Now they've got the hang of it
Rachel Campbell-Johnston for the TIMESOnline, UK. May 23, 2006
Does Tate Modern's radical overhaul work? You bet it does - Watch Rachel Campbell-Johnston's video review of the rehang Low Resolution | High Resolution
Have you ever tussled with the table plan for a huge family party? If so, you will understand the difficulties that Tate Modern curators have had to face. For the first time since the museum opened in 2000 they have been organising the rehang of its permanent collection. It spans the 20th century in all its rebellious diversity. It includes everything from pools of colour so deep that you are in danger of drowning to the little sleight-of-hand trip-hazards of conceptual tricks; anything from Brillo pads to basketballs, from bricks to used bus tickets; from tin cans of Campbell's soup to tin cans of excrement. And how do you cater for all that?
The possibilities are mind-boggling. How do you mix disruptive young contemporaries with the elder statesmen of Modernism? Will the smutty pranks of the Surrealists upset the puritanical Minimalists? Who might Francis Bacon find it interesting to sit next to? And who can put up with the miserable Munch?
How do you accommodate Beuys, who rolls up in a VW camper van --and then proceeds to let an entire dog-sled team out of the back? Will you find Mark Rothko a quiet room in which to meditate? At least you can be sure that everyone will be able to find the lavatory. Marcel Duchamp and Sarah Lucas have both seen to that.
When it opened, a vast monument to millennial ambition, Tate Modern took a controversial approach. It abandoned all sense of chronology. It took its entire pack of images and tossed the lot into the air --a bit like that scene from Alice in Wonderland when the playing cards tumble and swirl about the bewildered Alice's head. Curators then embarked on a bewildering game of pelmanism, pairing Monet with Richard Long because they both seemed to like nature; or Carl Andre with Cézanne because they both used squarish shapes.
The Tate recognised that, thanks to a belligerent anti-Modernist prejudice in early 20th-century Britain, it couldn't compete with such rivals as the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It just didn't have the collection. And so, like some balding man combing long strands of hair across the shining dome of his scalp, it tried to hide its deficiencies.
Curators may still be shedding hair as they worry about funding deficiencies. But a number of recent acquisitions, principally from contemporary artists, can at least count as new growth. And now, as the redisplayed collection opens today to the public, the hang reflects a determinedly more self-confident mood. Instead of worrying about its inadequacies, Tate Modern is focusing on its strengths.
The most welcome change is that history has been rediscovered. Movements, groupings and progressions are rehabilitated. The permanent collection occupies four wings of the building, and each now takes as its focus a central display that explores a key period of 20th-century innovation. Cubism, Minimalism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism become the principal hubs. Satellite galleries around these look at the work of antecedents, or opponents who resisted changes, or followers who adapted and developed legacies down the decades.
Thus while Picasso, Braque and Léger chat animatedly with Duchamp about the fragmentation of form and perception, Cézanne, Matisse and Vuillard linger in a small anteroom, their scenes of light-flooded domesticity an embodiment of everything that the forward-thrusting Cubists most scorned. You can take a nostalgic little stroll through the leafy parks of Post-Impressionism, or else you can take a more progressive tack: see how subsequent artists reacted to and built upon Cubist innovations --how the Pop artists admired its direct response to everyday reality, or how today's contemporaries, Nick Relph and Oliver Payne, apply fundamentally Cubist collage techniques to the pounding video sequences of a streetwise Post-Modern piece.
It will take long, intriguing, brain-scrambling, eye-testing months to come to terms with this rehang. It is a vast sprawling assemblage of ideas and suggestions, of connections and cross-connections and little cabbalistic groupings, of reactions and counterreactions that ramify through its 48 galleries. The narrative of art history, it reminds you, is seldom a single linear progression. Modernism is not a single movement but a struggling protean force.
The tempo constantly changes as you move through the galleries. Sometimes you feel almost dizzied. You stand confused among the Surrealists, amid their bizarre combinations of disparate dream-like images scattered pell-mell (as the Surrealist themselves would probably have liked them) about gallery walls. But then, drifting on, you find Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois caught up in a passionate discourse about Surrealism and biomorphism and visceral responses. These two emphatic outsiders once met, apparently. Bourgeois was taken to Bacon's studio by David Sylvester. And this room now imagines the conversation that they had. It still feels fresh.
This spirit of freshness reinvigorates the entire hang. A window has been flung open and new light let in. Of course (with a few exceptions --perhaps most notably Rodin's Kiss, which is currently being cleaned, so a little dancer by Degas is serving as a stand-in) the iconic works of the masters are on show. A new Rothko room has been created so that now all nine of his great sombre murals can be shown. They brood in the half-light of a space to which there is only one entrance so that, where previously people trotted insouciantly past, now they are slowed to a whispering contemplation.
But more than 40 per cent of the works on display have not been shown in Tate Modern before. Major works have been brought out of storage. Roy Lichtenstein's Wham!, for instance, now forms part of one of four "pairings" that introduce each of the principal sections. Juxtaposed with Boccioni's striding bronze figure, marching heroically forward into a brave new technological world, it makes a powerful impression. Here are two divergent but echoing responses to the chaos of violence of their respective eras.
Historical precedents are examined from an emphatically contemporary perspective. Almost a quarter of the works on display are recent acquisitions. Here is a room devoted to a Minimalist-inspired, interactive installation by Cildo Meireles, for example, just one of the Latin American artists whom Tate Modern is now collecting as it seeks to extend its international range. There is a gallery devoted to the gang of Cubist-influenced agit-prop poster-producing feminist rebels the Guerrilla Girls. Here is a room of works by contemporary painters, Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans prominent among them, who return to the gestures of postwar American painting. There is a vast four-screen projection by Christian Marclay, who plays with Duchampian ideas. All find their roots in earlier ideas and techniques. Ideas ebb and flow across the years as single-theme rooms --such as that devoted to the "ready-made" --make clear immediately.
But the flow is not all one way. A huge Miró canvas and Matisse's iconic Snail suddenly pop up in a gallery that leads on from Abstract Expressionists. These Modernist patriarchs continued their careers into the 1950s and explored contemporary experiments with scale.
Of course the Tate cannot cover up innate deficiencies. It cannot compete with MoMA, which owns not just works by all the great masters but among the greatest works they ever did. And nor can contemporaries compare with Modernists. How could they? Europe from the last couple of decades of the 19th century until well into the 1920s was swept into a creative whirlwind that whipped up masterpiece after masterpiece.
But what Tate Modern succeeds in doing in its confident new rehang is reanimating this incredible moment, reinvigorating it with life. Martin Creed --best known for his Turner prizewinning on-and-off light switch --installs a rude little intervention. It blows raspberries at bystanders.
Is it mere puerile impudence to blow raspberries at Jackson Pollock? Or does it remind us, accustomed as we are to this world of hallowed spaces and lofty plinths, that all these artists were seen as tasteless, provocative troublemakers in their day? Tate Modern makes plenty of suggestions but it doesn't promise final answers. With a bit of luck, like all good family gatherings, this one will end in an almighty row.
Tate Modern's rehang opens to the public today (020-7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk/modern)
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