Magazine article The Spectator

It's Time to Split Tate Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

It's Time to Split Tate Modern

Article excerpt

In 1992 I wrote a column that was published under the headline 'It's Time to Split the Tate'. To my absolute astonishment, shortly afterwards it was announced that this would actually happen (no doubt a coincidence rather than a response to my words). Hitherto, though it is hard now to recall those times, there had been just a single Tate gallery in London -- the one on Millbank, containing a cheerful jumble of British painting from the Tudor era onwards mixed with what was then described as modern 'foreign' art.

Eventually, Tate Modern opened and became one of the most prominent features on the cultural landscape, not only of London but also of Britain. Nearly six million visitors a year pour through its doors. It has been by almost any measure a huge success. Nonetheless, as I walked around the handsome new galleries designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron that were unveiled this week, I felt another radical idea forming at the back of my mind. Perhaps it's time for the Tate to drop the 'modern' tag and hand over the earlier parts of the collection to the National Gallery.

This makes sense partly because 1900, currently the official starting point of the modern age as far as London is concerned, is slowly vanishing into the distant past. We can't go on pretending for ever that modernity began in the era of the silent film and the horseless carriage. But, more to the point, it's an acknowledgment of what Tate Modern has really become: Tate Contemporary.

Almost all of the work on display in the new building -- dubbed the Switch House -- has been purchased since the millennium. A great deal of it was also made in the past two or three decades. Occasionally, among the displays in the original galleries on the other side of the Turbine Hall -- an area now known as the Boiler House -- you come across a relic of what used to be thought of as 'modern'. There are some Rothkos here, a Brancusi there, even a late Monet 'Water Lily' canvas -- but these now look a little isolated and wan.

No attempt is made to provide a chronological narrative of what happened when. Indeed, the sad truth of the matter is that the collection doesn't really have the depth to tell such a story. When classic modernism was cheap and plentiful -- to borrow a phrase from George Bernard Shaw -- Tate trustees and staff never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Among the extraordinary works that got away was Matisse's 'The Red Studio', on sale in a London gallery in the 1940s for a few hundred pounds. …

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