The other morning, I stood on the bank of the Thames looking across the river at an unfamiliar part of London, a cityscape not unlike an American downtown—the reclaimed dockland of Canary Wharf. Behind me in the sunlight stood the vast Millennium Dome, open and somewhat empty, though the morning was well advanced. I had already visited several of its “themed zones.” I had been alone in the Work Zone, alone in the Learning Zone and the Faith Zone and the Prayer Room. The Mind Zone and the Body Zone (where spermatozoa dance on film through an overhead vagina) had been sparsely populated, although the Play Zone was already attracting a decent crowd. Now I was alone again, and enjoying my unexpected solitude. When a major exhibition, or “Experience” of this kind, proves something of a flop, it can be stressful for the lone visitor to cope with the desperate jollity of the professional welcomers—men and women dressed up in period clothes, with period senses of humor to match.
In the Learning Zone, I had sat alone through the presentational film. It told the story of a girl who specializes in mocking her teacher whenever she turns her back to the class. Found out and detained after school, she is given by the severe teacher not the punishment she expects but a mysterious seed. She takes the seed home, and that night it grows into an enormous magical tree. It appears that whoever looks at this tree will see his or her aspirations in life fulfilled through education. Not surprisingly, when we consider the tree has grown straight through the roof of her house, the girl ends up more impressed with her teacher (and therefore more receptive to education) than she had been.
At the end of the film, the screen rolled up revealing an “infinite orchard.” Through the orchard wandered a little girl, just like the girl in the film. Then she beckoned to the audience, inviting us all—each and every one of us—to come through to the infinite orchard and see for ourselves. Inevitably, and without any apparent loss of composure, the little girl became aware that I was the only person in the house. She redoubled her beckoning: don’t be shy, she seemed to be saying, come through and see for yourself the benefits of education. Desperate with embarrassment, I surged ahead. This is what the guidebook tells us about the “infinite orchard”:
Surrounded by trees and springy turf, fifty mirrored cubes equipped with computer screens take your image and make you centre-stage in one of a series of adventures. These all show new ways of learning. Above all, our experience shows that learning for life is key.
Learning for life is key. We are living at a time of immense change. We are heading for gridlock. It pays to pray. Sentences of this kind cover the surfaces of the Dome’s zones, pleading for our attention and consideration. Even the gardens are preachy assemblages of native plants. One might be prepared to tolerate the sermon, were it not that the organizers of this vast “infotainment” are well known to have spent over a billion dollars to mount it, and still keep coming back asking for more. They are hardly the ones to tell us about sustainability, or how to treat the planet.
The problem with the Millennium Experience will be familiar to anyone who has tried to write, say, a novel or a poem. One promises oneself such excitement, such an achievement to come—the only difficulty is the putting of the pen to paper. When Degas was trying his hand as a poet (and he was not a bad poet), he complained one evening to Mallarmé: “I have lost my entire day over a cursed sonnet, without advancing a step. And yet it’s not ideas that I lack. I’m full of them. I have too many.” Mallarmé replied: “But, Degas, it’s not with ideas that you make verses. It’s with words.”1 The same can be said of exhibitions: they are not made of ideas, but of objects. Time and again, when people were talking up the Dome, the question would be asked: But what is it going to contain? And the typical answer was: It’s going to be so exciting, such an achievement. Don’t knock it! Don’t knock the Dome!
The visitor to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 could stand on a travelator and be whisked past Michelangelo’s Pietà. At Expo 2000 in Hanover you can see the Mandylion of Edessa, supposedly the earliest known image of Christ. Gazing on this sacred object, we are told, cured King Agbar I of Armenia (179-214) of a serious disease. Even if the rest of the trade fair were a flop (and it is, it would appear, a flop of comparable dimensions), one would still have seen the Mandylion of Edessa. At the Dome, in the Money Zone (which I missed), you can actually see a million pounds:
We enter a dramatic glass corridor lined with twenty thousand real å£50 notes. As we move into the next area, we are invited to spend a million pounds. Using a gold “spend” card, we must buy goods with our amazing fortune in under a minute. Amazingly luxurious goods are on offer: diamond-studded football boots, a set of solid gold spanners and crystal milk bottles. By asking us to choose what to spend a million pounds on, the game makes us think about what would happen if everyone spent their money in the same way.
The most striking exhibit I saw was a very large diamond indeed, called the Millennium Star, at 203 carats “the largest top colour, internally and externally flawless, pear-shaped diamond in the world.” But I would rather have seen the Mandylion of Edessa.
It is commonly thought that the disastrous opening of the Dome on New Year’s Eve, 1999, and the subsequent failure of the exhibition to draw the requisite millions, marked the end of the long honeymoon of the Blair government, the falling of the scales from the public eyes, the end of the protracted victory of presentation over content. By contrast, the opening last month of Tate Modern, London’s new museum of modern art, has been, in all respects except one, a phenomenal success, and therefore something of a reproach to the government, which tends to adopt a hectoring, admonitory tone toward museums and galleries, and which has been no firm friend to the arts.
Both the Dome and the new Tate have their origins in the previous Conservative government. Both have relied heavily on money from the National Lottery, in common with many other projects now coming to fruition. And an exciting feature of both projects is their way of introducing us to an unfamiliar part of London, currently being revived. The Dome, on its bend in the river north of Greenwich, occupies the site of an old gasworks, and looks across to a docklands project which, having seemed for years to flounder, is now coming into its own. The newly completed underground extension and the Docklands Light Railway add a wealth of new station names to the map: Mudchute, Heron Quays, Cyprus, Canada Water, Gallions Reach…
More extraordinary, in a way, is the fact that there could have existed a whole area of central London that had somehow been lost to sight. The Bankside Power Station, long out of use, sat on the riverside opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral, a dead space and a discouragement to all around it. Here was once the brothel district of Tudor London, and here stood the old theaters, one of which, the Globe, has been eccentrically revived. A surprise survival is the house in which Christopher Wren lived when he was designing the cathedral, of whose south elevation, as it rose, he would have had an admirable view—a view now obscured at ground level, but attainable afresh from the upper floors of the new Tate. Before the reinvention of the Globe Theatre, and the advent of Tate Modern, few Londoners would have had reason to set foot in this part of the capital.
Paris had its gaps, which were filled in various spectacular ways, but post-war central Paris never had the kind of site that the Tate now offers. The Gare d’Orsay was underused, only housing Jean-Louis Barrault’s theater before it became the Musée d’Orsay, but it sat in the cityscape in much the same way then as it does now. Tate Modern exerts its own great tidal pull. It may sound odd to say so, but it seems to confer a new importance on St. Paul’s, to which it is now linked by a new (so far uncertainly functional, owing to its tendency to sway), beautiful pedestrian bridge. For years the cathedral has existed in a kind of cultural isolation, in an unpleasantly rebuilt, largely nonresidential office district. Now it is part of a north-south artistic axis quite new to London. The north and south of the river have never seemed so coordinated. The appropriate comparison would surely be those earlier Parisian schemes: the Grand Palais and Petit Palais sitting opposite the Invalides, or the Trocadéro opposite the Eiffel Tower and the Champ de Mars.
Piece by piece, London is acquiring a Left Bank. When I first lived there in the 1970s, one could hardly walk far along the South Bank, and there was seldom any incentive to do so. Today, if one crosses the river from the Houses of Parliament and turns left at the old County Hall, scandalously sold off under Margaret Thatcher when she suppressed the Greater London Council, one passes first an aquarium, then the already celebrated Millennium Wheel, one of the instant successes among the millennium schemes. This contraption, visible from all kinds of unexpected parts of central London, lifts the visitor, at a gentle rate of ten degrees a minute, and provides him or her with a view, on a clear day, as far as St. Albans. Nobody ever had to rack his brains to explain why this might be a good thing: it was immediately understood, and so quickly popular that London politicians routinely have themselves photographed in it or alongside it, in the hope that some of that popularity will rub off.
A mile or so away, at the end of a walk that takes in the site of a new city park, the Festival Hall and the rest of the South Bank complex, the Oxo Tower (long empty, now a complex of studios, shops, and restaurants), and other new commercial buildings, we come upon Tate Modern, our new museum of modern art.
Once again, nobody has been hard pressed to explain why such a museum might be needed, and this is in a way surprising, since the Tate has been continually controversial in the art it has championed. Why should this, its largest project, be its least controversial? The answer is partly that it has never seemed an extravagance. Keeping a huge power station empty in central London was an extravagance. Refurbishing it as a museum, even at great cost, remedied an anomalous situation. I went around Bankside Power Station after the Tate had acquired it, but well before the results of the competition to develop the site had been announced. Even then, before the site had been touched, it had that obvious appeal, with its awesome size and its astounding views from the roof. It made immediate sense. It did not, as the Dome did, require faith. Indeed at the time the only thing that perhaps required faith was that, having made such a huge museum, the Tate would be able to fill it convincingly.
In his essay in Tate Modern: The Handbook, Michael Craig-Martin recalls that “many architects were bitterly disappointed by the Trustees’ decision to make use of the existing Bankside building rather than to create something entirely new. Some, seeing this as the betrayal of a unique architectural opportunity for London, interpreted it as the result of a loss of institutional nerve.” The decision, he argues, showed exceptional courage and ambition. It also showed, in my view, considerable wiliness, since it crucially enabled the trustees to make a much larger museum than would otherwise have been possible, and it sidestepped a great deal of controversy: nothing much was going to be pulled down, nobody’s beloved view was going to be blocked, nothing would appear as “a carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend” (Prince Charles’s phrase, which notoriously eliminated one extension to the National Gallery).
Craig-Martin recounts that in the course of the planning of the new museum, he and the sculptor Bill Woodrow toured recently built museums of modern art on the Continent. The most sympathetic to the display of works of art were, in their view, conversions of older buildings from industrial or other purposes. He cites the private Dupont Foundation in Tilburg and the Hallen für Neue Kunst at Schaffhausen near Zurich; the London equivalent mentioned is the architect Max Gordon’s converted paint factory that displays the Saatchi Collection in London—which is indeed a luminous space. If the preference for a converted building over a “signature work” by an architect was well founded, the thinking behind it was of a piece with the choice of the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron over some of their rivals, since their proposed conversion accepted to a striking degree the lineaments of the power station as it already was. The Turbine Hall today still looks like the Tur-bine Hall I remember—minus the turbines of course. The exterior has been simplified and the roof strikingly modified, but I have seen only one complaint about what has been done to Giles Gilbert Scott’s original building.
The upshot is that, while we do not have Bilbao, what we have instead seems no less capable of causing a sensation: three thousand visitors come in every hour, according to a recent report. One of the feelings of British visitors is: for once, we have done something well and without compromise. And if it seems lavish, that lavishness is not resented in a free public museum. But that does not mean that the Tate’s new arrangements are without their critics.
The Tate Gallery at Millbank was founded in 1897 as a national gallery of British art. In due course it also assumed the functions of a museum of modern art, although the collection was built up at first with difficulty and with uneven success. London as a city does not have a single museums supremo in the manner of Berlin; nor does Britain have a national organization of museums after the manner of France. Nevertheless there is an attempt to achieve a harmonious relationship and division of purpose between the major institutions. The National Gallery, for instance, collects and curates European paintings (mostly on canvas or panel) from around 1200 to 1900. The Tate was home to British art from around 1500 to the present day, and to international art from 1900. The National Gallery however could not forego the chance to show British art from its period: that would imply that British art had no major place in the European tradition. From time to time, the Tate would exchange paintings with the National Gallery, in order to clarify the division, and the National Gallery has over the years divested itself of most of its works on paper.
The British Museum holds the national collection of prints and drawings, while the Victoria and Albert Museum has sculpture up to 1900, watercolors, and (since no division can be perfect) its own collection of prints and drawings. It also, somewhat controversially, has a large collection of paintings in addition to its chief holding in the decorative arts. When the National Gallery considers buying a French painting, it will bear in mind the strengths of the Wallace Collection in this field, and try not to duplicate. This is the way the arts are spread around London.
When the Tate split in two, it faced the same problem as in its relationship to the National Gallery: if Tate Britain were to retain all the British art of the twentieth century, that would imply that the British played no major role in the history of modern art. Worse still, if Tate Modern creamed off the best of the British artists, that would signal that the modern British artists left in Tate Britain were provincial and second rate. One solution to this division would have been, and still could be, to make the old Tate a museum of British art from 1500 to 1900, and take all the rest to Tate Modern. Instead, a more anxious-making but nevertheless justifiable decision was made to keep modern British art represented in both venues.
There seems to have been some anxiety, both at Tate Britain and at Tate Modern: the first might be seen to be losing everything that made it a hip place to be, while the second, in its new venue, might be exposed as a somewhat patchy collection. It seems to have been this anxiety which motivated (or partly motivated) the directors of both galleries to open with “thematic” displays, which results in water lilies by Monet being opposite a mud wall-painting by Richard Long (at Tate Modern) and a portrait by Hogarth juxtaposed with an unpleasant one by Maggie Hawkling (at Tate Britain). Instead of being arranged chronologically or according to schools, the art would be set out according to themes: just like the Dome, Tate Modern is a series of zones. One is called Landscape Matter Environment, another Still Life Object Real Life, the third History Memory Society, and the last Nude Action Body. This allows the director to go for shock juxtapositions of unlike objects to which similar themes have been attributed in a very loose way, but you can see how artificial the whole thing is if you ask yourself: Where, in this arrangement, would I place a landscape whose theme was memory, or a depiction of, say, a decaying body, whose theme was that we are composed of matter? And what is the distinction between Real Life and Society?
There is nothing sacred about a chronological hang, or indeed an arrangement according to schools. In the old galleries paintings were often hung according to size, convenience of space, or even theme. Portraits were hung together in galleries, and in private houses they often seem to have gravitated to the stairs, just as still lifes tend to fetch up in dining rooms. Thematic hangs are indeed familiar in a private setting: it is hard to imagine a gruesome martyrdom in a boudoir. And thematic exhibitions take place all the time, without causing any raised eyebrows.
Enough has been said about the arrangement of art in London to underline the arbitrariness of the divisions in place. Why should there be no sculpture to speak of in the National Gallery? Why should works on paper be separated from panel paintings and canvases? There are historical reasons for these divisions, and in the case of paper there are conservation reasons, but there is no firm aesthetic reason. Nor is there any absolute which demands a chronological arrangement. If I visited a private collection and found it had been hung chronologically I should be much surprised and perhaps somewhat shocked.2 All that one expects in a private collection is that the works should be placed sympathetically in relation to each other. Why should a public collection be different?
The answer must have something to do with the public role of the gallery or museum. In my private collection I am at liberty to do as I please—to leave the pictures uncleaned and unframed, to hang them or stack them against the wall, to study them historically, or to treat them as decorative objects. When a private collection, such as the Gardner in Boston or the Frick in New York, goes public, one may expect it to retain many of the characteristic freedoms of its private origins. We may value its eccentricities, its juxtapositions: if they tell us nothing about the history of art, they may still tell us a great deal about the history of taste. Small house museums, such as the Poldi-Pezzoli in Milan, the Grobet-Labadié in Marseille, or the Mayer van der Bergh in Antwerp—we should like them to remain, as much as possible, as they were. We should like them to stay cherished but un-“improved.”
But our great city museums, our national institutions—we want to improve them, and we want them to improve us. We want to learn to feel our way around the national schools (where the concept is appropriate), the periods, and the genres. The chronological hang may be an arrangement of no great antiquity3 but it may be of very great utility in this matter of our self-improvement. At the very least, the story told may be an aid to the memory, and we are entitled to hope that our galleries should be memorable.
If the recent thematic exhibitions—such as the current temporary arrangements at MOMA in New York and the ones at Tate Britain and Tate Modern—have proved irritating, it would be in part that one senses one’s own self-improvement under attack. The story we have learned is held to be a hindrance, and we are prescribed instead a dérèglement de tous les sens. For my part, I found nothing obnoxious (although occasionally something far-fetched) in the arrangements at MOMA. In Tate Modern, I always assumed that it would take time for the building to reveal how best it could be used, and that what was displayed at first would be in the character of an initial proposition. If I apply the test mentioned above, and ask what was memorable at the new Tate, the answer would not include so many of the paintings. Rather one comes away with an impression of objects, including, in my case, a ping-pong table—part of an installation by George Maciuness—beside which a visiting teacher was ferociously dressing down a child for having picked up one of the ping-pong paddles. “Do you think,” the teacher was shouting, “that the museum would have been so stupid as to put up a ping-pong table for you to play on?” A hard question, it struck me, for a toddler to answer convincingly—particularly if the child in question had just visited the Dome. As it happens, the label on the exhibit invites visitors to play at the table in question.
It is at Tate Britain that the vices of thematic presentation are seen at their worst. Just when the collection should have looked at its most self-convinced, it comes across as haphazard and silly. This widely disliked relaunch comes accompanied by a guide, a catalog called Representing Britain, in which the gallery’s director, Stephen Deuchar, wears his unease on his sleeve:
Though the concept of a national gallery of British art may not seem automatically modern, with its roots in a nationalist, centralist Victorian ethic scarcely in harmony with twenty-first century society, Tate Britain’s agenda is determinedly contemporary. As its title, and the name of this book, tend to imply, its concern is with art’s place in the political and cultural entity that is Britain—and questions about art’s contribution to varying kinds of national identity will certainly form an undercurrent to our programme of displays, exhibitions and publications.
Martin Myrone’s text accompanying the illustrations gives us a foretaste of what we are in for: boring, repetitive, and slack subpolitical explication. Take this about Stubbs’s Reapers:
The rhythmic arrangement of the figures, each engaged in one of a sequence of actions, denies them a convincing sense of individuality, except for the young woman who is positioned to engage the viewer’s attention. Although the poses seem to have been based on direct observation, the wheat as shown is actually too low to need harvesting, and a real harvest would involve a much larger workforce. Stubbs has contrived a highly artful fiction about the countryside, one that was particularly reassuring given the rise of industrial unrest in rural areas in the period.
Highly artful indeed, but I think I shall trust Stubbs, rather than Mr. Myrone, in the matter of the reassuring height of the wheat.
By December, when the British Museum is due to open its refurbished central courtyard, numerous museums in London will be displaying their recent improvements. The National Portrait Gallery, in one of those acts of harmonization mentioned earlier, swapped adjacent plots of land with the National Gallery, and was able to give itself, not a new wing exactly, but a vertical wedge of galleries and a dramatic escalator (the sister escalator to the equally dramatic escalator in the new Covent Garden refurbishment). Somerset House, one of the key buildings on the north bank of the Thames, already home to the Courtauld Gallery and Institute, has received the Gilbert Collection of gold and silver objects, together with mosaic work in pietre dure. These used to be displayed in the Los Angeles County Museum. Sir Arthur Gilbert, as he has now become, is depicted in wax effigy in one of the rooms, surrounded by the accoutrements of his LA office, and dressed as if for tennis. This has caused some mirth, and some embarrassment, but the imposing collection seems to be something of a hit with the public. It is part of a good campaign to bring back Somerset House into public life.
A trio of renovations has been carried out by the American-born architect Rick Mather. First to open, last year, was the glazing of the Neptune Court at the Greenwich Maritime Museum. Next, on a more modest scale, came a tactful and elegant addition to Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. And this month the Wallace Collection opens another of these glazed courtyards, a project which, by dint of excavation, has provided extra gallery space, a library, a theater, a restaurant, and other amenities. One might hesitate to tamper with either Dulwich or the Wallace, but the results have well justified the effort.
If only one could say: next stop, the V&A. But that unhappy story awaits resolution. The museum commissioned a striking new building from Daniel Libeskind. At the time of the unveiling of the plans, the supporters of the spiral structure seemed perfectly clear what it would be for (entrance, orientation, restaurant, shops, rather little exhibition space). More recently, however, the museum authorities commissioned a “master plan” to consider how the Libeskind building is to be used. They seem to have been struck by a sudden uncertainty. It is as if the building had been expected to generate a momentum of its own, and this has somehow not happened as planned.
July 20, 2000
Roy Mullen, Degas: His Life, Times, and Work (Houghton Mifflin, 1984), p. 405. ↩
In the eighteenth century, the Earl of Bristol aspired to create a gallery with a chronological hang illustrating the history of Italian art from Giotto to Michelangelo. This arose from his mad enthusiasm for Vasari. ↩
The earliest such display in a public gallery appears to have been that of the Imperial Collection in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna in the 1780s. ↩