Tate Modern Rehang. Review by Andrew Graham-Dixon.
When Tate Modern opened, in 2000, it boldly presented itself as a new kind of modern art museum, brave enough to dispense with the linear, chronological model of the history of twentieth-century art. That model was originally pioneered by the vastly influential Alfred Barr, in the 1930s, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; but at the dawn of the new millennium, Tate Modern’s creator and supremo, Nicholas Serota – playing Oedipus to Barr’s King Laius – pronounced that old, evolutionary history of modernism dead and discredited. So it was that his museum’s hang dispensed with chronology and traditional groupings by movement – Dadaism, Cubism, and so on – arranging Tate’s holdings of modern and contemporary art according to themes instead: “Landscape”, “Still Life”, “The Nude” and “History”.
The result was sporadically illuminating, but compromised both by an overwhelming sense of arbitrariness – the works of Picasso, for example, seemed to fit both everywhere and nowhere in such a scheme – and an unpleasant aura of intellectual smugness. Solve the picture-puzzle of the hang, the unwritten implication seemed to be, and visitors might congratulate themselves on being almost as fantastically clever, almost as subtly ingenious, as the curatorial staff who had put it together in the first place.
Six years on and it is all change at Tate Modern, where the ever-shifting displays of the permanent collection – which perhaps, henceforth, should be known as the impermanent collection – have been rehung according to a new set of ordering principles. This represents less than a complete U-turn. The emphasis on theme, rather than straight chronology, has been retained, so that the works of art on display are divided, as before, into four suites of galleries, under such rubrics as “Material Gestures”, “Object and Idea”, or “Poetry and Dream”. But a sense of modern art as a continuum crucially shaped by key movements, or “isms”, has now been restored. This marks a significant, albeit not all-encompassing, concession to the supposedly outmoded beliefs of Alfred Barr and his ilk – who saw the history of modernism very much as a kind of flow chart of such revolutionary moments, leading to the ineffable culmination of purely abstract art. The new-look Tate Modern stops well short of such dewy-eyed teleology, but for long stretches it does now look a lot more like an old-fashioned museum of twentieth-century art.
Each of the four sections revolves around a central gallery, or “hub”, devoted to a particular “crucible moment” in the development of modern art. So, for example, at the centre of the section entitled “States of Flux”, the visitor encounters an admirably straightforward display of the museum’s principal holdings of Cubist, Futurist and Vorticist art. Picasso and Braque, roped together once more like the mountaineers to whom, in the early years of the twentieth century, they compared themselves, explore the new and dizzying realms of cubistically fractured vision. Juan Gris condenses a Bottle of Rum and Newspaper to a pattern of ascetic geometric purity. Wyndham Lewis sets out to blast British bourgeois taste with his own interpretation of the Cubist revolution, in the form of Workshop, of circa 1914-15, a kaleidoscope of hard-edged forms teetering in indeterminate space. Meanwhile, Giacomo Balla’s fractured diagram of automotive velocity, Abstract Speed – The Car has Passed, painted in 1913, accelerates into a Machine Age future – where the dark spirit of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill lies in wait.
At a purely pragmatic level, the displays of this kind in the new hang make Tate Modern a considerably more user-friendly place. For example, teachers who wish to introduce their charges to Cubism, and the many movements in art that sprang from it, will now find a museum that cooperates with such an ambition rather than seeking to frustrate it at every turn. Ways have also been found to put considerably more of Tate’s very best holdings in twentieth-century art on display. Pop Art is much more fully represented than it was before, with one of the nation’s most enduringly popular paintings, Roy Lichtenstein’s yowling diptych of a fighter plane, Whaam!, at last given a prominent place in the hang (hard to believe, but it has never even been shown at Tate Modern previously).
Abstract Expressionism is treated more seriously and solemnly than it was in the previous hang, while Surrealism, too, has never been shown in anything like as much strength and depth before. Placed at the centre of the section devoted to “Poetry and Dream”, the visitor encounters a veritable cornucopia of surreal strangenesses: melted-flesh Salvador Dalis, including two pictures, Autumnal Cannibalism of 1936 and The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, of the following year, which are among the few works created before the onset of his long decline into self-parody; a clutch of Man Rays and Magrittes and Max Ernsts; Paul Delvaux’s somnambulistic masterpiece, Sleeping Venus; and a host of works by both well-known and little-known English followers of Surrealism, ranging from Edward Wadsworth and Julian Trevelyan, to Dorothea Tanning and Paul Nash. Surrealist sculptures are displayed in clusters and the pictures are double and somes triple-hung, in a display that at times seems cunningly designed to mimic a High Victorian or academic, salon hang of the nineteenth century. This is partly no doubt a way of getting more works into the display, but it makes visual and intellectual sense too. Surrealism was a movement born out of revulsion with the academic past, and many of its tricks and jokes were self-consciously designed to parody and pastiche the exterior forms of academic art.
It would however be misleading to suggest that Tate Modern has turned away from its original self-proclaimed mission, to complicate and disrupt the more supposedly orthodox histories of modern art’s development. Curator Frances Morris explains the philosophy behind the new hang in the pages of the museum’s new Handbook (Tate Publishing, £16.99): “Building on what was learnt over the opening five years, and entirely new scheme for display restates Tate Modern’s ambition, declared in the opening hang, to pursue a discussion of art and its meanings; not to replace orthodox art history with an alternative narrative, but to suggest the possibility of multiple readings, conflicting stories and dfifferent agendas. In place of the single, institutionally authored history, the new display embraces different viewpoints and different framing devices, both in their works and in their disposition and presentation; it aims, crucially, at fresh reflection on history from the perspective of the present day.”
This sounds so pat as to constitute grounds for suspicion. In fact, it may well be that revulsion from the structures and disciplines of “orthodox” art history has itself mutated into the new orthodoxy – just as, in the field of art itself, the very idea of avant-gardism, of overleaping the supposedly conventional boundaries of bourgeois taste, has spawned a new academy of would-be transgressive but, in the final analysis, extremely conventional artists. For better or worse, at the level of the average visitor’s experience, the “restatement” of Tate Modern’s original ambition means that its galleries are still – by comparison with those of, say, the British Museum or the National gallery – fairly confusing places. The first display of all, for instance, which is entitled “Material Gestures”, is subtitled “New Painting and Sculpture 1945-60” – which means that Tate Modern’s account of the story of modern art begins, de facto, half way through the twentieth century. This is not an insuperable barrier to engagement with the works on display – and at least, now that Cubism has been given a proper place within the museum, visitors can construct their own chronology within the display, starting elsewhere simply by voting with their feet. But it might be said to make things seem unnecessarily complicated.
In addition, the claim that Tate Modern’s version of the story of modern art is profoundly, essentially different from other “institutionally authored” histories seems disingenuous. The display as it has been conceived is full of implied, albeit often extremely arbitrary, value judgements, all of which have by definition been “institutionally authored” by the team of curators responsible for the new hang. This is particularly apparent, for example, in the relationships that the new display sets up between the supposedly central, “hub” galleries of each section, and the many subordinate, or “satellite” galleries which sprout from them. To give just one example, the section entitled “Idea and Object” places the art of the American Minimalists at its centre. The display in question – of works by Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Robert Morris, among others – is one of the sparest and most beautiful installations ever achieved at Tate Modern. But the priority given to Minimalism means that the works of Piet Mondrian, for example, are consigned to one of the much smaller, satellite galleries of the display. To a certain extent, the decision to give Minimalism the main gallery may have been forced by the vast scale on which sculptors in America in the 1960s chose to work. In that sense the logic of the display might be said to resemble that at the Musee d’Orsay, where the vast machines of French academic art are given the centre of the museum while the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are pushed to the margins. The trouble is that whether a value judgement is intended, or not, the effect of the hang is to make the bigger art look as if it is meant to be taken more seriously.
An equally eccentric sense of values and priorities can be discerned in some of the juxtapositions of past and present. These variously imply that the witless fairground attractions of Anish Kapoor are worthy of comparison with the paintings of Barnett Newman; and that the tired, mannered, faux-Surrealist creations of Louise Bourgeois might exist in a state of meaningful “dialogue” with the paintings of Francis Bacon. As a general rule, when the work of living artists is pitted against modern art of the more distant past, it comes off considerably worse. The contemporary art that works best tends to be in new (ish) media such as video or installation work – punctuating the display with suddenly happened upon Pandora’s boxes of startling, frequently entertaining idiosyncrasy.
For all its inconsistencies and perversities, the new hang at Tate Modern represents a considerable improvement on the old, largely because it has restored at least some sense of solidity – in the shape of a group of fixed orientation points – to an experience that was in danger of turning into the museological equivalent of internet surfing. It seems revealing that the displays work best when they put artists together – such as Picasso and Braque, Morris and Judd, Rothko and Newman, Warhol and Lichtenstein – who might, were they still alive, have chosen to show together themselves. Maybe there is a moral there, for the more interfering sort of modern curator.