winning British artist and musician Martin Creed’s Work No 2821 is a room half filled with bright yellow balloons for audiences to push and wriggle their way through. Ernesto Neto’s Just like drops in time, nothing is a hanging fabric labyrinthine sculpture filled with paprika, cloves, turmeric and cumin creating an intense, heady, multi-sensory experience. Both are from the Spacemakers and roomshakers exhibition, on display from July.

Get our pick of the best news, features and events delivered twice a week

A comprehensive exhibition of drawings by Brett Whiteley will be shown in Drawing is Everything, which celebrates the great Australian painter who was also a gifted draughtsman of abstract landscapes, interiors and nudes. The blockbuster 2018 Sydney International Art Series will be announced in the new year. And 2018 marks the beginnings of exhibition planning for the ambitious expansion project Sydney Modern ahead of the gallery’s 150th anniversary in 2021.

“We’re about to go into the most important chapter in this gallery’s history, so we need to be thinking carefully about who we want to be,” says deputy director Maud Page. “The shows in the 2018 season are a little glimpse of that.”