Britain missed out on some of the Eighties' biggest and best exhibitions. Andrew Graham-Dixon finds out why
NEIL MACGREGOR, the Director of the National Gallery, and Nicholas Serota, his opposite number at the Tate, have grand ambitions for the 1990s, but they're giving little away. Serota has plans for major retrospectives of work by artists he chooses to refer to, at this stage, as X and Y; MacGregor is working on the definitive exhibition of paintings by a world-famous artist to be known for the time being only as Z.
Secrecy is part of the standard procedure when it comes to organising the sort of large-scale exhibitions that have been such a feature of the art world in recent years. Original ideas are the hard currency of exhibition organising, and a word in the wrong ear can make the difference between an exhibition taking place at the Tate in London or at the Grand Palais in Paris. 'In my experience,' says Serota, 'unless you're in on an exhibition from the outset, you've got very little chance of staging it.'
The 1980s was, among other things, the decade of the blockbuster, 1989 its annus mirabilis. Yet it has also been a decade in which Britain, fairly or unfairly, has been seen to lose out in the blockbuster game. Last year saw major exhibitions of Gauguin, Manet, Jacques-Louis David and Cezanne in Europe, while New York staged two of the most remarkable shows of this or any other century - Velazquez at the Metropolitan, 'Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism' at MOMA. None of those exhibitions were, or will be, seen in this country, a fact that has added to the impression - easily strengthened perhaps in an island nation - that we are somehow being left out in the cold. The absence of such major shows from British soil has seemed all the more galling in the light of the fact that our national institutions have lent generously to nearly all of them. What has been going wrong?
Those in charge have varying explanations. Most, perhaps understandably, tend to play down the problem. Norman Rosenthal, head of exhibitions at the Royal Academy, is quick to point out the large number of major shows that have been seen in Britain: the RA's contentious sequence of 'Twentieth Century' shows (German, Italian and British art have been 'done', American art is to follow), Chagall, Renoir, early Cezanne, late Picasso, Warhol . . . It's a long list, and one which suggests that the British public is not as deprived as it is sometimes fancied to be.
If London occasionally feels left out, part of the explanation must surely lie in the fact that Paris, so near and so much the traditional cultural rival of London, has done exceptionally well in the Eighties. Most of the shows that London has had, Paris has had too, along with a whole series of shows that have not been seen here, most notably the sequence of French nineteenth-century retrospectives, of Manet, Degas and Gauguin, that have been staged at the Grand Palais. As Rosenthal puts it, a little mischievously, 'In Europe, we're the undisputed number two.'
It has been suggested in some quarters that Paris' current pre-eminence owes much to its centralised museum structure, the Reunion des Musees Nationaux. This has meant, argue critics of the British system, that the French have a considerable advantage in negotiating for major exhibitions, particularly when more than one institution will be lending. As Neil MacGregor puts it, 'negotiating for an exhibition is like performing an extremely elaborate courtship dance - you parade what you've got, in the hope of getting what they've got.' But in this country it has always been the case that when more than one museum lends, they do so as isolated, independent institutions; when France lends, it does so en bloc, as France, and is in a position to exert considerable muscle as a result.
According to Neil MacGregor, the British system is not as divisive as it might seem. This is where Z comes in. 'I think there is a new mood of collaboration here. Just last week there was a meeting at the RA, involving four British museums, to discuss the Z exhibition, which would be staged at the Royal Academy. When we've got the cards, which we certainly do in this case, we work together - we're negotiating with a foreign museum which has sizeable holdings of Z's work right now.' MacGregor's message to those who say that Britain needs a central blackmailing organisation on the lines of the Reunion is simple: 'It's fairly low-key, very British, but we do work much more as a Reunion than it might appear.'
So why have Paris and New York had the shows that London has not? 'You have to look at each exhibition separately for an explanation,' says Nicholas Serota. 'If you're talking about the Manet or the Degas or the Gauguin shows you have to say that it was simply not realistic to think that those exhibitions could have come here. Paris has its hands on a great deal of great late nineteenth-century painting and London does not, and it happens that that period of art is what a lot of people have wanted to see in recent years.'
Serota consoles himself with the conviction that 'there will be great exhibitions in this country in the next 10 years - just last week we discussed the possibility of a major retrospective of works by X, which could be in another in the great sequence of nineteenth-century shows of recent years. I think it's almost certainly going to take place in London, Washington and one other American venue. We also want to do a great Y exhibition, a show that has been crying out to be done for years.'
And there are those who question whether museums and galleries should be in the blockbuster business at all. Catherine Lampert, director of the Whitechapel Gallery, feels that 'there is an immense wave of cynicism about these massive shows sweeping through the curatorial staff in a lot of French and American museums. Curators I know personally are seriously disturbed by the phenomenon, where you have these vast crowds of people trailing dutifully through room after room and getting very little out of it. There's this rather stupid attitude, which is fostered by the sheer expense of these exhibitions, that unless a show draws 500,000 it's a failure. Popular shows can fail in other ways - take Van Gogh at the Met, where they had to hang the pictures way too high on the walls to see them properly, just so that people could see them at all.' Serota feels that 'we may see the smaller, more focused show about one aspect of a major artist becoming more popular in the next decade, like Early Cezanne at the RA'.
Neil MacGregor also echoes Catherine Lampert, and adds that in his opinion British museums have achieved something both more remarkable and less conspicuous than the blockbuster experience. 'I think we have a much more grown-up attitude to paintings than Paris or New York. We have an audience that actually uses our permanent collections in a serious way. The massive exhibition is a real threat to serious looking; unless you have a very, very sophisticated public it is actually a trivialisation of the art object, it turns art into an event rather than a long dialogue. In Paris, for example, it is a simple fact that the public just doesn't go to the permanent collections. The visitor figures for the Louvre are extraordinary - most of the visitors are one-time only, people who will go to the Louvre or Orsay once and that's it. I think that the blockbuster phenomenon is dangerous because it encourages that attitude, it turns the permanent collection into something you also only need attend once. The Louvre becomes like the Folies Bergere.
'Our figures suggest a very different pattern. A very large proportion of our visitors come more than four times a year, and I suspect much the same is true of the Tate and the British Museum. One of the reasons for that, I suspect, is that those institutions have not gone in for the massive spectacular exhibition, that they have tended to put on exhibitions more closely related to the work in the permanent collections. In a way, I think it is more important to persuade people to come and look at one picture and concentrate on that than it is to persuade them to trail round a huge show feeling they've got to get through it - when we showed Goya's Portrait of the Countess of Chinchon recently, which we had on short-term loan from Spain, 73,000 people came. I'm prouder of that than I would be of a vast exhibition - or as proud.'
MacGregor also feels that the blockbuster has a peculiar distorting effect on what people conider to be important art. 'It leads to the rather odd idea that interesting art begins with Caravaggio, just because that's the starting-point for when paintings are able to travel. It's just not possible, for example to have a Simone Martini exhibition - but that doesn't mean he wasn't a great artist.'
Serota, who is about to unveil his new hang of the Tate's collections, argues that 'the challenge over the next decade will be to ensure that British institutions make better use of what they already have.' MacGregor agrees. 'The permanent collections in London are in a league of their own. If you take pre-1900 art, London is surely the museum capital of the world, there isn't a city to touch it. I think we still have our work cut out to make people realise that.'
Meanwhile, in the blockbuster league, London is looking to challenge Paris for Europe's number one spot. British audiences already have Frans Hals, Pop Art and 'American Art in the Twentieth Century' (all at the RA) to look forward to, while the National Gallery plans an important Rembrandt exhibition for 1992. Not to mention those major retrospectives by X, Y and possibly - who knows? - even Z.