|Socialism Today The monthly journal of the Socialist Party|
Manny Thain looks at the newly-opened Tate Modern, London's first museum dedicated exclusively to modern art.
A MUSEUM OF modern art? A bit like putting wild animals in cages. Modern art - which has been around for a while now - uses such a wide variety of media and presentation techniques that it does not necessarily fit into the gallery structure.
Tate Modern makes use of a range of room shapes and sizes, TV screens in little alcoves, and openings that invite exploration. The massive Turbine Hall can accommodate major works of performance art, which can be viewed from the balconies stretching its entire length - almost like an internal street. It can be converted into a colossal cinema. On the fourth of its seven levels, Tate Modern has earmarked space for temporary, at times experimental, exhibitions promoting new artists, and so on. Museums have changed: it is not just pictures on walls and sculptures on plinths.
The most dramatic way of entering Tate Modern is through the wide west entrance which slopes down onto level one. The immense scale of the building has an immediate impact as the Turbine Hall, a vast oblong 155 metres long, opens up before you. This was the heart of the Bankside Power Station, now cleared of machinery. The brickwork, painted grey, is cut across by black, metal girders, metal pipes.
Swiss-based architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron transformed the building at a cost of £135 million, adopting what they call an 'Aikido strategy': channelling the building's energy to turn it into what they wanted. The result is impressive. They have changed a very visible but strictly off-limits building into an accessible public place - an 'urban space' no less. The biggest external change has been the construction of the 'lightbox' - a two-storey glass extension to the roof. This greatly increases the amount of natural light entering the building, and serves as a beacon at night.
The Turbine Hall now contains works by Louise Bourgeois specially commissioned for Tate Modern. These will stay until the end of November. Mamanis a steel spider nine metres tall carrying marble eggs. A formidable creature. Toi et Moi: I Do, I Undo, I Redo, consists of three metal towers each nine metres high - buildings within a building. Dream-like, haunting. Metal staircases lead up to platforms - a place from which to see and be seen - where polished metal mirrors alter angles. A bell jar in each tower contains sculptures of a mother and child.
Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911, moving to New York in 1938, working with a wide variety of media - painting, sculpture, performance, wood, stone, metal and rubber. The themes of her work, as here, are often concerned with childhood trauma and familial relationships.
It is a dramatic introduction. From level one, escalators and lifts take you to the main exhibitions.
Fortunately, the art is not laid out chronologically. Some critics have considered this almost sacrilegious. Others claim it is nothing short of revolutionary. It's neither - just common sense. Tate Modern has grouped the art into four different themes: Still Life, Object, Real Life; Nude, Body, Action; Landscape, Matter, Environment; History, Memory, Society. Nothing revolutionary in that, either - these categories mirror the genres adopted by the French Academy in the 17th century.
This approach makes it easier to see how different aspects of art have developed over the past 100 years or so.
Still life emerged as a distinct category of painting in the 17th century - a celebration of material pleasure: food, drink, possessions; as well as an expression of religious symbolism and mortality. Towards the end of the 1800s, Paul Cézanne sought out the underlying structure of the subjects he painted. Following him, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque used still-life arrangements of ordinary objects to develop a new way of representing reality, founding Cubism. The idea is that because the subjects of still life are often mundane, the artist explores form, line and colour for their own sake. Picasso and Braque from 1912 onwards incorporated reality directly into their works in flat collages of wallpaper. Picasso moved on to three-dimensional sculptures in the same vein.
A further ground-breaking attempt to bring art ever-closer to reality is represented by Marcel Duchamp, especially with his series of 'ready-mades', notoriously a urinal presented as the work of art, Fountain. Only a matter of days after the opening of Tate Modern two art activists used the urinal for the purpose for which it was originally designed. Was the applause of onlookers a testament to the relevance of this work? Exactly who was taking the piss?
It was Duchamp who declared that if he - or anyone else - calls something art, then that is what it is. At other times he referred to the ready-mades as junk, implying that all art is junk. In 1962 he said: 'When I discovered ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics... I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal in their faces and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty'.
Tate Modern's collection confronts you with shapes in steel and aluminium. A video is playing. There are Braques on the wall. One room is of small black-and-white still-life photographs: contrasting shades and texture. There is a perception of movement and change. In Subversive Objects, Dorothy Cross's Virgin Shroud is like a bridal gown of cow skin. It provokes a sense of unease, a tangible feeling of the suppression of the individual and female gender. There are groups of photos and packets of earth from the six counties of Northern Ireland under the sign: Bombs or No Bombs, Business as Usual. Pânijenisal Satanic - Satan's Cobweb - is about pogroms against the Jews in Romania in 1927.
Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII - that well-known grouping of 120 bricks arranged two-deep in a rectangle - is on show. Tony Cragg's Stack is a stack. His Cumulus is multi-layers of glasses and glass vases. An opaque block. Damien Hirst spent his time preserving dead animals in formaldehyde - back to mortality.
Alongside the growth of industrialisation, landscape painting increased in popularity. Nature was looked on as a place of beauty, for spiritual rejuvenation and physical recreation. By the end of the 19th century, with the Impressionists to the fore, landscape art had become the dominant genre. But it was European colonial expansion which gave it a great impetus. Indigenous peoples, women, animals, and nature itself, were all portrayed through the perspective of the white colonial master.
Throughout the 20th century, landscape art was radically transformed through Cézanne and Claude Monet (a leading Impressionist) to Henri Matisse, through the abstraction of Piet Mondrian. Artists like Joan Miró pioneered the surrealist movement, which in turn fed into the sculptures of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and later into the pure abstractions of Bridget Riley. All of these artists are represented in Tate Modern. Bridget Riley's Fall consists of monochrome spirals cascading down. It's impossible to keep the image still. Your head's sent spinning. Her Movement - in colour and on the horizontal plane - moves in and out of focus more subtly.
There are works by Jackson Pollock, René Magritte and Max Ernst. Richard Long and other proponents of Earth or Land art either brought the landscape physically into the gallery or made their art on location. Tate Modern presents his Red Slate Circle underneath Monet's Waterlillies - a juxtaposition that has caused a certain amount of consternation. Sacrilege! Artists like Suzanne Lacy are developing 'new genre public art' based on large public collaborative performances involving hundreds of people, focussing on racism, domestic violence, and ageing.
Landscape is not just about landscape. It's about the ownership of land, the relationship to the land of oppressed and conquering people. It raises issues of class, nation, gender, ethnicity, civilisation, the environment and nature.
For centuries Western art has been preoccupied with the human body. The single figure - especially nude - has been used to express what it is to be human. This has continued in the 20th century. African and tribal art, increasingly accessible, greatly influenced artists such as Picasso and Matisse. A room at Tate Modern is dedicated to this theme: Woman with a Bag painted by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff in 1915 is worth noting.
There are striking works by Lucian Freud, along with Picasso's vibrant and edgy The Three Dancers (1925) and Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
Attitudes towards the nude, especially women's bodies, have undergone radical shifts. The results are typically startling, fragmented, at times grotesque, as women artists have wrested the female form from the hands of male artists. Cindy Sherman assembles dismembered body parts, male and female genitalia attached to the same torso. Jenny Saville has produced large female nudes in blues and yellows, disquieting images evoking contradictory emotions. The best works at last year's Turner Prize were by Jane and Louise Wilson and Tracey Emin. According to Sarah Lucas: 'Being a woman today is like being a Marxist at the time of the revolution in Russia; it's just our moment'. Her works, such as Bunny Gets Snookered No7 and Chicken Knickers are provocative pieces. As are Nan Goldin's photographs: Nan, One Month After Being Battered; and Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC.
The section on History, Memory, Society is self-explanatory. Works at the turn of the 20th century often display very optimistic visions of the dynamism of modern man: utopian and futuristic visions of society - the brave new world. There are examples by the Russian innovators Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich, who were both world leaders in abstract art.
Marilyn, Marlon, Jackie, Liz, Elvis depict flawed American heroes. Little Race Riot - a photo of cops beating up on black civil rights' protesters - and Electric Chair show another side of Andy Warhol's America.
The Spanish civil war gets a room to itself, reflecting the massive influence of revolutionary events on culture. Despite its modest size, Picasso's Weeping Woman, dominates. Painted in 1937, it is a portrait of one of his lovers which at the same time illustrates the war-torn country: fear and anguish. Leaflets of Picasso's exhibitions to raise funds for the revolutionary movement are on display.
A quote from Picasso is on the wall: 'An [artist is] a political being, constantly alive to the heartrending, fiery or happy events to which he responds in every way... No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defence against the enemy'.
A revolutionary period is no time for half-measures. People have to make a stand. Dalí was a royalist, thrown out of the Surrealist movement in 1937 because of his support for the Spanish fascist dictator, General Franco. Yet his Autumnal Cannibalism (1936) is another powerful image of the carnage of civil war.
Richard Hamilton's paintings of IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands, an Orange Order member, and a British Army soldier hang together. And Gilbert and George have works on show.
Tate Modern is a major achievement. It succeeds in bringing together a very impressive collection of art. The layout is exciting. The split into different themes works. Just don't expect to be able to take it all in on one go. There is enough art - and different kinds of art - to keep anyone interested over a few visits. Admission is free, so if you get the chance, take it.
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