The first major museum in London devoted entirely to modern art has opened its doors amid great fanfare. Its unusual presentation--grouping works by genre--yields unexpected insights.
In May, London unveiled the Tate Modern to a buzz of glittery publicity. The newest and most exciting museum in the city is also its first dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary art--long overdue, as New York has had its Museum of Modern Art since 1929 and Paris its Centre George Pompidou since 1977. It is an offshoot of the stalwart Tate Gallery in Millbank on the north bank of the Thames, which has been renamed Tate Britain and will focus on artists of the United Kingdom.
For those with any interest in modern art--and that spans a hundred years of revolutionary changes--or simply in seeing one of the most spectacular adaptive reuses of a vintage building, the new museum is a must-see on the London tour. As Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, pronounced during opening week, "The Tate Modern will stand out as a jewel in the crown for the advance of the cultural life in London and the country."
It all started years ago, when the Tate Gallery was casting its eye about for a space to house its modern works--the collection had long outgrown the old building. The derelict Bankside Power Station was suggested. With its prime location on the south bank of the Thames, facing St. Paul's Cathedral, and voluminous interior space, it seemed just right. And locating in an unfashionable part of town full of crumbling buildings and council flats would provide the extra benefit of neighborhood revitalization. (Indeed, there was criticism of the location of the Getty Center in the very upscale Brentwood section of Los Angeles when it opened three years ago.)
Furthermore, the building was historic: It was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who created the famous red telephone box that is one of London's cultural icons. Divided by a single chimney stack in the middle, the oblong, red-brick power station was completed in 1963 but fell into disuse in the 1980s.
To convert the building into a museum would be a supremely ambitious task, but Serota, head of the Tate since 1988, is a most determined visionary. As Vanity Fair has written of him, he is "both a curatorial genius and someone good at getting his way." Somehow he and his team managed to put together the necessary funding--the conversion cost a hefty *134.5 million. Fifty million came from the Millennium Commission and 6.2 million from the Arts Council, both of which derive funding from the National Lottery. The rest came from gifts by private, institutional, and corporate donors (over 10 percent from the United States). A special grant from the Labour government has allowed the museum to waive admission fees.
Rebuilding a Building
In 1995 the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron won the heated competition to design the renovation--from a field of nearly 150 competitors. At the time it was a modest but highly respected firm known for smaller- scale designs, yet its proposal of a straightforward, though dramatic, conversion of the building won out.
From the start the architects paid respect to the aesthetics of Scott's design and worked with its lines and spirit to create something also distinctly modern. As Jacques Herzog mused during the opening, "We took an example from martial arts, from aikido--to take the energy of something that is already there and make it your own energy."
Thus the facade remains essentially unchanged, except for a glass light box that runs the length of the roofline behind the chimney and provides a skylight over the entry hall. While the building still has the tone of 1950s industrial massiveness, the light box, as Herzog has pointed out, "is obviously a crisp new element of our time." Inside, everything was ripped out, including the flooring, and reconstructed. "I think that when you come in almost everyone immediately understands how the building is structured," says Herzog. "It was the most difficult thing to make the galleries very sober, very neutral, very simple, very clear and at the same time to avoid the boring minimalism which is all too perfect."
Visitors enter the Tate Modern from the side of the building, then descend a ramp into the vast space where the turbines were once kept. The first art they see is perched on the bridge spanning Turbine Hall. On that bridge stands a 30-foot-tall giant steel spider with spindly, arched legs striding across 33 feet. This awe-inspiring and rather elegant creature is Maman (Mama); if you look beneath, you will see that she carries a sack of eggs made of white marble on her belly. It is one of four pieces by the venerable sculptor Louise Bourgeois that was commissioned by Unilever, which has provided funding for artwork in this space.
The back half of the Turbine Hall, on the other side of the bridge, displays the other pieces--three lofty, freestanding towers rather amusingly named I Do, I Undo, and I Redo. Each is 30 feet high and made of welded steel, with spiral staircases that wend up to the top. Visitors are welcome to climb up and enjoy the changing view as they go.
The gallery spaces, shops, and restaurants are stacked on the river side of the long building. Everything is low-keyed and minimalist industrial in tone--all tasteful glass, steel, and wood designed for purity of function. As Serota explains, it is "architecture in the service of art and not overwhelming art." All told, there are 133,500 square feet of exhibition space, with galleries on the third, fourth, and fifth floors. Welcome rests for the eyes are the wonderful views of London from the high windows on the north side of the building and from the penthouse level.
"A scene for discourse and discussion" is how Lars Nittve, director of the Tate Modern, likes to think of the new museum. He is proud of the novel approach it is taking toward displaying the art and points out that "over 50 percent of the permanent collection is on show now."
Indeed, it is quite a collection--and will be growing. The artists include such modern masters as Brancusi, Braque, Cezanne, Dal', Duchamp, Leger, Magritte, Matisse, and Picasso. Those closer to our times include Francis Bacon, Gilbert and George, Eva Hesse, Rebecca Horn, Donald Judd, Henry Moore, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Cindy Sherman, Bill Viola, and Andy Warhol. These are certainly "must-haves" for any museum of modern art worth its salt.
More controversial is how the art is being displayed. Other major museums with large collections of modern art, such as New York's trendsetting Museum of Modern Art, have generally shown works chronologically or by historical movements or national groupings. The Tate Modern has departed from all that, choosing to split the display into four traditional genres: landscape, still life, history, and portrait.
"We had half a year of discussions with curators, Nick [Serota], artists, and so on, and this is what we thought we'd be happy with," says Nittve. "It has to do with the history of twentieth-century art and with having four suites to work with." On a more practical level, it also gives visitors a chance to take in a manageable section at a time, take a break for coffee or lunch or perhaps come back another time to see the rest.
Organizing the Experience
While the four genres may be familiar to artists, connoisseurs, and art students, how the Tate placed works into these categories will produce some surprises--though that jolt is probably one aim of the exercise. For example, while we readily see the landscape in a painting of water lilies by Claude Monet, can we see the evocation of rippled water and earth in a circular arrangement of rocks by Richard Long? Monet's Water-Lilies (1916) and Long's England (1968) are in the same room, forcing one to make the connection. Thus, works are put together traversing period, style, and media, and these connections are more apparent and relevant in some instances than in others.
The Tate has also expanded these categories--landscape includes Matter and Environment, still life includes Object and Real Life, history includes Memory and Society, and portrait means Nude, Action, and Body. Of course, these divisions--and how art is placed in them--may be arguable, and a series of discussions were conducted in-house before works were hung.
Iwona Blazwick, head of exhibitions and display, and Frances Morris, program curator, were both instrumental in creating the new approach, which is a way of getting away from the "master narrative" approach. In the past museums tended to present art in terms of sequential trends that followed one upon another and could be explained in the context of Western culture.
The curators emphasize that there will be occasional reshuffles; items that hang in one section now may later hang in an entirely different section to different effect. "We don't want this presentation to be a finality; we want to present different ways of seeing art," explains curator Christoph Grunenberg. "It's a suggestion more than anything else." The treatment does tend to provoke thought and questioning, rather than to allow passive browsing. Though, frankly, it also leads to some confusion--a sense of missing out on understanding the chain of sociopolitical developments that spawned this art.
A walk through the still life section brings us some familiar-enough renderings--a Paul Cezanne Still Life with Water Jug (1892--93), for example. Cezanne had moved away from the academic realism of the European art establishment; he was already working with dabs of color, fragments of light.
In Gallery 13 we find a continuation of that experimentation in trying to capture everyday objects in two-dimensional form. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, working side by side at one point, exploded objects through Cubism, in which they tried to capture three-dimensional objects on a flat surface by depicting them from multiple angles. Thus, a bowl of fruit or a musical instrument--both artists were very fond of violins and guitars, redolent as they are of the female form--may be shown simultaneously from the front and the sides, in fragmentary and overlapping depictions.
Later artists sought to reduce objects to the most essential. In Gallery 2 the purity of form is captured in elegant sculpture by Jean Arp (Winged Being), Constantin Brancusi (Fish), and Barbara Hepworth (Pelagos). Yet other artists mocked the ability of art to capture physical reality at all: Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917), a porcelain urinal that he signed "R. Mutt."
Several items especially caught my eye. Installation meister Rebecca Horn, who often addresses issues of the natural versus the machined, always manages to inject a note of mystery into her works. Ballet of the Woodpeckers (1986) is a room lined with large, black-bordered mirrors. The stark silence is punctuated by sudden bursts of rat-a-tat pecking, performed by mechanical "woodpeckers" mounted around the rim of these mirrors.
Cornelia Parker, a young British artist, has one of the most astonishing works on display. Cold, Dark Matter: An Exploded View also occupies an entire room. Several hundred everyday objects such as shoes, tools, and scraps of wood are suspended from the ceiling in a cubical arrangement. They are illuminated by one naked lightbulb hanging from the center--and the shadows thrown onto the walls all around give the effect of a violent blast, frozen in split second. In fact, these objects, collected by Parker, were put in a garden shed that was taken away and blown up by the British School of Ammunition-- which explains their slightly tatty state. While the subtext of all this is something about transformation, the work also conveys a strangely eerie and breathtaking beauty.
I was also struck by several works with powerful spiritual themes. British painter Stanley Spencer has a masterpiece here, The Resurrection: Port Glasgow (1947--1950), a Modernist retelling of a popular medieval and Renaissance subject, the day of resurrection. Here the population of a Scottish town, people from all walks of life, emerge into a reborn day. Accompanying drawings show how the artist prepared this deeply moving work. Elsewhere are the abstract paintings by Mark Rothko. On large canvases he painted radiating capsules of color on a plain background--clearly objects of contemplation.
As a respite from all this heavy-duty cogitating, one can stop to catch some of the most spectacular panoramas of London from the windows in the galleries or from the bar and cafe on the seventh floor. Architect Jacques Herzog has mused, "We wanted to design a place where people could come have coffee and look at some art." In that, the Tate Modern has certainly succeeded.n
The Tate Modern is open seven days a week and is located at Bankside, London SE 1. Admission is free. The Tate's central Web site is www.tate.org.uk.
Scarlet Cheng is an arts writer based in Los Angeles. She contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times and the Far Eastern Economic Review.…